Page 6, 8th September 1995

8th September 1995
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Page 6, 8th September 1995 — Life with ohannesburg's white street people
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Life with ohannesburg's white street people

South Africa's black leaders called the end of Apartheid a miracle. But for a growing minority of the country's White working class, the political revolution has brought only unemployment and bitterness. In a special report, Gavin Evans looks at the poverty stricken underbelly of the new South Africa.

KOBUS STRYDOM STILL hasn't quite absorbed the shock of his new existence.

You can see this from the agitated frown on his 48-yearold-face, from his valiant efforts at keeping his short, back 'n' sides in shape, from the way he sits on his haunches to keep his only pair of trousers from touching the oil-stained ground from which he devours his stew and porridge lunch. But then, when we meet him at the Mesaksie feeding scheme in Hillbrow one of Johannesburg's high rise slums he's only been on the streets for a fortnight. His likely future can be seen in the resigned, unkempt visage of his new best buddy, Roy Hattingh, who has been on the rough for over six months.

Both men have been truck drivers since the late sixties days when they were guaranteed jobs, houses, welfare and security as part of the package that came with being born white in South Africa.

In what they fondly refer to as "the wonder years", men like Kobus and Roy lived in a fantasy world, sanitised from competition or even contact with their black countrymen. But in the '80s, delivery of that birthright ceased to be a an article of faith for those in power. Trucking companies, like most others, found that black drivers came cheaper,

and the two men could only find work as "scabs".

"In my last job, I was employed for 15 months while the blacks were on strike, and then we were fired when it was over, and I had no money to pay the rent," Kobus explains.

"On my first day on the streets of Jo'burg, I was robbed of my suitcase full of clothes, my driver's licence and my Bible. Two days later I was parking cars at the rugby to earn some money and some natives attacked me and took my coat and food and beer. So 1 ended up here, but I reckon my chances of survival are nil." His solution, like that of thousands of other poor whites in post-apartheid South Africa, is to beg. He opens a plastic bag and carefully unfolds a piece of cardboard, which reads: "Please help with donations for family. Unemployed. Willing to do any kind of work. 'I'hank you. Be blessed."

Roy, 44, also a victim of several muggings, says Hillbrow street life "feels like I've stepped into hell itself". He blames FW de Klerk's last white government for selling down the river, but much of his sullen resentment is directed at his Black lunchmates. "There's no more cheap places I can stay at. The non-whites have taken them all. The changes in South Africa are very wrung because all ot a sudden they've put black and white people together, and now for every white bloke battling there's a hundred blacks, and you have to compete with them for everything, and to mix with people who have no manners."

Another vagrant, Hermanus chi Plos, 27, a former meat worker, wanders over to offer his opinion. "To tell the truth, I don't like blacks.

"I got no time for them. They want to take over the world, but we can't do nothing."

A few minutes later Sheila Grib joins the agitated little group and tells me that for 20 years she has been living in Hilibrow with her husband, Fred. When they arrived, he was a successfiil carpenter and the "Brow" was the hub of

Johannesburg's nightlife fast, glitzy and filled with White foreigners. Today, they're unemployed and living at the shelter and Hillbrow has become a slum violent, drug infested, and patrolled by frightened and often corrupt cops. Everywhere you see beggars most black but many white.

Sheila insists "colour isn't everything" but complains that Nelson Mandela's government is ignoring them, and that the blacks have changed. "They used to have respect. Now they walk straight for you, and if you don't get out of the way you get bumped. They think they own the country."

The Rev Pieter Bosch, the Anglican priest who runs the feeding scheme, says that only

bye per cent of the country's homeless people are white, but that this is changing rapidly. "There's a flood of whites coming into the streets. They're usually much more bitter than the blacks because under apartheid they had an elevated status. Now they fear the future?'

Later that day, we drive past the massive Eastgate shopping complex in one of the city's leafier suburbs. At the traffic light I notice a neatly dressed white woman holding a sign saying: "Please help!!! Unemployed. 3 kids to feed. 'Thank you!!!"

