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Poor Whites in South Africa

Just like last year, various master students obtained a small financial allowance from the Vamos Bien-Foundation of our Department. In  return, they write blogs about their fieldwork, posted on the Like last year, we will re-post some of these field stories on our Standplaatswereld site. The first one is by Dafydd Russell-Jones. He went to South Africa to explore the experiences of poverty among white communities living in informal settlements in and around Pretoria.  This research will explore the lived realities of white South Africans who have experienced a great shift in social and economic security since the end of apartheid.


By Dafydd Russel-Jones   After commuting in and out of Westfort (an ‘improvised’ community near Pretoria) for the past 6 weeks, I was presented an opportunity to live in one of the spare rooms with a member of the Democratic Alliance and so I have been living as he does for the past week. On the very first visit to Westfort, I spoke with a young Soweto man with two kids, and Indian family who lived next door to a Zimbabwean family, a Zulu man, who was neighbours with an Afrikaner lady and also a coloured family. I was told by one of my supervisors that I should not go looking for the ‘rainbow nation’ whilst in South Africa because I simply would not find it. It is clear that the rainbow exists right here, but the colours are not united in their freedom of choice, instead they are bound in their daily struggles and alas, there is not a pot of gold sight.

During my time, I have tried to speak with a diverse range of people as possible but have carried out the most in depth interviews with minority of Afrikaners (20) as they are the focus of this study. Regardless of cultural background, there are three clear insecurities that would dominate any humans daily psychological, emotional and operational capacities; no running water, no electricity and not knowing that you will still be sleeping under the same roof come tomorrow.

Among the Afrikaners in the community, two males were the gate keepers who used to guard the hospital village when it closed down in 1998. After squatters broke in 2001, these old Afrikaner security guards stayed in their homes at the front of the village and have made a new way of life for themselves. Using knowledge and skills from their farming heritages, they have created small farms in their yards to breed and sell chickens, ducks, dogs, parrots, racing pigeons, gold fish, roses, maize and the list goes on. From the outside of the yards you would judge the place to look like a mess with scraps of old cars, tyres, junk and apparent clutter. But on closer inspection you see ingenuity, craftsmanship and resourcefulness. They have learnt local African masonry skills to carve objects out of stone, making an indoor ‘squatter jacuzzi’ with water being heated by a man made furnace outside. The wife knits and sews pendants and flowers to sell at nearby markets on Saturdays. This showing that there are Afrikaners who have adapted to their new adverse opportunities in the formal labour market and are now participating in the informal economy, using local skills and available land to produce and trade goods and have built an alternative and sustainable way of life for themselves and their families.

However, enterprise such as this is by no means universal. Begging, receiving incapacity benefits and selling plastics and scrap metal are alternative means for survival and for these people, it is exactly that, surviving. There are people with jobs in Westfort who have chosen to live there because it is free and they can try to make profit from this location, albeit in exchange for sub-standard living conditions. For many others, it is their only option and the roof of their head is invaluable.

From the Afrikaners I have spoken to here, many seem to possess painful histories involving alcohol and the loss of family members and one suspect these memories have limited them in ways and scarred them emotionally. Sure, everyone knows pain during their life but life does not move on here. Broken and unfulfilled promises from ineffective government structures have meant that circumstances stay the same for people in Westfort. Bleak conditions are a constant reminder of their dark histories that stick like a broken record. Yes, they have been given water tanks and toilets in recent years. But the water tanks they draw water from daily have not been cleaned out in 6 years, they only get refilled. The toilets get cleaned out, but only when they are full. There are between 40-50 people sharing single toilets. I have been keeping a list of people’s grievances and experiences here and these are amongst the most heinous and criminal causes of suffering and struggle. People should not have to live in fear of worms in the water they drink to survive. Nor should parents have to live in fear of their children falling to their death whilst performing their daily human duties in a pit/toilet.

Among the homeless Afrikaners I have engaged with at the coffee house (a soup kitchen I have been volunteering at that seeks to reintegrate homeless men back into society through upliftment and sharing the gospel – roughly 50-60 men each night), discontentment about the lack of employment opportunities is evident and grumbles of reverse discrimination are concealed behind hopeless expressions amidst a black African majority, who are also struggling to find work. Clean shaven, promptly dressed Afrikaner men who once had jobs created for them by the apartheid government in public sectors such as railways and post offices, are now unemployed because these industries have been privatised. Businesses that seek profit are now obliged to adhere to BEE (black economic empowerment) and AA (affirmative action) policies that seek to put black people and other previously discriminated peoples into employment. This makes it is increasingly difficult for unemployed Afrikaners to (re)enter the job market, especially those who have modest qualifications. ‘’During apartheid, we looked after our own, now that the blacks are in power, they are putting black people first’’ is a common frustration. There is no shock that black people are getting jobs over white South Africans, indeed it is agreed that it was probably inevitable in the new democracy, regardless of the flickering hope that Nelson Mandela provided in fighting for a colourless constitution. The discontent for some of the Afrikaners I have spoken to however is the reality of how severe the reverse treatment is for their people and the extent to which the impacts have been felt amongst the lower middle classes.


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