In South Africa, poverty tinged with a new color

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.

A 1998 survey estimated that 234,000 whites had left South Africa between 1989-1997, compared with the official total of 82,800. The most often-stated reason for leaving, according to the survey, was the growing crime rate and level of insecurity in the country. Lack of jobs was the No. 2 reason.

Suffering the most are unskilled whites, who have neither a profession nor savings to fall back on. According to the affirmative action laws, only "suitably qualified" applicants should get jobs. However, the definition of "suitably qualified" includes those who have "the capacity to acquire, within a reasonable period of time, the ability to do the job." This caveat, intended to help unskilled blacks previously barred from the opportunity to study or gain work experience, clearly works against unskilled whites more than any other group.

The new affirmative action laws tell only part of the story, however.

The South African economy in general, despite a small upturn last year, is ailing. Expected foreign investment has not materialized; growth has stalled; and companies - subjected to global competition after years of operating under international economic boycotts - have been forced to cut costs and downsize to be more competitive.

"Rising unemployment and the decline in labor absorption capacity affects everybody," says John Kane Berman, the director of the Johannesburg Institute for Race Relations, "and, like in the rest of the world, it hits those with the least marketable skills first - no matter what color they are." The only difference with the rest of the world is that, he acknowledges, "here we are just not used to seeing whites beg."

According to figures released this month by the labor department, more than 500,000 salaried employees - black and white - have lost their jobs since 1996 and close to 26 percent of South Africans are unemployed, although some labor experts say the unemployment may be as high as 37 percent.

"Patterns of inequality are changing," says Berman. "The gap between wealthy and poor continues to grow - but this is no longer a gap across racial lines. Neither wealth nor poverty can be explained away by race."

Statistics South Africa, the main statistics agency in the country, recently reported that whites held 71 percent of the personal wealth in South Africa and made up 95 percent of the richest tenth of the population in 1970 - but by 1990, however, whites' share of the wealth had fallen to 54 percent and 22 percent of the richest citizens were black.

"I have hit rock bottom here," says Nico Hattingh, a white father of seven who used to work as a train conductor before falling ill in 1995. His disability payment, he says, stopped arriving in 1997, and he has since been unable to find a job.

"I would work beneath a black person. I would do anything," he says. "All I want is a job. As it is, I can't even think of buying anything. I just sit around waiting for the next bite to eat, or the next drink, or the next handout."

A five-minute walk from the cemetery is an old printing press that the local neighborhood committee has converted into a homeless shelter. Supported by the Lutheran church, it offers its 150 residents bunk beds with thin, dirty mattresses in matchbox-size rooms, cold showers, and tea in the morning. All its residents are black.

"I think," says Karen Msimang, as she cleans up a flood in the bathroom which has washed into her room, "that the whites are embarrassed. They hide away in that spooky graveyard because they don't want us to see that they are just like us. But they are."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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