Lifting the lid on white poverty in the new
A special investigation and photographs by DE WET POTGIETER,
commissioned by the Solidarity Helping Hand Fund
“Today 430 000 whites, of a total population of 4,5 million, are too poor to live in
traditional white areas,” Prof Lawrence Schlemmer told Mail & Guardian 3 years
Schlemmer also said that the true extent of the problem is probably
underestimated and that existing statistics are unreliable and outdated. “Getting
to the real truth of white poverty will require a research project on its own,: he
In view of the lack of statistical data, Solidarity’s Helping Hand decided to
conduct a qualitative field study to document and photograph the stories of needy
whites in South Africa.
According to Dirk Hermann, executive director of the Helping Hand Fund, white
poverty is silent poverty. Talking about it is not politically correct. It is probably
the only form of poverty in the world about which it is politically incorrect to talk.
This report by Solidarity’s Helping Hand wants to break the silence.
Poverty is a widespread problem in South Africa, but the face of poverty is
changing. No longer are all rich South Africans white and all poor South Africans
black. Although poverty has increased in all population groups between 1994 and
2005, white poverty showed the most rapid increase at around 150%.
One would expect social spending on whites to show an increase commensurate
with the increased incidence of white poverty, but the opposite is true. Social
spending has also adopted a racial tint. In 2005 the Gauteng Department of
Social Development announced that it was phasing out subsidies to welfare
organisations that assist needy whites.
Organisations working in white communities would be given two years to shift
their activities to representative (i.e. black) communities, and their employees
also have to be representative (i.e. black).
Organisations that do not transform will receive only 75% of the normal subsidy
after the first year, to be reduced to 50% after the second year and then
discontinued altogether. This is a categorical statement by government that it is
not interested in helping needy whites.
Mr Bob Mabaso, Social Development MEC in Gauteng, reiterated in the
provincial legislature that organisations that help whites will get nothing from the
These are the down and out people, defeated by life. Their eyes are empty; the
glimmer of humanity has fled. The little self-esteem that they may have had
before is gone – not surprising if one has to beg on street corners to feed one’s
It is soul-destroying to spend one’s days in the glare of the summer sun or the
freezing cold of winter, trying to earn a pittance as a car-watch in a parking area
– and this while the merciless parking barons demand their pound of flesh for this
These are the indigent whites, growing numbers of which have no option but to
occupy any possible form of housing to avoid living on the street.
Since 1994, South Africa’s needy whites have been systematically downgraded
to the stepchildren of our country, having been abandoned to their fate by the
ANC government. The fate of these societal rejects, who have lost all hope of
government assistance, is daily being ignored by government as if they do not
What is happening to South Africa’s white population today echoes a sad chapter
in our history, when the so-called poor white problem reared its head in the
nineteen-thirties and the Afrikaner community in particular had to be rescued
from the poverty trap.
The “poor white” problem of 1932 and the problem
After the second Anglo-Boer War, poverty among Afrikaners in particular became
a serious problem. The main reasons were the destruction of the economic
foundation by the scorched earth tactics of the British, the rise of a mining and
industrial economy and the decline of agriculture, which changed Afrikaners from
self-sufficient farmers into an urban proletariat.
The problem worsened, without any concerted action to resolve it. Lack of
information played a major part and the true extent of the problem was largely
unknown, until a commission, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, was
appointed to investigate.
The Carnegie commission, which began its extensive investigation in 1928,
looked at the social distribution of poverty and the vulnerable position of women
and children, not only in material but also in social terms. Well-known Afrikaans
author M.E. Rothman undertook a social investigation, as part of the sociological
report, into the circumstances of poor white families and particularly the situation
relating to mothers and daughters.
It may be said with conviction that white poverty today is at its worst since at
least the 1960s. White poverty is obviously on a smaller scale than black poverty,
but the latter receives assistance from government and national international aid
agencies, while needy whites have to depend on a few welfare organisations that
cannot hope to supply in the great need that exists. Little empirical research is
available on the subject of white poverty, apart from the odd newspaper article
that is more likely to be a personal story than the result of scientific research.
The Carnegie commission’s report was published in 1932. Among its findings
was that 300 000 out of 2 million South African whites could be classified as
“poor”, i.e. 15% of the white population.
