Backstory: A hard new world for Afrikaners

A few miles west of Pretoria's downtown, away from the buildings that house the nerve centers of South Africa's bureaucracy, is the old neighborhood of Danville.

This was once home to civil servants and factory workers, miners and truck drivers - all Afrikaners, descendants of long-ago Dutch settlers. They had brick houses and fenced-in yards, pensions and job security. They had promises from South Africa's leaders that no white brother would be abandoned to poverty - a main tenet of the apartheid system.

Irene and Jannie Dupper rented a house in Danville. It had three bedrooms and a yard for Jannie's gardening.

"Ach, it was a nice house," sighs Mrs. Dupper, a slight smile creeping in with the memory.

But to find the Duppers these days, you must go to the end of Danville, and down a short driveway. There, you see an old army building, surrounded by a collection of tents, trailers, and "Wendy Huts," room-size wooden boxes that look like Home Depot tool sheds. This is Kwaggaspoort Reddingsdaad, a white squatter camp.

Twelve years after the end of apartheid, whites on the lowest rung of South Africa's socioeconomic ladder are experiencing role reversal. Apartheid's safety net for Afrikaners is gone, and now blacks are the preferred candidates for civil service positions and private-sector jobs. Whites are even living in squatter camps - the type of settlements long home to millions of impoverished blacks across the country.

Whites - Afrikaners and those of British descent - as a whole are still far wealthier than the 80 percent black majority here. Median income for whites is $11,000, compared with $2,000 for blacks. But what's changing is that whites and blacks seem to have reversed roles at the lowest income levels. The number of whites earning less than $80 a month grew by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2004 - while the number of blacks in that bracket decreased by half, according to a recent Standard Bank study.

There are many white squatter camps around Pretoria. But most are hidden - either because Afrikaners are too proud to let their poverty show, or because squatting is illegal, social workers say.

"I don't think many people realize there is this squatting," says Andre Vermaak, who runs charity projects for the majority-white Solidarity trade union. "I think we're too proud for our own good, maybe."

So these settlements are hidden behind houses, with up to 100 people living on one small lot, taking turns in one small bathroom. Or, like Kwaggaspoort Reddingsdaad, they're clustered around institutional buildings.

***

Irene Laasen and Jannie Dupper met at a post office in Pretoria in 1978. She was an 18-year-old secretary, daughter of the postmaster. Jannie was 22, a truck driver with the postal service. His father was a traffic cop, his mother a homemaker who "never worked a day of her life," he recalls proudly.

They married, she stopped work, he started a well-paying job at a mechanics shop owned by Irene's brother. They had three children. For a decade they were the solid Afrikaner family: children of civil servants, parents of the next white generation. If they stumbled, they knew, the state would pick them up.

Maybe, in the back of their minds, they were aware of the unrest that would soon unravel their cocoon. The black townships were increasingly violent with protests. A few years earlier, in 1976, students in Soweto marched against laws that forbid any language but Afrikaans in school. Steve Biko was preaching his concept of black consciousness. International outrage at South Africa was growing.

But the Duppers were children of apartheid. They didn't question why blacks lived in squalid townships, nor doubt the government characterization of black protesters as terrorists.

"It's how it was," Jannie shrugs, resigned.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela left prison, and in 1994 his African National Congress took control of the country. The Truth and Reconciliation process began, with the horrors of apartheid relived in testimony across the country.

But it was in 1999 that the Duppers felt the first real stab of change: Irene's brother died in a car accident, and the family mechanic's business collapsed. Jannie tried to find new work, but private employers wanted black employees in order to comply with racial-equity laws. Ever-available civil service jobs for Afrikaners were gone.

Asked how many jobs he applied for, Jannie laughs bitterly: "Many." More than 10? "Ja." More than 20? "Ja."

He turns and walks into his hut.

When they ran out of money, Irene's surviving brothers invited the Duppers to stay with them. But, says Irene, "I won't do that. It's not right."

Instead she called Lenie Pretorius, a private social worker she'd helped with charity projects. Ms. Pretorius told Irene about Kwaggaspoort Reddingsdaad, a camp she was running for impoverished whites.

***

Down the camp's red dust road is a dark wooden hut with a makeshift garden of potted aloe plants and ferns. It has two rooms - one barely fits a double bed, the other holds a single bed and a counter with a hot plate. The communal showers are down the road. This has been home to the Duppers since 2000.

In the morning, showers are reserved for the residents who have work - a piece job here, a temp position there. The others can bathe later. Breakfast is at 8 a.m. A handful of camp residents cook for the 60-some adults and 15 children who live here. Lunch is at 1 p.m. At 4 p.m. families collect food parcels for their evening meal, to cook for themselves in their huts.

Kwaggaspoort Reddingsdaad's operational costs are about $5,000 a month, Pretorius says, including electricity, water, and land, which she rents from the government. Because of this rent, the authorities leave the camp alone, she says. Private donations cover much of the cost; she also charges $90 rent for the huts.

Irene works in the center's sewing program. Once or twice a week, she also takes a bus to the Pretoria courthouse, where she works as a night cleaning woman, returning to her shack at 4 a.m. She makes $14 a night.

"We believe that if you don't work, you don't eat," said Elize Jacobs, a camp manager. "We want this to be a through-fare only, a place to get you back on your feet."

The Duppers' middle son, 23 and also named Jannie, is confident that this life is, in fact, temporary. But the high school graduate, a welder, hasn't found work for two years. Companies tell him they don't have positions. "Everything is falling apart now," he says. "With this new government, they are looking out for the black people, instead of looking out for the white people."

The reality has left his parents perhaps less optimistic about their own way out of the camp. "It's been so long, you just get used to the way we live," says Irene.

"If we were black, it would be easier." The irony is as thick as her Afrikans accent.

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