In South Africa, Poverty Tinged with a New Color

Article excerpt

On the southern outskirts of this city, a world away from fancy upmarket neighbor-hoods and posh malls, one finds some of the new faces of South African poverty.

White faces.

In an old cemetery, about 30 homeless whites roam among the marble tombstones, pulling off tree branches to use for firewood and fighting over who gets to sleep on the broken benches.

It's a far different image from the South Africa of yesterday, when privilege was a white birthright.

Since apartheid ended in 1994, white unemployment has more than doubled, as has the number of whites who have slipped below the poverty line.

While working-class and lower-class whites are the most affected, the professional class is also seeing its horizons shrink amid new affirmative action laws and a stalled economy, resulting in an exodus of those referred to here as "able-bodied pale males."

Among the people living in the graveyard is Gert Lottering Lorraine, a former steel worker who for 12 years made a weekly wage of 1,500 rand ($187.50, according to current rates) supervising steel fitters. "We had a middle class living....I had dignity," says "I had benefits. A medical scheme. Free housing. I was the man."

In 1997, "the guy who was just my helper, just carrying my toolbox - he was given my job," says Lorraine, who survives by keeping the grounds one day a week at a nearby church for 60 rand ($7.50 ) and eating his single daily meal at a soup kitchen.

Still, the plight of white South Africans is far less dire than of blacks. According to a poverty and inequality report put out by the government last year, 35 percent of blacks are jobless and 61 percent of black families live below the poverty line, defined by the Department of Finance as 1,100 rand ($137) per month per household.

Among whites, 6.8 percent were out of work in 1999 - as compared with 3.3 percent in 1994. The number of white families living under the poverty line rose in the same period of time from 1 percent to 2.7 percent.

Whites - Afrikaners and English - who make up a mere 4.5 million of the 42 million population, have historically led lives of wealth and privilege, complete with big homes, big cars, big swimming pools, and bevies of domestic servants. Not all whites lived so grandly, but until recently even working- and lower-class whites were assured a certain level of comfort, supported by a racist system which guaranteed them education, jobs and welfare.

Since apartheid ended, however, a good number of the former working- and lower-class whites are falling through the cracks of the new South Africa.

While the graveyard residents are quick to say they don't blame the blacks for "taking their jobs," they do fault what they call "the system."

A range of new employment laws meant to redress the injustices of the past has come into play since apartheid ended.

Foremost among these laws are the employment equity act of 1998 and the equality act of 2000, which demand that employers work to attain "demographic proportionality" in their work force.

While no specific quotas have been set, employers have been asked to set goals for themselves and provide the government with updates on their progress. It is expected that by 2005, the South African workplace will better reflect South African society - with blacks, women and disabled amply represented.

These new laws have affected the "able-bodied pale males," and, complaining about the difficulty of getting work, many white male professionals are leaving the country.

Official statistics say that a fifth of white South African university graduates are emigrating. But according to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report issued by London's The Economist magazine, the figures are probably much higher - because many of those leaving do not fill out forms saying that they are emigrating, but simply get on a plane. …

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