The little information that is available suggests that we are seeing the early
stages of a problem that is potentially worse than Afrikaner poverty in the 1920s
• White unemployment has increased significantly since the mid-1990s. At
the beginning of 1995 it stood at 3% and it now exceeds 10%. This
situation is exacerbated by the fact that unemployed blue-collar whites
have almost no hope of finding other employment, due to affirmative
action and the shrinking market for manual labour. Even skilled workers
have to contend with affirmative action in their attempts to find
This means that we have largely the same number of unemployed whites as at
the time of the Carnegie commission’s report, although the percentage has
decreased. As the gap between rich and poor widens for the country as a whole,
it also widens between the different population groups. The fact that the white
group is still largely affluent should not obscure that fact that the high aggregate
is achieved by rich whites on the one hand and poor whites on the other hand.
According to Statistics South Africa’s October 2001 census, the white population
of South Africa numbers 4 293 638, or 9,6% of the total population. SSA
estimates that the current figure is approximately 4 379 800, or 9,3% of the total
population. The total number of employed white persons, according to the
October 2001 census, is 1 863 607. Of these, 237 502, or 13%, earn less than
R1 600 per month. This excludes approximately 430 000 unemployed persons.
According to Census 2001 the total annual income of 19% of white households is
R38 400 or less. Approximately 87,4% of white households consist of 1 to 4
members, which means that these households need at least R15 480 per year to
avoid absolute poverty. Census 2001 found that around 10% of whites fall in the
category that earns this amount or less. Since income determinations by Census
2001 and those by the Bureau for Market Research differ slightly, an exact
calculation is not possible and an estimate has to be used to determine that
around 1 our of every 10 whites lives in poverty.
Unisa’s Bureau for Market Research found that, although unemployment had
increased among all population groups, white unemployment had increased by
150% since 1991. The comparative figures are: In 1991, white unemployment
stood at 4,0%. By 1996 it had increased to 4,6% and by 2002 to 9,9%, bringing
the total increase in unemployment among whites to 150%.
Research conducted by the South Africa Institute of Race Relations showed that
white unemployment had increased by 74% between 1998 and 2002, while the
average for all population groups was 39%.
Seven years have elapsed since the last census and conditions have
deteriorated, but new statistics are not available. The figures quoted above are
therefore the most conservative estimate.
The situation is deteriorating
Poverty among Afrikaners is worsening. A month or three ago people would
phone to ask for food. Now, growing numbers contact the Helping Hand to ask
for assistance in finding a place to stay, since they had lost their homes. A
noticeable point is that many of these callers are older people. They are
particularly vulnerable right now, because the cost of living far exceeds their
According to Dr Dirk Hermann, executive director of the Helping Hand Fund, part
of the problem is the fact that many whites took early retirement packages after
1994 and do not have sufficient pension provision. This coincided with numerous
severance packages offered by the public service and companies like Eskom
that offer so-called “space creation” packages to make room for transformation.
The big wave of poverty among older whites is still to come, due to deficient
Large scale transformation in the public service resulted in the departure of
thousands of whites. It also closed the doors of the public service to new white
applicants. In the past, whites who were only capable of working in entry level
positions were absorbed into the public service. This is no longer the case and
these people immediately join the ranks of the poor.
Many of the poor white South Africans live in the former industrial areas. The
transition from the industrial revolution to the global economy has changed
product methods and thousands have lost their jobs. Whites who do not have
specialised skills struggle to re-enter the labour market, due to affirmative action
Social institutions have also been transformed in the past ten years and have
shifted their focus to poor black areas. Even Afrikaans churches largely
concentrate on black poverty.
Young whites struggle to escape from the poverty cycle, due to limited training
opportunities. Whites do not get study bursaries and no bursaries for technical
occupational training are available. Technical colleges have been transformed to
the extent that no Afrikaans colleges are left. Poor future expectations have led
to a strong decline in further education in this group.
Dr Dawie Theron, executive secretary of the Helping Hand Fund, says that one
result of the new trend is that shelters are proliferating and new shelters are
discovered every week in the Helping Hand’s ongoing investigation into the
problem. People live in dire circumstances and exploitation of the poor by
unscrupulous owners is on the increase.
There is co-operation at the highest levels with the Department of Social
Development and the Metro Police on a plan to compel shelters with non-profit
registration certificates to comply with legal requirements or run the risk the of
losing their NPO certificates. In addition, talks with the Housing Department are
being facilitated by the Department of Social Development to apply for RDP
funding to upgrade the accommodation of shelter residents. These talks take
time and are unlikely to bear fruit in the near future.