We pull over and she leaves her post, followed by her husband and three children. The woman, Beatrice Rademeyer, 35, says she is a trained word processor and her husband's a paramedic, but neither can find work. "It's not easy to stand on the street begging," she says. "You have to put your pride in your pocket and be thick-skinned, but it's better than stealing. You just ignore comments !tom blacks like, "why don't you come and wash my floors". The blacks get jobs first, so every day there's more of us on the streets. Politics have made it harder, and I tell you, everything's in turmoil."

Eyes since whites colonised ilse Cape in 1652, they regarded themselves as inherently superior to the African majority, and acted on that belief. In 1900, Britain put legislative meat on the bones of prejudice by agreeing that the new Union parliament would be a whites-only affair, and within three years the new rulers were driving Black farmers off their remaining land.

But the collapse of sharecropping and the 1929 depression also created a massive "poor white problem", mainly for the Afrikaner communities. The political response was a more virulent form of racism which led to the National Party's 1948 electoral victory, and the birth of apartheid. Millions of blacks were removed from white "Group Areas", often at gunpoint, and denied access to all but the most menial schooling and jobs, while the poor whites were absorbed into the civil service, military and mines. By the late sixties, when men like Kobus and Roy first set out to work, white unemployment was a thing of the past.

But the Faustian bargain could not last. The National Party leadership grew rich and with wealth came a distance from their roots and a sensi

twity to pleas for a loosening of job reservation from their new chums in the business community.

By the early '80s, the White working class had lost its muscle while black unions were growing increasingly confident. With no viable welfare net, white unemployment once again became visible and today stands at nearly 15 per cent. Even though that compares with 50 per cent for blacks, the result was a deep sense of betrayal among marginalised Afrikaners and the growth of far right groups like the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB). But in the end, for all their bluster and bombs, the extremists could not deliver. A combination of economic and demographic reality and political force led to protracted negotiations and finally a landslide victory for Mandela's African National Congress 18 months ago. For millions of whites raised to

think of the ANC as godles communists and blacks a barbarians, a fate worse tha death had arrived.

It is tempting to say thtthey had it coming what yo sow, so shall you reap. when you see the bewildei ment in the eyes of the ord. nary old people, the fear an despair of their sons an daughters, and the fragil laughter of the children, wore like "blame" and "guilt" n longer seem apposite. And soon becomes clear that eve for those whites on the wron side of the breadline, th responses vary widely fror racist belligerence to a passis acceptance of fate and, occs sionally, a cautious enthus asm for change.

The Claremont Count: Housing Estate in Johanne: burg West is a sub-economi monolith created in th heyday of apartheid for work ing class whites. 'The first Ils we visit a bleak, sparse] furnished two roomer wit wall-to-wall linoleum floors is about to be vacated Ii Alwyn Erasmus, his wif Katrina and three childret He's just received his evict* notice after two months i: arrears.

"I don't know where we' go or how I'll get the mones but when we lose this plac child welfare will take the kid and my wife will leave Inc. can't sleep at night," he say: Six months earlier he wa beaten up by five white thug after a financial dispute. The kicked down his front doo and left him with a shatterel collar bone and four broke] ribs. He was in hospital for veck, couldn't work for a nonth, and lost his job.

We wait, feeling both pity ind embarrassment, as this tooped 38-year-old man, vith his imploded chest and ad, helpless face, explains he situation to his daughers, as they lie on their iarcnts' bed. The six-yearAd smiles, not realising what his means; the seven-yearAd just looks on glumly. As ye leave, Alwyn volunteers hat he's upbeat about • Telson Mandela's new >outh Africa. "I think the .hangcs are better for us. ['hey arc going to make us 'qua'. My situation won't mprove this year, but in two 'ears it will get better."

On our way back we stop iff at Jan Hofmeyer, a ormer "white trash" suburb, 'Ow gradually (and someimes violently) becoming nixed. Some of the black .ad white children play ogether in the wide, treeess streets, but the adults tay apart. The white men it on their porches, drinking }randy and coke or Lion ,ager, venturing out occaitinally to clean their Cortilas and Granadas. Their vives are inside, unseen to he passer-by unless they ,enture out to hang out the vashing or deliver a fresh irinks order. The houses ind flats occupied by their )lack neighbours have a very lifferent feel noisier, busier, isually happier, with the ;enerations and the genders nixing more freely.

