More white South Africans struggle in post-apartheid economy

White South Africans are increasingly living below the poverty line as the country's job market adjusts to a post-apartheid era, which lacks the government support for whites that it once had.

By , Correspondent

  • close
    Afrikaner squatters occupy the Ruyterwach camp in Cape Town, South Africa. Shaun Olivier, a welder in training who can’t find work, peers through a camp fence.
    View Caption
  • close
    Afrikaner squatters occupy the Ruyterwach camp in Cape Town, South Africa. Shaun Olivier, a welder in training who can’t find work, peers through a camp fence.
    View Caption
1 of 2

It was an improbable sight even 10 years ago in South Africa: white people in shacks – poor, desperate, and surviving off handouts.

But with the fall of apartheid and the transformation of the job market in favor of the majority black population, increasing numbers of white people are without work and living below the poverty line.

Recent statistics from the Bureau for Market Research show that there are 650,000 whites ages 16 or over without work, with estimates saying that total is growing by 15 percent a year.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

In the National Assembly, the leader of the mainly white Freedom Front Plus party, Pieter Mulder, has questioned the government's commitment to confronting white poverty, claiming the startling rise was being ignored.

"There are various reports and statistics on poverty, but very few on white poverty, which is growing at an alarming rate," says Mr. Mulder. "There are more than 70 white informal settlements around Pretoria and Johannesburg, and they're now appearing in Cape Town. It's a problem."

In Parliament, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has said the government does take white poverty seriously but did not want to differentiate. He told MPs: "This government is engaged in a war on poverty in our country regardless of the race or religion of the people affected."

But to the residents of a squatter camp on an old tennis court in Ruyterwacht, a suburb of Cape Town, the words are hollow.

'It's apartheid in reverse'

Sixteen mostly white families live in an assortment of wooden shacks and caravans and under tarpaulins beside the Grand West Casino where the city's rich go to be entertained.

"It's apartheid in reverse," says Russel du Toit, a father of five. "We can't get jobs or houses because they're given to black people and we're bottom of the list. We don't have electricity and we have [water] taps in the street and those toilets," he says, pointing to temporary latrines.

Home for Mr. du Toit and his family is two leaking huts with a campfire to cook food – all he can afford on his $19-a-day pay as a casual maintenance man.

Next door is Hester Derouvaix, who has lived at the site for nearly six years with her husband, Jacques, and her sons, Dwayne and Dalton.

"I'm in the queue for housing but I won't get [a house]. Life is hard here," she says. "No one is really interested in us, because we don't matter. My parents would be shocked to see us living like this. It just would not have happened back then."

Her younger sister Marinda shares a two-room shack with her toddler daughter, Christal, her 15-year-old son, Hennie, and her partner, Philip. "All the black townships are linked up to electricity and water, so why can't we be?" she asks.

The claim is false, but it exemplifies how the white squatters' frustrations fuel spiraling perceptions of inequality.

A new economic landscape

Across the dusty yard lives trainee welder Shaun Olivier, who has been deaf in one ear since childhood.

"I can't get work and life can be boring here," says Mr. Olivier, who only speaks Afrikaans. "I don't think the council or the government cares about us, because I don't think we matter [to them]."

The city council has indicated that it wants the residents off the site. But most residents are determined to stay. "Where will we go?" asks du Toit. "It's OK for them to tell us to go, but where do we go with our children?"

Trade unionist Dirk Hermann says the increase in white poverty is due to the changing economic landscape, the collapse of government support structures once offered to whites, and the transfer of public jobs to blacks under positive discrimination. Under apartheid many low-skilled and blue-collar jobs were reserved for whites.

Mr. Hermann, deputy general secretary of the 150,000-strong Solidarity Union, also blames previous President Thabo Mbeki for dismissing white poverty.

"Mr. Mbeki's philosophy of a two-nation state – rich whites and poor blacks – hid the problem of poor whites," says Hermann. "It was politically incorrect to talk about white poverty because according to the government and ministries there wasn't any. We knew there was and now it is getting more coverage. [Current President] Jacob Zuma's visit to the Bethlehem squatter camp [north of the country's capital, Pretoria] changed that ideology, but I still only see lip service to the problem and not much action."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...