At a 24-hour petrol station in central Cape Town, Siphiwe Mashabalala* (61) smiles at customers as they drive in.
“A lot of the customers know me. They always say, ‘Gift, we see you here all the time!’,” Mashabalala says, imitating his regular customers as he stands in the shade near the pumps on a blistering midweek morning.
But they do not know his name. “Gift” was bestowed on him by his bosses, and that is on his name tag, instead of his real name because customers have trouble pronouncing it. It is one of the little things that annoy him about his job.
He works 13-hour shifts for about R21 an hour. He starts at 6am and leaves at 7pm, and spends R30 a day on the taxi fare. His home is in Nyanga East, a township near Khayelitsha. He left his home in the Eastern Cape as a youngster in the 1970s to find a job in Cape Town.
Despite the low pay, he tries to be optimistic. “If you have a job you must be happy,” he smiles.
Getting tips makes his day. Although some customers don’t always tip, the ones who do give out a few coins to brighten his workload.
“Some customers give you 20c, 50c, R1, up to R5.” But he’s happy with any small change. “The whole day is better if we just get R2.”
For Luvuyo Mananga* (49), the stress has gone beyond customers mispronouncing his name. He has worked at the petrol station for 13 years, but not enough has improved, he says.
“There’s a lot of problems. Even me, I came to work here from 2002, but it’s no different now. Our bosses don’t treat us right here.”
In 2013, employees in the motoring industry went on a strike for three weeks. The National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa was demanding a wage increase for workers in every sector of the motor and fuel industry, and for employers to pay more to those who work overtime. Petrol attendants also downed tools before an agreement was reached for a R2 wage increase effective from October 2 2013.
“People take petrol attendants for granted, but I am not taking it for granted because it’s my bread,” Mananga says.
Mashabalala doesn’t like to bring his troubles to the workplace. “When you come to work, you must leave your problems there outside. When you go home, then you take your problems,” he says, pointing to the roads beyond the petrol station.
He believes he’s too old to find a new job, but hopes his children will succeed. Although many of his customers know little about his personal life, little of the work he does is about his own life, because it’s his children who keep him working.
“I’m working for my children, so my children can buy me a car,” he laughs.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
#sliceoflife is a new Mail & Guardian feature that looks at people’s everyday lives.
Note: The blurb of this article, originally published in the M&G newspaper on January 29, incorrectly stated that at least 700 000 people in South Africa are employed as petrol attendants. It has since been corrected to reflect the accurate statistics.