Real poverty relief does not lie in the distribution of food and clothing – on the
contrary, this merely reinforces the dependency syndrome of the poor.
“The only effective way to tackle poverty is to instil the principle of job creation at
every shelter. This has three benefits: It occupies shelter residents constructively
and bolsters their sense of self-worth; it teaches them skills, which may be all
that is needed to help them back on their feet; and it makes the shelters self-
supporting, so that the residents do not have to ask for food and clothing or beg
on the streets. Shelters increasingly recognise the soundness of this principle
and we have seen a few success stories, but instilling the principle countrywide
will take money and skill,” Theron says.
This is the tragic reality that I found
For investigative purposes, Solidarity visited certain residential areas and
regions in most South African provinces in an attempt to get an overall
picture of what is developing throughout South Africa.
It was clear from this investigation that what was seen, experienced and
documented is just the tip of the iceberg – the beginning of much greater
misery that is spreading like a cancer in white communities in our country.
It is condition that can only be halted by aid and involvement – in the first
and most important instance, by the ANC government. This is a crisis that
must be halted before it gets out of control.
There are no credible statistics about what is happening in white
communities in South Africa. Government does not want people to know
that true state of affairs – partly because it would be an embarrassment,
but mainly because white South Africans, and needy white South African in
particular, are systematically being trampled upon by a racially biased
The abuse of human rights under the apartheid system, about which
President Thabo Mbeki and his government regularly comment, has now
been turned on poor white South Africans.
Could this be “silent retribution”? - De Wet Potgieter
The circumstances in which people live tell their own story.
“...We are people too!”
It is heartbreaking to visit the shelters and shanties in backyards and to see
people spending their days sitting around aimlessly, trying to get some warmth
from the feeble rays of wintry sunshine. And these are the ones who are too old
or too sick to be transported daily to street corners in affluent neighbourhoods
where they have to earn their keep by begging.
Pass through the Daspoort underpass from Danville to Booysens, Pretoria
Gardens and Daspoort and it is hard to guess from the outside what happens in
people’s backyards. The gruesome death of little Sheldean Human gave
outsiders a first real glimpse of what happens behind the scenes in South Africa’s
For the first time, more privileged South Africans learned about the dire
circumstances in which the poor are crowded into shelters just to have a roof
over their heads. The houses stand on relatively large plots, on which wooden
shacks, rickety shanties, caravans and even tents house large numbers of
In Claremont Street, Daspoort, Karen Dicks and her husband have made room
for 27 people to live in every conceivable kind of shelter. “There are 27 people at
the moment, but sometimes we have more,” Karen says.
Most of the residents are ex-patients at Weskoppies Hospital, who were
discharged because the institution is overcrowded. There sole income is a
disability grant of R870 per month. Others are elderly people who subsist on a
government pension of R820 per month, of which R590 per month goes to the
Dicks couple for their accommodation. They get a single daily meal. Most of the
ex-Weskoppies patients have nowhere else to go, cannot to any useful work and
spend their days sleeping.
“Weskoppies brings the people to us,” says Karen.
In a corner of a wooden shack, an elderly woman sits on her bed, wrapped in a
duvet against the morning’s chill. “The hospital sent her back, saying that nothing
more can be done for her,” says Karen. “Her family is not interested.”
When I ask permission to take a photograph, she gives a cheerless smile and
asks me to include her friend’s little dog, that is keeping her company. Behind her
on the wall is a signed Ken Mullen poster.
Around the corner an elderly man tinkers with a bicycle. He repairs bicycles to
earn a little extra money.
Eagle’s Nest, better known as Sonskynhoekie
Near the Rooiwal power station, on the old Warmbaths Road north of Pretoria, is
Hans Duvenhage’s property that is home to 75 people. Hans, whose luxurious
white beard reminds one of Father Christmas, says the pensioners pay R350 per
month for their accommodation. The rest must work for their board.
“We are struggling and we do not even money for fuel to take people to spots
where they can beg,” says Hans. A church recently provided a kitchen and toilets
for the residents. Power cables to the various shanties, tumble-down buildings
and wooden huts lie unprotected on the ground where barefoot children,
chickens, pigs and goats run around.
It is not clear what sort of work those who cannot pay for their board have to do,
because the place is dirty and unhygienic. There is rubbish everywhere. Children
have to walk to the nearby Uniefees Primary School.
