'Ek het geval ...'
Giant knobbled hands, black with dirt, bring a large crumpled sheet of plastic, once used to wrap chicken, smelling of rancid meat, to his mouth. Biting off the barcode sticker, he smooths and folds the plastic into a neat bundle.
Sheet after sheet is processed- he doesn’t react to the stench, he doesn’t even smell it.
“I get a good rate at the recycling centre, they can trust that I bring clean plastic”, says Gerhard Vermaak.
Nicknamed Satan by his neighbours—‘because of this”, he points to a snake pendant around his neck, but perhaps more because of his intimidating presence, his long hair tied in a ponytail, his lack of social graces and the fact that he has his own squatter camp under a clump of blue gum trees in the middle of Danville, a historically poor-white area stuck between industrial west Pretoria and Atteridgeville.
Deprived of their previously ‘privileged” position, South Africa’s poor whites are seeking ways to adapt, or at least survive. While many would not know class theory from a hole in the head, they are now living the reality they were sheltered from for decades.
When the armblankes fled their sharecropper holdings after the Anglo-Boer South African War, during agricultural crises and the 1930s Depression and streamed into the cities looking for work, for many, their first homes were in the multi-racial slums that had sprung up around industrial centres.
The elite saw the possibility of these poor whites developing class-consciousness and joining a multiracial class struggle against them as detrimental to the developing of Afrikaner capitalism. With a quarter of Afrikaners living in absolute poverty, the elite made them the cause of Afrikaner nationalism. They provided them with employment and, through job reservation, ensured that no skilled blacks could advance ahead of them, protected their unions and provided welfare support, housing schemes and social grants.
Eventually every big city had a poor-white council house township, like Jan Hofmeyr and Danville; decent housing built around parks and supervised recreation facilities. Under the watchful eyes of social workers, poor whites were meant to be given a leg up the social ladder to attain middle class.
But with more and more whites standing at robots today, it is evident that not all were rescued from poverty. And many think it is poor whites’ own fault. Similar to stereo-types of Jerry Springer-type American white trash, the white poor are often seen as morally deficient, stupid, fat, lazy, drug-addicted drunks who are ‘a waste of white skin”.
As apartheid accumulated wealth for white South Africans, poor whites became a minority and were no longer used as a rallying point. The dawn of democracy accelerated their downward slide.
Steps to broaden access to social services removed their extensive welfare support. Liberalisation and privatisation of the economy ended their predominance in state and parastatal industries. Guaranteed jobs before, many of these workers never studied for trade certification. Now, having to compete in a globalised world, they are most vulnerable to job losses. Various researches into poverty trends conclude that one in 10 whites are living in absolute poverty.
Using scrap metal, wood and a few precious tarps and cardboard, Vermaak has constructed what we are familiar with only in poor black areas, mkukhus. Living in his compound is his wife Helen, his step-daughter, a white couple renting a caravan and three black families to whom he rents shacks. Surrounding the shacks are decaying sofas and piles of rubbish. The only thing distinguishing it from a dumpsite is that the rubbish is sorted: cardboard, plastic, glass and metal.
Dozens of chickens, dogs and cats have free rein and live in harmony. ‘That big rooster there is in love with the cat. They’re both boys, but look, he’ll still try to pomp him,” laughs Helen, as a disinterested cat swipes a lazy paw at the fornicating rooster.
Ironically Vermaak does not see himself as destitute. ‘I’m not poor; if you’re poor you don’t do anything — I am a businessman; I rent the shacks for R40, the caravan for R100, sell chickens for R20, and sell stuff for recycling.”
On average, it takes three months to collect a decent amount of trash of each category, from which he can earn about R300 each. ‘It depends on my luck; sometimes it can take six months to get enough to sell.” His wife receives a disability grant of R700 a month and the family often survives on food packages filled with dated Woolies food.
Vermaak used to work as a bricklayer. But, ‘without papers I can’t get work, and if I do get something, they won’t pay me properly—less than R1 000 a month—and then still work you like a slave — I’d rather do this. I’m my own boss.”
Grabbing the handle of his grandly titled ‘Service provider to Mondi Recycling Waste Paper Dealer” trolley, he heads off along the dark road in search of valuable refuse.
His most fertile gathering ground is the OK Bazaars in the centre of Danville. Arriving at 7pm, he waits until closing time at 8.30pm to start sorting out the boxes and plastics, ripping off staples and stickers, folding them into smaller piles. Later he will sweep the parking lot and bin area. The well-to-do OK owners respect the work he is doing: ‘No one is allowed to call him Satan here. He does a good job.” They pay him with a loaf or two of bread and a frozen braai pack of meat.
Vermaak’s most prized possession is a 1970s Dodge bakkie sitting on bricks that he is trying to repair so he can forage further afield. ‘If I can fix my bakkie, I can make enough money to buy a piece of land and build a house on it,” he says optimistically.
