/ 24 July 2008

Zuma: I didn’t know there were poor whites

Poverty is one of the biggest challenges facing the majority of South Africans and it does not discriminate according to racial lines, African National Congress president Jacob Zuma said on Thursday.

He was addressing a gathering of more than 1 000 poor white Pretoria residents in the city’s Bethlehem settlement.

On what he referred to as a historic day, Zuma, flanked by Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya and Tshwane mayor Gwen Ramokgopa, told the people that the government is committed to hearing and resolving their plight.

”We are dealing with problems that affect our people and they are problems of life and death,” he said, adding that he was ”shocked and surprised” by the reality of poverty in the white population but that he was ”itching” to interact with the people to find solutions.

Zuma said he had met businessmen, wealthier Afrikaners and farmers, but had not until recently been aware of the poor white Afrikaners in the Tshwane area. ”All this time I did not realise a section [of the population existed] that could be referred to as poor whites.”

He said it was only when he met trade union Solidarity — which hosted and organised Thursday’s gathering — before his first visit to the informal settlement that he became aware and realised the importance of concentrating on the poor. ”They told me there is poverty … I said, ‘Are you sure?’ They said, ‘Absolutely sure.”’

Growing problem
Solidarity general secretary Flip Buys said poverty is still the biggest problem for poor black people but that ”new white poverty” is growing fast.

Between 1997 and 2002, he said, white unemployment had risen by 106%. ”The problem is, it isn’t politically correct to talk about white poverty, but poverty knows no colour.”

Skweyiya echoed the sentiment, saying white poverty is not a myth. He said the government had come to listen to the people and is committed to resolving their problems.

”There is a perception that there is no poor among the white people. This [large gathering] proves beyond a reasonable doubt that this is a myth,” he said.

Ramokgopa said it was not the first time that she had been working with the poor whites in her municipal area, adding that she will continue to work with the new ward councillor to bring about change.

She said rising food and energy costs could also ”tip” those who are just above the poverty level into a poverty situation.

She urged people to register for social grants. ”We need to ensure that this city is a caring city and that we uproot poverty.”

Wait and see
Despite holding an application for a social grant, Joseph von Berg — who is unemployed and lives in a homeless shelter — said he has tried repeatedly but never been given any financial aid from the government. ”I’ve lost a lot of jobs [because of my epilepsy] but I’ve never been helped,” he said.

Sharan de Lange, founder of the Uncle Ben’s Den mission and shelter, said she will wait to see if Zuma and the government will deliver on their promises. ”I’m positive, but I’m a girl who wants to see. It’s good, but only if they do what they promise.”

She said her mission, which houses more than 100 homeless and elderly people, has not received any help from the government — only from Solidarity and various religious organisations.

Her biggest complaint is the water and electricity tariffs, which she wants the government to subsidise. She pays between R10 000 and R12 000 a month for these services. ”If this [the subsidy] comes out of this meeting, then I will be glad,” she said.

Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder said Zuma’s visit to Bethlehem gave the party hope for the future of the country. ”This approach differs hugely from the approach of the current government that South Africa consists of one white wealthy community and one poor black community.”

He said the ANC will still have to do much more than just take note of the reality of increasing poverty among white people.

”A new policy on poverty alleviation will have to be created which is implemented on a non-racial basis,” said Mulder. — Sapa