Hogsback is snowed-under. Worst of what can be remembered. Extreme weather. As elsewhere in the world. As in water restrictions in Amsterdam and extreme floods and droughts in Australia. Wild tornadoes in the States. And somehow all of this has got something to do with money.
Money. Nyebho Swartbooi and myself went on the streets at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. On the streets where there were mostly black people and vendors. People who know the face and taste of poverty. And we did “Show me the Money” – improvised street theatre, structured as a dialogue between Nyebho (the poor black) and myself (the well-to-do white). At first we did some crazy stuff. Soon we had a crowd around us. I took out a R20 bill ($3). I enquired of this piece of paper whether it could talk, taste, smell, etc. Then i boasted that it was so dead, so devoid of meaning, if i kill it, it would not protest, would not cry.
So i tore up the R20 bill. The crowd stirred. R20 is not much these days. But you could buy a cheap meal with it.. Every bit of the R20 was picked up, as if somehow, magically they could put it together again.
The crazy stuff went on. Then i took out a R50 bill. Same questions. I gave it to Nyebho who voiced the minds of the poor. You don’t fool around with money in today’s world. It is a scarce and increasingly necessary thing for most people on the planet today. You work your guts out for it. You even steal it. You sell your soul for it. But you need it. But then Nyebho started to question the value of money himself. What has more value: money or people? Which is greatest opportunity: a bank note, or himself, a human being? What will ultimately sustain him, as a poor man: money, or community? He tore the R50 in half. Great indignation! And then went on to smaller pieces, which were picked up thoroughly again
Then i took out a… R100 bill! The crowd pressed closer when they saw it. This was getting serious. No joke tearing apart that piece of paper! As i was conversing, an old man came from the back and snapped the bill from my hand. He made himself disappear. Oops. I took out another R100 bill. Screams from the crowd, hungry eyes: give it to me! give it to me! We were encircled.. And again! An old woman snapped the second R100 from me, and tried to get away, but people, and Nyebho followed her. I called Nyebho back (he was worried that i am fast losing too many R100’s).
I took out yet another bill and told everyone: OK! I am not tearing this up! WE are going to decide who needs this R100 most and i will then give it to that person! WE! Ubuntu! Money should not make us blind for each other! Are we able to come together around this single R100 bill??
Three people would not leave me alone: a young boy, a young girl and an old woman. They seriously wanted that R100. So i took them and asked the crowd to decide together who of the three should have the R100. By now, they were more calm. At least the bill will not get torn up. The vote fell on the old lady. I had to control them not to attack her after she got the money.
A group of young people still encircled us, still hoping for a hand-out. So i told them there was nothing left, but us. We. Humans. We created money in the first place. We are far more valuable than money. The fact that the monetary system is severely crooked, splitting people into rich and poor camps, even draining strong middle classes these days, that is something WE need to fix. But ultimately, each of us need to remember our own original value as living beings.
And i told them briefly Nyebho’s story, Nyebho, who recognized his personal value as an actor, who refused to do work that diminishes him, even if it meant going hunger many times. Nyebho is now, over the last year, slowly been able to scrape a living together by doing what he loves: acting. And this he is doing not in the sponsored theatre environment or for some corporate benefactor. No, he is right there amongst the poor, going for township to township, performing on the streets, in taverns, schools, even in clinics. Improvising, reciting poems, dancing, miming.. Just as it flows. And he is sustainable for the first time in his adult life. Why? He gives his own true value. In return he gets human affirmation, emotional feedback, food, shelter and yes, also a bit of money.
The youngsters by now were silent. They listened to Nyebho expanding in Xhosa. Their eyes opened: in a world defined by money, they forgot how money needs humans much more than humans need money.
And this is what I will expand on 13 August in Johannesburg (details below). A culture of money is driving our life on the planet to the brink. Extreme weather and global warming is only one part of the skewed equation. We have a growing ecological crisis, food crisis, energy crisis and polarization crisis. We are blinded by the power of money, a power we ourselves are giving to it. Yet these crises are bringing our common humanity back into focus. Like those youngsters around us, many of us clear our eyes to the fact that a growing economy, or a growing bank balance is not going to nourish us.
Let us put money back – on the macro and micro levels – where it should be: a note, or bill, of trust between humans. And not an end in itself. Once you use money to make more money, you are most likely addicted. We need to break that cycle. Invest our trust in people. Real people.
I know i stick my neck out saying things like this. Perhaps it’s the extreme snow and my stuck van. But it is also inspired by life of Nyebho and the fact that our systems can still expose some rot, like the moral rot of one of our biggest money-masters: Rupert Murdoch. And how a mob can grow silent. And feel themselves again.