Ironically enough, a few kilometres further is a similar shelter that is – as Dawie
proposed to the Human Rights Commission – a clean and neat refuge for the
homeless, with proper facilities.
Kosmos has only male residents and everyone has a job. Some have been
trained in the shelter to prepare meals in a well-equipped kitchen. The plot is
cleaned and swept daily. In one of the buildings, a team makes plastic flowers for
a manufacturer of funeral bouquets, for which the shelter is paid a monthly fee.
There is a “camp commandant” who maintains discipline and deals with personal
issues. This shelter also houses a number of ex-Weskoppies patients, who pay
for their accommodation from their government grants.
Behind Danville in Pretoria West lies the historic Wesfort, built in 1898 as
“Leprosengesticht”, or leper hospital. This impressive complex with its historic
buildings was used for this purpose until 1994, with part of the complex also
housing the overflow from Weskoppies from time to time. Wesfort was officially
closed down in 1997.
Wesfort is an isolated place at the end of a winding road flanked by beautiful
bluegum trees. The hospital and patient accommodation are at the centre of the
complex, which in its heyday also contained a school, a recreation hall with an
adjoining swimming pool, staff houses and four churches.
Eleven years a Johannesburg architect, Linda Mvusi, came up with a grandiose
scheme to develop the historic 400ha property with its 200 existing structures as
Fort West Village. The site was hurriedly registered as part of the Crocodile Art
The first residential section would be quickly constructed where the staff houses
had been and plans were unveiled for a school, hotel and market, as part of
Mvusi’s vision for the project.
Mvusi paid a deposit for the property to the local government and that is where
the matter rests. She did not come up with another cent of the outstanding
millions. When the local government tried to repossess the property, it found that
it had in the meantime been sold to 22 other individuals. Wesfort would have
become a ghost town is homeless people and criminals had not used it as a
refuge. The irregular sale agreement is currently the subject of a High Court
The vandalised Wesfort - a ticking time bomb
In the winter of 2007 more than 1 250 families – some with as many as nine
children – had invaded Wesfort. People of all races live in precarious
circumstances without electricity or running water. At the moment there more
than 300 children, some of whom have to walk several kilometres to go to school
in Danville, along a dangerous route with criminals hiding in the dense bushes.
A former “business partner” of Mvusi’s, Jan van Vuuren, claims to have bought
the property from her. He has more than 100 head of cattle sharing the property
with its destitute inhabitants and has appropriated approximately 20 of the staff
houses as sties for his 120 pigs.
Until four months ago he controlled the only water pump in Wesfort. He initially
charged residents 50c for a “scoop” (20ℓ) of water and this was later increased to
R2 per 20ℓ.
Some people occupy the single bathrooms that were used to bathe the lepers.
These are tiny rooms that contain single bathtubs, with the occupants sleeping
on planks laid over the tubs.
Late at night and over weekends criminals arrive at Wesfort by the taxi load.
Many are illegal immigrants who use the complex as a hideout. With them come
the drugs and illegal liquor trade that flourish over the weekends.
The cold winter of 2007 compelled Annatjie Lenslie and her husband to lend a
hand to the people of Wesfort, and they began a soup kitchen in the recreation
hall. The soup kitchen, which depended entirely on donations, provided a basic
daily breakfast and lunch meals to women and children in particular. Annatjie,
who called her charity El Shadai, installed a borehole and pump and provided
water at R10 per month per household. “This barely paid for the fuel,” she says.
Next to the soup kitchen is a disused swimming pool that was previously used by
the lepers. It is full of rubbish, used hypodermic needles and expired medication
and residents have been warned that is poses a serious health risk and that
children have to be kept away from it at all costs.
At the beginning of July 2007, the pressure and death threats became too much
for Annatjie and she decided to get out and leave the people of Wesfort to their
“I cannot go on like this,” she said, while packing her possessions. “The death
threats and threats of burning down the soup kitchen have become too much.”
She pointed out that there were two LPG cylinders in the kitchen that could
explode if the place were to be torched. This would have endangered the lives of
residents in the houses surrounding the recreation hall.
Wesfort has now been abandoned to its fate and crime and debauchery reign
supreme under the tall trees of the old leper hospital.
