Three wise men having breakfast at my B&B, The Melville House, were discussing various aspects of poverty. All foreigners, they pleaded ignorance of local conditions but spoke eloquently of the universal truths inherent in our country's most pressing problems.
One of them, Kailash Satyarthi, has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize since giving up a promising career as an electrical engineer in Delhi in 1980. Best known for his famous international movement to end child slavery, he was in South Africa as head of another of his brilliant projects, the Global Campaign for Education, which aims to provide the whole world's children with quality schooling by 2015.
Knowing that South Africa's crisis in education is today about poor quality teaching and learning in state schools, rather than enrolment, he says the tragedy of an inferior system that perpetuates rather than alleviates poverty will not improve until determined activists come forward to fight for the right of every child to the same quality schooling as a kid gets in France or Ireland.
We chat briefly about poverty being the parent of revolution and crime, as Aristotle warned back in 300-odd BC. But it is when Professor Jonathan Jansen's name crops up as the most prominent champion of quality South African education that Satyarthi leans forward earnestly. "Ask him to lead a campaign on the grounds that apartheid remains rife in your school system. Tell him that something needs to be done about such inequality, and urgently." He pauses, frowning, before adding: "Say to him, 'If not now, when? If not you, then who?'"
(So how about it, Jonathan?)
Our eggs have arrived, and another of my coffee-swilling guests, Ole Thomsen, talks passionately about poverty in the literal sense. Like Satyarthi, he was a successful professional for many years but, he tells us, he wanted to do something with his life that really helped others. On a visit from Copenhagen to Malawi, he noticed how much of the clothing in the shops was "cheap Chinese junk". The thought of the poor being robbed of quality bugged him until he realized that, in the process of fashion constantly changing and his countryfolk's expensive garments becoming redundant long before they wore out, there was an opportunity to import excellent used clothing from Scandinavian countries.
Thomsen explains that his project's carefully selected clothing is sold very cheaply in Africa rather than given away free, though it remains far better value in every respect than the equivalent offered by Chinese merchants. "But there has to be a little money coming in to pay for the shipping from Europe and the salaries of the thousands of people employed on the project because this is not being funded by government aid - it's my job. With so much of Europe and America cutting back because they've lost wealth during the credit crunch, ordinary individuals like me are starting to fill the charity gap."
Another example he cites of creatively re-cycling Western waste in what might be called the "Make Poverty Your Business" genre is a not-for-profit organization importing once-treasured bicycles. Now discarded in garages and storerooms all over America by growing children or fatigued fitness fanatics, vast numbers of them are available at modest prices, or given away. The organizers then sell high-quality products instead of junky Chinese bicycles at vastly discounted prices to poor Africans.
With the Chinese brand being so roundly bad-mouthed among us as cheap and nasty, someone comes up antidotally with Confusucius' wise words: "In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of." We pour more coffee and discuss this truism in relation to our government's determination to muzzle the media partly on the grounds that it is owned by, and supposedly represents, the rich.
Here's when the third sage with opinions to share over breakfast, Sven Lemkemeyer - whose contribution is poverty of thought rather than of material resources or mental stimulation - explains his sojourn in South Africa on behalf of the respected Heinrich Boll Foundation.
As one of Germany's top news editors, he is preparing a report on the quality of South Africa's newspapers. Having thoroughly studied our English papers, Lemkemeyer says he is mystified by the government's determination to silence investigative reporters and whistleblowers through repressive legislation. "It's poor logic. If the ANC believes in its own ideas and its implementation of them, what's the problem?" he asks. "Every government has to defend its policies. Local newspapers are just the same as in other countries - critical but fair overall. You're left with the feeling that the ANC is coming from a position of weakness in wanting to restrict press freedom. It doesn't believe it is doing a good job so it can't tolerate criticism.
"Of course, South Africa's newspapers sometimes make mistakes - that's normal - but they do a good job of keeping politicians accountable," Lemkemeyer continues. "Maybe they are running too many crime and corruption stories on their front pages, and maybe they are sometimes too close to the politicians and too far away from the people in their choice of stories.
"But if the government brings in a secrecy law, this will surely be challenged in the Constitutional Court. The European Union, America and other democratic countries will surely criticize and lose respect for the South African government. Their attempt to control information will bring shame and embarrassment to the country. So why do it?"
Having read reports of an eleventh-hour appeal to the President to quash the proposed gagging bill before it is legally challenged, Lemkemeyer suggests that Zuma might be persuaded to intervene on the important issue as a means of boosting his flagging popularity. Notwithstanding the fact that it is Zuma himself who has driven the secrecy measures, he would be applauded abroad as well as locally for rescinding them now, Lemkemeyer believes.
(So how about it, Msholozi?)