South Africa: Poor whites are strangers in a new land

Lisa has her monthly period, which means she can’t work. Her cellphone screen flashes incessantly with the names of her regulars, but she only answers her boyfriend’s calls. Her boyfriend, Pieter, knows her line of work, but condones it because he is unemployed. In the growing poor white community, sex is a key source of income.

Seventy-five years after the armblank (poor white) crisis of the 1930s, the phenomenon is resurfacing. White unemployment has nearly doubled since 1995, according to the Institute for Security Studies.

Today 430 000 whites, of a total white population of 4,5-million, are “too poor to live in traditional white areas” and 90 000 “are in a survival struggle”, says Lawrence Schlemmer, director of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Of these, 305 000 are Afrikaans-speaking and 215 000 speak English.

Since 1998 these figures have increased year-on-year by 15%. According to a survey by the South African Institute of Race Relations, white unemployment increased by 74,4%, using the expanded definition, between 1998 and 2002, compared with the national average over the same period of 39,8%. However, the growth of white unemployment is off a much lower population base than black unemployment.

A key goal of the National Party in the heyday of apartheid was to uplift poor whites by using the state and semi-state sectors to provide them with jobs and housing, reserving certain jobs for whites, favouring their trade unions and shoring up the farming sector.

But for the first time in the mid-1970s, there were more white-collar than blue-collar Afrikaners, and the policies of the NP shifted accordingly. Poor whites were increasingly abandoned by the state.

The 1994 election and the advent of majority rule has accelerated the downward precipitation of whites without capital or marketable skills. In desperation, they are clinging to what they know: religion, xenophobia and racism. Many still believe their skin colour puts them above menial labour, and prostitution has become a common way of earning a living.

“I do everything except Greek style and blacks,” says Lisa, who lives in suburban Vanderbijlpark, a microcosm of white economic distress. “I work nine till five because in the evenings I like to spend quality time with my kids.” She only takes bookings from businessmen and earns up to R15 000 a month.

Her office — a cerise room with a double bed, a crimson lounge suite, and a table carrying with a bottle of Johnson’s baby oil, government condoms and Courtleigh cigarettes — is in her backyard next to her swimming pool. Her children are aware of her business. They say they accept it because it gives them a house of their own and a higher standard of living.

Another Vanderbijlpark prostitute, Nikkie, has size 44E breasts with a red rose tattooed next to her right nipple, making her black string top look like an overstuffed couch. Her husband is unemployed, and she has two small children.

Often Nikkie goes away for weekends with groups of farmers on hunting trips to Kuruman in the Northern Cape. On these occasions she earns R4 500 in addition to her average R2 000 weekly earnings.

“I only do men over 30 because I shake the shit out of anyone younger,” she jokes. “My husband doesn’t mind — it actually excites him. Often we have a passionate session after a full night’s work. My only three rules are whites only, no anal sex and cleanliness — you can’t do a client smelling like a three-day-old snoek.”

Lisa and Nikkie both insist survival has forced them into the “game”.

Poor whites typically compensate for their low socio-economic status with aggressive racism. In an era when many black people are upwardly mobile, it serves to bolster their self-pride.

Estelle Claasens lives in a former Iscor home, now owned by the church, with six other families — each one crammed into a bedroom. Last month she walked out of her job — washing dishes at the café in Vanderbijlpark — because she refused to wear the required green overall. “I was happy to wash the floors and the toilets and the dishes but when they tried to dress me like a kaffir, that’s when I said thanks, but no thanks,” she says.

Sucking hard on her cigarette and blowing a yellow smoke-stream from the corner of her mouth, she is a bottle-blond caricature of Patricia Lewis.

“The government, they must build us those — what youmacall it?” she says twisting her plump hand in the air for inspiration. “Those RDP houses. But ours must be here and the kaffirs must be over there. We don’t have to live by each other because poor blacks will always be much lower-class than poor whites.”

White families live in the garages of many Vanderbijlpark homes — a lucrative business for the home-owners, who charge between R500 and R700 a month in rent.