Bets Dreyer is the Mother Theresa of Pretoria’s white poor. Nobody understands
these needy people better than she does. For years she has dedicated her life to
alleviating the suffering of the poor, and Solidarity recently recognised her work
by giving her a Stars in the Community award.
She worked as community worker in the Booysens/Claremont community for
nineteen years, doing pioneering work to establish feeding schemes for needy
children and provide food parcels to poor families. After she retired, Bets carried
on with this work on her own.
She turned a house into one-stop service for the people of Booysens and
Claremont and this house has become a refuge for the poor of Pretoria.
It has its own community hall, where a doctor and nurse provide weekly medical
services for the community, which is far from the nearest hospital. She also runs
a baby clinic that offers instruction in basic infant care to mothers.
On Wednesday she offers life skills training and Bible study programmes in co-
operation with the Dutch Reformed congregation of Moreleta Park. All who attend
the gathering receive a food parcel for the week and can collect clothing for
themselves and their families from the used clothing on display.
In addition, Bets as single-handed established two nursery schools with donated
funds. One of these is at the Booysens Primary School and the other at the
General Beyers Primary School. Bets takes care of the staff remuneration.
Job creation is important to Bets and she has trained women from the community
to run a bakery from a very well-equipped kitchen. They currently cater for
functions and bake to order for people.
In addition, she has assisted a husband and wife to run a sewing business in the
lobby of the Booysens Primary school hall.
There is nobody who knows as well as Bets what goes on in Pretoria’s poor
neighbourhoods. Nobody can talk with the same passion, tinged with sadness, of
the suffering that she daily tries to alleviate and turn into opportunities for needy
Although Bets’ charitable work is mainly confined to the Booysens and Claremont
areas in Pretoria West, these neighbourhoods are a microcosm of the dire
circumstances of poor white South Africans – a problem that has taken hold in
the larger Pretoria area, as well as in the rest of our country.
“When we first began handing out food parcels, we had barely 20 recipients,”
says Bets. “Now we hand out more than 100 food parcels per family every
fortnight. It is a tremendous worry. Where does one find food for so many
What she has increasingly noticed over the past few months is that people’s
housing is noticeably deteriorating. There is not enough money to provide for
upkeep as well as food, and the house is obviously the first to be neglected –
one’s family has to eat, after all.
Increasing numbers of people live together in garaged, wooden huts in
backyards and even in battered tents that offer little protection against the
elements. More people depend on disability grants and child grants.
Bets says that most people are aware of the fact that they HAVE to pay for their
houses, no matter what. The house is their last, desperate refuge before they
end up on the street, homeless like thousands of other white South Africans.
“This shows that people are still prepared to fight for a roof over their heads,”
says Bets. “They tell us that they can still pay for the house, but have nothing left
Bets has noticed that people in Pretoria West generally do not have large
families. Parents seldom have more than four children – but for a single mother
to make ends meet on a R1 300 per month disability grant is virtually impossible.
Many services and benefits that were provided in poor communities by local and
central government pre-1994, have systematically been discontinued in the past
Subsidised school buses are among these, along with the regular bus to
Kalafong Hospital. Municipal buses do not operate after six in the evening and
not at all over weekends – people have to walk to where they want to be.
“The economy has caught with people,” is how Bets sums up the dire conditions
in which people find themselves. “We have to turn people away, because our
capacity and means are beyond breaking point.” She cannot bring herself to ask
the people what they eat when the fortnightly food parcels are finished.
People like car guards and security guards lead a precarious existence, not
knowing from one day to the next how much they will earn. They depend on the
goodwill of their more affluent fellow men for a pittance to keep their families from
starving – and this puts families under tremendous pressure.
Charmaine Booysen of Luderitz Street, Booysens.
Her husband committed suicide nine years ago and Charmaine has had to bring
up her three children aged 20, 17 and 12, on her own. Three year old Chantelle
was born in the meantime, but Charmaine doe not know where the father is.
The five of them rent a room from a family in Booysens. Chantelle gets a
government of R800 per month and a child grant of around R100 per month for
Rent costs Charmaine R700 per month... “I don’t know where I’m going to get
money to survive,” she says. She is trying to find work as a car guard, but what to
do with little Chantelle?
Hetta Gouws of Mountain View
Everyone in Pretoria West knows Hetta as the “street woman”. She is a real card
and has a ready tongue, but it does hurt when people call her that when she
pushes her cart full of scrap metal through the busy streets, on her way to the
scrap metal dealers.
