The greatest poverty of all

*Brian Helsby wonders which is worse: material poverty or a poverty of character *

Brian Helsby is concerned about growing materialism and inequality

Brian Helsby is concerned about growing materialism and inequality

I have yet to decide whether or not to be excited about the growing middle class in South Africa.


Obviously  I feel really positive that more and more South Africans are escaping the clutches of poverty. And one just has to see the mushrooming of new shopping malls to be aware that a growing number of people have access to goods and services that they previously could not afford.


But what about those left behind or who remain in abject poverty? A recent newspaper headline spoke of 6 million South Africans still living in extreme poverty.


From time to time I have the privilege of showing overseas visitors around South Africa. One of the things I like to do is to show them around Alexandra township and then make the 10-minute drive to Sandton Square for coffee. They are usually disturbed, buy as I continue to be, by the marked difference between the haves and the have nots.


So is it wrong to be rich? Is it wrong to be able to move up the food chain? I personally do not think so. But those of us who are defined more by the Sandton image than the Alex image have to be asking ourselves frequently how we see our wealth and what are we doing with it.


It seems that sadly we live in an age where people are defined by what they have rather than by their character. In his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shares the concept that when our lives are over people will remember us for our character rather than for our wealth. Is it not time to put the correct perspective back into our society?


Billy Graham is quoted as saying: “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.”


And if we have wealth, what are we doing with it? Do we not have a moral obligation to share generously with those less fortunate than ourselves? Marcus Aurelius said:  “The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away.”


To become rich, and then to be selfish with those riches, is to be poor in character. And is not this the greatest poverty of all?


Brian Helsby heads up Church and Youth Mobilisation for HEARTLINES media campaigns.

Written by Heartlines

5 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    April 02, 2014

    A really excellent blog – do pray it will be posted widely!!


  2. Avatar
    April 02, 2014

    Dear Brian,

    You encapsulate precisely the internal struggle I had today while walking through Sandton City after just attending the first day of the Series Social Investing conference hosted by GIBS. (Garth Japhet was one of the discussion panelists).

    Maybe it was because of the profound discussions I shared with people today that I became more aware of feeling ‘poor’ as I walked through the mall because most of the stores have items priced beyond my reach. I would be classified as ‘middle class’, yet I felt the spirit of consumerism clamp over me like invisible handcuffs.

    I agree that “its not wrong to be rich” – but the question that each South African needs to ask themselves is: “What is my definition of wealth?” I dare say that many young people who initially break out of these cycles of poverty by acquiring further education and entering the job market, are in danger of getting sucked into debt if not properly financially stewarded by someone who takes the time to invest wisdom into their lives.

    In my own life – grappling with these very issues – I have realised that depravity breeds excess. If we were made to “do without’ for so long, suddenly – when there is opportunity to have the things we never had before – we don’t know how to draw the line.

    I made many poor financial choices in my 20s that are now catching up to me in my 30s. I am finally facing the demon of debt squarely in the face and realising that I have to take responsibility for the way that I choose to spend my money.

    Many South Africans have not had the right dialogue to begin to engage with the idea of financial freedom – and its incumbent responsibilities. The movie ‘Nothing for Mahala’ resonates with so many citizens because it makes the point that we cannot escape the result of our actions. Sooner or later, we need to deal with the consequences of bad decisions.

    The choices we make for our own lives profoundly affect the lives of others. We cannot escape that truth. As depicted in the movie, opportunities do exist to finally confront the financial hard questions within community.

    We will all experience the crisis point faced by the protagonist sooner or later – whether to choose between yielding to selfish ambition or surrendering to the greater good.

    The collective choice that individuals make will have a far-reaching impact on the short and long-term economic landscape of South Africa.

    Thank you for adding your voice to the conversation.


    • Avatar
      April 08, 2014

      Wow, Cheryl, your insights are deeply profound and raise so many challenges. We fear it may get lost as a comment beneath a blog. May we have your permission to add it as one of our blogs?


  3. Avatar
    April 10, 2014

    Spot on, Brian! Working in community development myself, I resonate with all you’ve said here & with Cher’s comment.


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