White poverty first came to prominence in South Africa during the 1920s when president Jan Smuts singled it out as the greatest threat to Afrikaner survival. Initially a rural problem of subsistence farmers and bywoners (share-croppers), it developed into an urban phenomenon during the Great Depression. The official tally of poor whites increased from 10 000 in 1890 to 535 000 in 1936. They lived on the periphery of white society; many were barely literate and almost unemployable.

In 1948 DF Malan romped to power on the slogan “The white man must remain master”, and set about creating the apartheid system that would allow whites “to remain white and live white”. An economic safety net was constructed by the apartheid state through the colour bar, the distinction between “civilised” and “uncivilised” labour, protectionist policies for companies that employed whites, and minimum wage laws that insulated semi-skilled whites from competition by unskilled blacks.

The Apprenticeship Act of 1922, a mainstay of apartheid labour legislation, is ironically the downfall of many poor whites today. It stipulated a standard six pass as a minimum qualification for apprenticeship in 41 trades, including the giant iron and steel industries.

A privatised Iscor — whose Vanderbijlpark plant has shed 16 000 jobs in the past 10 years — is the source of most white poverty in the Vaal Triangle. Poor whites were Iscor “appies”, like their fathers before them, at a time when state-owned businesses provided sheltered employment for whites and their children. Today, their lack of formal education renders them redundant.

Racial transformation over the past decade, including economic redress in the form of affirmative action and black economic empowerment, has deepened their despair. “Whites have been set quite a severe test by transformation policies,” says Schlemmer. “Whenever a population is put to this kind of test it produces heightened performance among those who are confident and well-educated, while some drop out at the bottom. In other words, it increases inequality. It is plunging the minority at the bottom into deeper poverty and sharpening the wits at the top end.”

In 1994 44% of civil service posts were held by whites; by last year this had dropped to about 20%. In 1996 almost 50% of technicians and artisans were white; today the figure has fallen to about 20%.

With the sense of abandonment goes fatalistic inertia and heightened religionism. The houses of poor whites are full of Durer’s praying hands and other religious paraphernalia; all insist God has sent them poverty as a test. Rather than job-hunt, many sit in their front yards — uncovered patches of ground littered with cigarette butts, dogs and chickens — waiting for divine dispensation.

In the younger generation, rebellion typically takes the form of dabbling in Satanism.

Poor whites are detached and alienated from post-1994 politics, although some express dismay at former president FW de Klerk’s failure to drive a harder bargain for whites.

Bertus Bornman, a garage-dweller who earns R5 200 as a boiler operator at Iscor, complained that President Thabo Mbeki “should stop looking outside the country, and look inward” at its problems.

Most refuse to take “charity” from the current government. They are aware of assistance in the form of child and disability grants, but have not bothered to find out how to access them. “We’ll never beg,” said Nikkie.

Despite the professions of sturdy self-reliance, there is heavy dependency on private charity from middle-class Afrikaners, church organisations and Child Welfare. The Vanderbijlpark Christian Centre, a local church, has three homes for destitutes in Vanderbijlpark, while the NG Kerk has arranged support groups for alcoholics and the mentally ill.

Alcohol abuse and domestic violence are rife, and suicides or attempted suicides apparently common among the youth. Sarie de Preez (37) lives with her mother, who now provides for her, after her drunken husband, Bennie, nearly beat her to death with a plank in front of her five-year-old twin boys.

Felicity Curry (17) says she tried to kill herself last year by swallowing 28 pills after being raped by the leader of the Satanist cult. She lost her virginity at 13, after a lodger in her mother’s house gave her a choice: sex, or he would reveal her smoking habit to her parents. Her ankle is greyed with a slapdash tattoo that reads “Sex Cat”; the words “Bad Bitch” encircle her navel. She claims to have weaned herself from addiction to dagga and ecstasy.

There is an eeriness about Vanderbijlpark at weekends. The enduring image is of dilapidated Iscor homes, grimy children spinning tops on dusty lawns, and their dull, bleary-eyed fathers leaning on crooked gates.

“Die witmense kry swaar en die kaffirs kry lekker [Whites are suffering and kaffirs are doing great],” complains Bornman. He is a stranger in a strange, new South Africa, hopelessly alienated from its politics, washed up by change, imprisoned by a racial pride that harks back to a vanished era. He is one of apartheid’s hidden victims.

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