Travelling through the Daspoort tunnel, you get to neighbouring Booysens. There are many people living in desperate situations and you may never know it unless you knew what you were looking for. Behind their pre-fab walls, Pretoria West houses have large yards and most have Wendy houses, wooden garden sheds, filled with families. Most are without electricity and have no water or toilet facilities. For most, allowing a family to squat on their properties is a cash business.
Attie de Vos
Attie de Vos (42) lived in one such ‘shack farm”, paying R1 200 for a room. There were six other crudely built rooms, with rentals of between R800 and R1 000. Unable to continue paying the rent, De Vos and his common-law wife, Kathleen, and his children, Roeleen and Thea-lize, now live as backyard dwellers in a blue canvas tent divided into rooms by net curtains. Outside the tent De Vos is building a shack with wooden pallets salvaged from Coca-Cola. ‘I can’t finish it now, we pay R300 rent, the people we’re renting from can’t afford their own rent and now they’ve given notice. I don’t know if we can stay.”
Describing his situation, De Vos says ‘Ek het geval [I have fallen].”
He was a beneficiary of the Nationalist employment policy. After completing his national service, he was employed on the railways as a boilermaker, eventually securing himself a permanent job with the Pretoria City Council. ‘I even bought my own house.”
Then, when employment equity was introduced, he was forced into voluntary retrenchment. ‘I lost my house, and then my [previous] marriage was gone. I started selling vegetables off my bakkie to survive.”
He has since lost the bakkie as he fell further.
Now De Vos works as a smous (hawker), making firelighters of his own invention—a secret formula of petrol, styrofoam and plastic that even burns in water—which he sells for R20 a bottle, working seven days a week. His skin is baked to copper from his time on the road.
‘Living in the tent, every time I come from work, it’s like I’m on holiday,” he laughs. But he doesn’t make enough to properly feed his family. Every Wednesday, Kathleen goes across the road to receive a food parcel from Eleõs community centre, a job creation project and feeding scheme supported by churches and charities. Kathleen, speaking to a woman who acts as a mentor, finds out she pays her black maid R60 a day, and asks if she can’t rather come and work for her. The woman curtly says: ‘No, it’s not work for a white person.”
Too poor to afford deposits on formal accommodation but too scared to squat, many do what they can to pay rent, even if it means not being able to afford food. ‘There are 59 soup kitchens and feeding schemes in the Moot [Danville, Booysens and surrounds],” says Dr Dawie Theron of Helping Hand, the charity wing of Solidarity.
De Vos still has fighting spirit: ‘If things go on like this, I’m going to take all my pallets and build a house across the road in the veld. Then they must come lock me up or chase me away.”
A few hundred metres away, across the bulldozed stretch of veld, Frikkie Botha (29) lives with a friend in a sloot—a concrete storm drain—under the Mabopane highway. Botha moved in with his friend three months ago. They live 20m into the drain. His bed is a damp mattress. There are water-stained magazine cut-outs of Afrikaans poppies and charcoal scratchings of the names of various previous inhabitants, swear words and crude drawings of women graffiti the walls.
‘I live here because my father and mother are suffering. They only sell the Rapport and mother gets disability pension for epilepsy. They can’t look after me.”
Botha left remedial school at 16: ‘I got bored — and wanted to help my parents make money.” So he worked pushing trolleys at the nearby Quagga shopping centre, then as a news-paper vendor. He also periodically gets a ‘proper” job, but can’t keep it.
His mother, Annetjie, and father, Nico, work every Sunday as Rapport vendors. At 2am they leave home to walk to a pick-up point for a delivery truck at 3am. They pile in with dozens of other poor whites from the area and are taken to the depot near Danville. While trucks are loaded with newspapers, they wait, grateful for the job, in the bitter cold to leave just before 5am. For many in the Moot area, selling the Rapport is the only job they can get and, according to a depot supervisor, it is a poverty alleviation project of the newspaper. Vendors receive about 25% of each paper sold.
As the sun rises, Annetjie Botha (49) is the last drop off. At an intersection on a quiet Sunday morning, she stands stoically, clutching a pile of newspapers. Keeping an eye out for the traffic flow, she crosses the road constantly, angling for a better position. She made R200 that day, but sometimes only makes R80.
Botha and her husband pay R600 for a tin shack at the back of a house. For a month her son lived there but left when he couldn’t afford to pay R400 for a mattress, cordoned off by curtains, in a garage shared with six others. He moved back to the sloot.
His mother, crying, despairs at how the family fell into such circumstances, how her son ‘lives in a hole”.
‘I have been trying to get a house from the municipality since 1998. Despite what I’ve been through, I am going to stand up for my rights. Every-one steps on me. I have reached breaking point. I want no more nonsense. Even if I must go see them [the housing department] every day, and make them mad, I want a house — klaar.
‘People think that only blacks are poor in this country; they must come and see how we live.”