Facebook post on ’the trauma of poverty’ resonates with many South Africans

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Author and commentator Malaika Mahlatsi has drawn attention to the lasting trauma that many South Africans experience thanks to being publicly humiliated for being poor, in a recent Facebook post that has gone viral.

Mahlatsi, who is also known professionally as Malaika wa Azania, wrote a personal account of how childhood victimisation for being poor has caused lifelong trauma and shaped her relationship with money.

The post has been shared over 800 times, with many other South Africans commenting that they too have experienced this trauma.

Mahlatsi grew up in Soweto and went to school in Melville. At school, she says she was publicly victimised by teachers and had her grades withheld because her mother was behind on school fee payments. Despite being a straight A student, she never saw many of her academic reports.

“The school wouldn’t give me my term reports because I was always behind with my fees,” she wrote. “Those teachers … I don’t know if they know the damage they caused with that thing of calling our names out in front of our classmates and announcing that our parents hadn’t paid fees, and we, therefore, wouldn’t get reports. That thing is so traumatic that I still cry thinking about it, at my age.”

One experience that will be gouged in her memory forever was the day the rest of her grade left for the Grade 7 camp, Mahlatsi wrote.

“It cost R400, I remember that very well. My mom mobilised the money and came to school to pay for me to go to camp. The school took the money, but refused to let me go to camp, arguing that I was owing school fees and so that money should be directed to the fees and not camp.

“I cried uncontrollably that day – and even more the days after the camp when all the learners came back and were always talking about the fun they had had. It was heartbreaking.”

As a result of this practise of targeting and punishing school children in order to put pressure on their parents to cough up fees – which is still widespread in SA, although strictly against regulations – Mahlatsi’s relationship with money and education has forever been changed.

She said she would pay her rent in a full bulk amount at the beginning of the year, and now that she is responsible for her younger brother’s schooling, she has already paid his full fees for matric next year.

“This is not the result of being responsible; it is the result of being traumatised,” she wrote. “I vow everyday that my brother will never go through that for as long as I’m alive. My brother will never be told in front of his classmates that he’s owing fees. He will never not have stationery in January. He will never wear school shoes with holes. And he will never need to sell assignments and essays to make money to go to school and eat.”

Hundreds of other South Africans shared her post and commented that they had experienced similar trauma.

“Poverty is so humiliating. It covers you in shame. It’s degrading,” Mahlatsi commented.

“Just look at how many of us went through this dehumanisation. And we wonder why we have so many broken people in this country. This is not normal.”

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