They came into my yard; a pair of them in orange overalls. They knocked so softly that had I not seen them enter I would not have heard it. “We are here to fix,” they announced, and I noticed they carried some tools.
For a moment, I was gripped by some terror not unfamiliar, this being an age in which a violent robbery can take place in broad daylight in the streets with people watching and seemingly not giving a tinker’s cuss whether you die or not.
“Fix what?” I asked in puzzlement. I had not asked anybody to fix anything at all at my house.
“Do you have any leaks?”
I did not understand.
They explained that they were municipal employees and were in my area to fix whatever leaks we might have – taps or toilets that leak; basically anything leaking water and costing the municipality a lot when it comes to the maintenance of water infrastructure.
They also explained that this had contributed to the interruption of our township water supply.
Well, of course, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. But then I became cynical. Was this some short-term ANC ploy to “thank” the “masses” for their votes, and only for employees such as these to disappear until the next elections?
I also noticed that the orange uniforms had the letters “EPWP” printed on them. Expanded public works programme.
Who still remembers how this was punted by the government, 10 or 12 years ago, as one of the panaceas for our high unemployment? I remember also that Ann Bernstein of the Centre for Development Enterprise was a big proponent of it.
But, seriously, I had not even noticed that the plan had been implemented, if only, perhaps, half-heartedly. But, here they were, the people from the government.
Did I have a leak? Yes, a small one in the outside toilet.
Outside, because that is how the apartheid government deigned that houses in the townships should be built; toilets must be outside, and they must be of a kind that has become known as the “bucket system”. Thankfully, most flush now.
But, unfortunately, the ANC-led government decided to take a leaf from the rulebook of the apartheid bureaucrats and continues to build houses that are not equipped with inside bathrooms or toilets. So the poor granny with bad knees must, in the dead of night, risk a confrontation with a would-be robber if she ventures outside for her tummy troubles. I suppose that is one of the good stories the ANC has been harping on about.
I offered the guys some fruit juice after they had done their work. I asked how long they had been working for the municipality.
They had signed three-year contracts towards the end of last year, they said.
And before that?
One of them, Joseph, in his early 30s, said he had been a piece-job kind of guy, with no regular income.
So this work, this EPWP work, is good, no?
He prevaricated; yes and no, he said. Yes, he now had a regular income, plus he was acquiring some skills. But the hours were long, the work hard and the pay a pittance.
It is then that I remembered Albert Camus’s observation: “When silence or verbal trickery helps to maintain an abuse that needs to be ended, or suffering that needs to be soothed, there is no choice but to speak out and show the obscenity disguised by a cloak of words.”
Because, in the end, is this really what we are dealing with? A government that says we have created so many jobs, but these are really another way of further reducing the very people they say they are uplifting.
It is true that Joseph has now learned some skill, as he says, that he will use when his contract ends in three years’ time, but is it fair that the income gap, or what economists call the Gini coefficient, should continue widening?
But another matter ought to be raised here – and it has it roots in the boycotts of the 1980s – that may explain why Joseph is earning what he describes as a pittance, and that is our people’s refusal to pay rates and taxes. They refuse, they say, because is not this government supposed to do everything for the people who fought so gallantly for liberation?
And these are people who draw a salary every month, mind you. They do not realise that they have a duty to be model, responsible citizens. They will not listen to reason, some of them, but they want their taps and toilets and whatever leaks to be fixed by the very municipality they refuse to pay rates to.
Someday they may also demand the government fill up their fridges and buy them tickets to a Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates match.
Tiisetso Makube is a Johannesburg-based writer and former magazine editor