OPINION: It’s time to set the record straight. It’s clear from real life and Twitter interactions I’ve had recently that some people don’t appreciate the role The Big Issue plays, most significantly in the Western Cape. A role that would not be necessary, I hasten to add, if government were able to fulfil its obligations to the people of South Africa. Caryn Gootkin gives the bottom line.
This is not a comprehensive explanation of the way TBI operates nor a history of the dwindling of government and NLDTF support for this amazing project; it’s a quick summary for those of you who don’t understand what we do and how our vendors operate. And the broad principles apply equally to many NGOs and CSOs.
1. Big issue vendors are micro entrepreneurs
With the exception of their first three magazines, which we give them as a starter-kit, they buy each magazine they sell from TBI. They learn sales skills, budgeting, stock control and how to manage their own micro-business. There are no hand outs, only hand ups.
National, Provincial and Local Government all bang on about job creation – we do one better: we enable people to create their own jobs.
2. Income from sales and advertising cover the cost of producing the magazine but not the costs of the project
The vendors buy the mag from TBI at R10 and sell it to the public for R20. The project has to pay VAT on the full R20 from the R10 the vendor pays us. The R7, 20 we earn from each magazine covers the costs of producing the magazine, thanks to the generosity of Tip Africa, Paarl Media and Media24. But we need funding to cover our operating costs, including social services and distribution – we don’t simply sell the magazine to the vendors, we help them reintegrate themselves back into society as people with dignity and a means to support their family. This is the bit you don’t see at the traffic lights. And it’s the bit of which we are most proud.
3. We fill the gaping hole left by government’s inability to cater for the needs of its citizens
Our vendors are the people the system has failed. And it can happen to any one of us – some of our vendors lived comfortable lives before their fates turned. Others have simply never had the opportunity to create the lives they dream of and we all take for granted. Either way, what all our vendors have in common is that we are their last – and only – hope.
Government is simply not working for our vendors. They are among the millions for whom the regular comforts of a warm bed and a hot plate of food are just a dream. Their children don’t have access to the quality of education the Constitution promises them. Their dignity, a right afforded to them in the Bill of Rights, depends on whether they can afford to provide for their family. Many of them do not have access to the “adequate housing” or “sufficient food and water” government is obliged to provide.
And so I get livid when, in response to my pleas for government to help fund the Big Issue so that we can continue to provide these vital services to our vendor base, members of the public, or government itself, tweet and retweet that “the constitution does not require government to create jobs!” While that may be technically correct, it is an arrogant and insensitive mantra – and an easy way out, too.
Can you imagine the state we’d be in if the hundreds of NGOs and CSOs simply shrugged their shoulders and quipped, “The Constitution does not require us to provide these services”? It certainly doesn’t, and yet we do. We do this work, many of us on a purely voluntary basis – have you ever heard anyone in government say that? – because we believe we have a moral obligation to do so. We who lead comfortable lives in this beautiful but troubled country of ours cannot rely on the letter of the law to absolve us of our responsibility to our fellow citizens, especially because government seems to feel no such responsibility.
Enough is enough, I say
It is time that every South Africa person and institution starts to play their role in the rebuilding of our country. Some of us have passion, energy, time (?) and skills to devote to social and economic upliftment; others have money, or access to it. So we need to work in partnership: we’ll continue to do the doing but those of you have access to resources but no time for or interest in putting the work that is needed must support us.
As Deputy Chair of the Big Issue SA, I urge you to join us in partnership to help keep our and other CSOs afloat. Please contact our Acting MD, Derek Carelse, on firstname.lastname@example.org or 021 461 6690 to heed the call.
Disclaimer: Editor of The Media Online, Glenda Nevill, is a former editor of The Big Issue and sits on its board of directors.
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