Willem Saunders, 38, an inemployed council house enant, is sitting on his front 'rep with his two daughters Ind some friends. He speaks lowly, now and then flicking iis lank hair out of his ugubrious eyes in a gesture hat seems to break his slight tutter. His point is that you lave to find ways of adjustng to the new, murky rules )f post-apartheid South frica. "In three years this las become a mixed suburb. don't mind, I hardly see hem. If a black says he 'ants to marry my daughter hen it's her life and I'll give ter my blessing, but if my laughter is raped by a kaffir, '11 kill plenty kaffirs."

A few minutes later his leighbour, Leon du Toit, :8, a local swimming pool ittenclant, comes over for a wet% A home-owner with a alary of L520 a month, he's he success story of the treet, so despite his youth, nen like Saunders pay attenion. "There's stories that ,lacks will come and take fly house. It's impossible. If hey take it I'll burn it down vith the people inside," he ays with a tone of bravado n his voice. "1 fought in the it-my and I can't understand vhy they gave the country 'way and why friends of nine had to die for nothing. slow the blacks that used to >e our enemies are supposed o be our friends. That's very lifficult for me, but if the 31acks behave themselves I lave no problem to live with hem." He downs his lager, mrps, and rums to us. "You mow I find all these political :hanges confusing. I can't zeep track, but I do have hope and I think everything will come right in time. At least I hope so."

Another chum, David Welgemoed, 42, an unemployed telephone technician, ponders this for a moment before shaking his head. "The blacks arc taking over. I can't compete with them for a job because they are prepared to work for less money than me. There's nothing I can do about it."

But if this boozy brew of fear, resignation and periodic bombast amounts to the standard verbal issue, there are always those like Koos van Niekerk, itching for the old ways of dealing with racial tensions. An unemployed panel-beater who lives in a council house with his girlfriend and three children and accepts food parcels from his neighbours, this 30-year-old AWB activist seems to conform to all the negative stereotypes of his nation, right down to the sullenly aggressive posture, droopy moustache and early '80s hairstyle that remain de rigueur for young, blue collar Afrikaner males. "The black man is the devil. He does not believe in God," he tells his six year old son. Then he turns to us with a look that suggests contradiction would be unwise.

"At least 80 per cent of them are devils. Mandela also doesn't believe in God." He walks away, but returns to finish his point. "If the blacks move into our street there's going to be big trouble. There's lots of AWBs here and we hate kaffirs not coolies or Indians, but kaffirs. The blacks hate the whites."

This last emphatic projection seems to be a common perception in this area but strangely, it is not borne out by the black people we speak to.

John Dlamini, 33, recently moved out of his squatter shack into an overcrowded shack in Jan Hofmeyer which he rents from an Indian landlord. Together with his .wife and four children he shares one tap with 25 others, but for them this is only a half-way pitstop. They're about to move into a home he's just bought. As a qualified fitter and turner he is well aware that his prospects are rather better than those of most of his white neighbours, a fact they evidently resent. Two months earlier he drove home late from work and was surrounded by a posse of inebriated whites.

"Last year, my neighbour across the road came straight at me with three other guys and shouted, 'you Kaffirs want to take over everything. What do you want here?' Then they beat me up and I am scarred for life," he says, lifting his shirt to show us the evidence. "They feel threatened and insecure but their fear is unfounded. We should be the people who feel fear and anger. We are the ones who suffered."

Soon after, Benny Erasmus, an illiterate, unemployed white security guard, stops by with his daughter, trying to sell the last bag of potatoes he's been hawking all day. John waves him away with a look that speaks more of indifference than contempt.

"The way these poor whites live shocks me. I suffered to get where I am, but for them to be coming around, asking for favours, selling old clothes and potatoes, there's no excuse."

He shakes his head, pointing to Benny and his daughter as they walk away.

"They've had all the opportunities. It's not that I don't feel compassion. It's just that it's our time now. They have had theirs."




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