This article is the second in a series of three that looks at the embodiment of socio-economic and mental poverty in seven European countries following a study tour of the Solidarity Movement to Europe.
After our visit to Switzerland and Germany, I realize once again that poverty is a challenging problem that does not have just one face. Also in Europe, where we don’t always think we will encounter it.
We continue the journey from Germany.
Finally we reach Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Here we meet a friend from the Solidarity Movement, and he takes us by bicycle through Amsterdam. As much as I love cars and pedestrians, I still try to take in the culture around me. Everything is beautiful and reminds me of our Afrikaner roots. We drive so fast – faster than I thought I could drive; I actually didn’t even think I could still ride a bike.
On this bike ride I see the church where Rembrandt got married and the building where he painted the Night Watch. I get off and push my bike past the Van Gogh Museum because time is too short to go in and the day’s appointments await. I stare at the Zuid-Afrikahuis, close my eyes and almost fall off my bike through Walletjiesstraat, open my eyes again as we drive past the Rijksmuseum, and I hear Vermeer calling to me.
Around me I see a rainbow fluttering; all around me I see socio-emotional poverty.
Now where are the children of these adults?
According to the Central Planning Office’s (SBK) spring forecast, the number of households living below the poverty line will increase from 815,000 in 2023 to approximately 995,000 in 2024 due to the disappearance of various temporary support measures. Without intervention, child poverty of children who abandoned by their parents from 6.1% in 2023 rises to 7.1% in 2024.
According to Marc Dullaert, the first Dutch children’s ombudsman, children each deal with poverty in their own way. They are creative and resourceful and, for example, exchange clothes, collect bottles for money or perform tasks. But poverty leaves deep scars on children. In one of the richest countries in the world, this is unacceptable.
Between the rainbow flags and the bicycles without brakes, I do fall in love with the Netherlands. Here, an African can still feel how the land pulls her.
Thank you for your art and history. Goodbye, Netherlands, until I see you again!
When we arrived in Paris, I was naturally overcome with excitement. The Netherlands showed me Van Gogh and Rembrandt, but here… Here I am blessed with the Louvre, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, and of course the Eiffel Tower.
We get soaked in the rain as we run in the rain! In the middle of the train station, a man is lying under a blanket with rainwater pouring down and people with wheeled suitcases running around him to be on time for the next subway train. I wonder what he is dreaming and if the sounds of the wheels already sound like background noise to him that makes him calmer. Maybe the noise creates a rhythm that makes him dream more easily?
We walk along the Champs-Élysées to the Louvre, and everywhere I see only young people around me who clearly have a platform where people look at their thousands of selfies and pay millions for them. This is all that can explain why they keep staring into their phones while they are in such beautiful surroundings.
On Statista’s website, I read later that day that poverty in France reached its highest rate in 2018. Almost 15% of the French population lived below the poverty line, meaning their income was less than 60% of the median income in the country. After a significant decrease in poverty between 2000 and 2004, when the rate fell from 13.6% to 12.6%, poverty has increased again in the last few years in France.
Studies show that in 2020 there were approximately 9.3 million people in need in France and that 11,779 people are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. What is also interesting to me is that poverty mainly affects younger generations. In 2016, 12.5% of the French aged between 18 and 29 were considered poor, while only 2.2% of the French aged between 65 and 74 were in the same situation.
This phenomenon can possibly be explained by the fact that youth unemployment in France is among the highest in Europe. However, the middle class is not spared from poverty either. In 2017, 52.4% of French middle-income households had problems putting bread on the table.
In this city of lights I did find light too and not just the dark. Never in my life did I think I would have the opportunity to be here. When I opened the curtains in front of my bedroom window this morning and saw how the morning sun embraced the streets and people of Paris, I thought: How beautiful this picture would not fit in my pocket.
If I can save Paris, she will lie soft and rest, and every time I yearn for art, I will take her out and look, because to me she is still beautiful.
Our next stop is Budapest in Hungary. Here we stay with friends, and they welcome us with open arms as only Hungarians can! The streets look like something out of a magazine; it is truly picturesque. Around me the streets are clean, something I see very little in South Africa.
We have appointments as in all the previous countries, and one of my visiting points is Hungary Helps. We talk with them again, as during previous appointments, about the challenges we are experiencing in South Africa and I focus especially on the social issues. I explain to the panel that in South Africa we do not have public transport that works as well as here in Hungary. On the contrary, our research has shown that one of our people’s biggest needs is to get a driver’s license so that they can indicate on their CV that they do have their own transport to and from work.
I also tell them about our projects and social work. I can see they are enjoying the conversation, and every now and then they nod their heads and say: “Now that’s a good solution to that challenge”.
We continue to talk about Katalin Éva Veresné Novák, who was elected Hungarian president in 2022. Novák is Hungary’s first female president and also the youngest president in the country’s history; she was only 44 when she was elected. I can’t help but wonder if the streets are so clean and the people so full of hope because their president is a woman.
As we tour through Hungary talking, we cry together about the poverty of our people. When we walk the streets here, I don’t see poverty. I see people doing ordinary jobs like watering the garden and removing rubbish bags. Work is here normalized for the entire population group.
Near the train stations there are indeed people who perish in poverty – people who clearly do not have a job and are not in the same state of mind as the others, and one can see that drugs are being abused. I also notice that there are quite a lot of injured people living on the streets.
Although Hungary’s economy has been in recession since the second half of 2022, one can see that the people’s state of mind is good. Not everyone is as friendly as our South African citizens and they don’t just smile, especially not the older generation, but what else can one expect from a community that has had to face war after war?
According to The Borgen Project, the price of real estate in Hungary is high and rising. Next to Sweden, Hungary has the fastest rising property prices in the world. The average Hungarian family spends $465 a month just on rent and utilities, leaving little money for other things. Rent is also only affordable for the average family in cities where it is almost impossible to find a job. Due to the high price of real estate, an average family with two children can barely save $30 per month.
Unemployment remains a problem in Hungary, although the number of unemployed Hungarians appears to be decreasing. The unemployment rate in Hungary is currently 9.3%; it is much better than before. However, this rate does not take into account the approximately 300,000 people who are employed but receive no employment benefits. This is the result of the Hungarian Work Plan introduced in 2011, which forces the unemployed to follow employment programs.
These employment programs pay a maximum of $200 per month and prevent all advancement. Bearing in mind that Hungary ranks eighth internationally in terms of working hours, the unemployed as well as those in employment programs are all on the brink of poverty.
Private debt also contributes greatly to poverty in Hungary. The Hungarian government offers loans of $39,000 for families with children. Many families accept it, but then cannot afford to pay it back. Thus, many Hungarian families end up in a cycle of debt in which they take on more and more debt that they can pay off less and less. The rapid devaluation of the Hungarian currency contributes to this cycle as it dramatically increased private debt.
Our friends take us to Lake Balaton. Everywhere there is water and people enjoying the beauty. One can see this place is blessed with a beauty that can only come from God’s hand. I sit quietly on the yacht and think about our time here in Hungary where we learned so much.
Here where Hungarians decided to fight back to back with the Boers in the war. Here where Christ is the foundation of their existence, here where their poverty also looks different. Here where bells of the pursuit of freedom ring loudly, and where for the first time on the journey I really feel the Lord walking again in the streets among his people. Hungary, I fell in love with you.
Next, Austria and South Tyrol!