53-year old Hetta’s husband, Freek, cannot find a job and he also collects scrap
metal. He lost a foot in an accident as Iscor many years ago and they lost the
little money they had – R25 000 – in a pyramid scheme.
“At least we still have our house, but it is falling apart because we do not have
money for maintenance. But how else will we live?” she asks. Freek gets a paltry
R171.38 per month from a policy.
“The other day I pushed my cart full of scrap metal all the way from Moot Street,
and do you know what the man paid me? Only R5! We are like beggars and we
cannot complain, because every cent helps to keep us alive. Imagine how it feels
for a woman to struggle down the street with a cart full of junk!”
Hetta’s brother collects broken items like plugs and appliances thrown away by
hotels, and she fixes it at home to hawk around.
Lorraine Strydom of Daspoort.
She is 58-year old grandmother who scrimps and saves to try and contribute to
her grandchildren’s school fees from her tiny monthly grant. She has been a
widow for eleven years and rents a wooden hut in her younger son’s back yard.
The son and his wife also struggle to get by and the in-laws share their house,
along with older brother who was unemployed until recently.
This means that the granny and her two grandsons of 11 and 13 years old all
sleep in the hut of 3m x 3m (remember that a double bed is 2m x 2m). The hut
also contains a wardrobe and a small fridge. A two-plate stove is stored under
the bed when the cooking is done.
“The three of us sleep across the length of the bed in order to fit,” Lorraine says
resignedly. She is proud woman who knew a better life when her husband was
She gets a R900 per month grant, of which R400 goes for rent. After the boys’
school fees and other expenses had been paid, not much remains for food.
“The food parcel that we get from Bets every two weeks does not go very far, but
we are immensely grateful for it,” she says.
Bettie Thomas of Daspoort
Bettie is a proud 46-year old mother whose 18-year old son is a star grade 12
learner at Hercules High School. The two of them, plus her 23-year old daughter
and the daughter’s two children, share a wooden hut in Daspoort. The father of
Bettie’s grandchildren does not pay any maintenance for his children.
The daughter’s R2 000 per month salary pays the monthly rent of R1 200, and
the rest goes to her brother’s school fees, the needs of the little ones and food.
Bettie looks after her grandchildren during the day. “If I manage to find a job, it
would have to pay enough to send the children to a crèche, otherwise it would be
useless,” she says. In the meantime the family ekes out an existence in their
wooden hut in a Daspoort backyard.
Hennie Schoeman of Claremont
Hennie (64) used to be a bus driver for the South African Railways, but when
affirmative action and transformation became the buzzwords, his Code 14
licence and all his certificates for loyal service could not save his job.
All that I was told wherever I looked for a job was: “Sorry Sir, but affirmative
action says that your skin is too white.”
“I have always been the breadwinner in our family and my wife Elna stayed at
home to bring up our four children.” Since then, Hennie has lost everything that
he had manager to collect in a lifetime. “All that is left for Elna and me is to take
to the streets as beggars.”
In the meantime life in the battered caravan and a tent that has become tattered
in the sun and rain, has taken its toll on Hennie. His lungs are worn out and
asthma has him in its clutches to such an extent that Elna has to brave the
streets on her own.
There, on the bed without mattress under a shade tree at 363 Claremont Street,
Hennie talks between bouts of coughing how life has dealt them a raw deal and
how the ANC government does not give a fig for poor white people. “They
trample us and punish us for apartheid, but they learned their lesson well from
the National Party to be racists and to oppress people.”
Sometimes the best they can do is to get R150 for two weeks of begging, but at
other times things are a bit better. It is their only income and to top it all their
youngest son, Louis (29) has been living with them in the caravan for the past
“We have lost everything, even our human dignity,” Hennie says. “We have
nothing to live for. We battle to survive from one day to the next.”
On the platteland things are even worse
Belfast is a quiet town this side of Dullstroom, weekend playground of the rich.
Dullstroom, with its expensive weekend retreats and trout farms where the rich
fritter away their millions, is bursting at the seams and there is virtually no land
left for real estate agents to hawk around.
Now the sights are set on Belfast as the next destinations for the wealthy, but
what do estate agents know of the misery on the “wrong” side of the tracks in
Belfast is another microcosm of what is happening in the rest of the country, with
ever-growing numbers of whites who are consigned to a miserable, jobless
Working people in Belfast have always unstinting in their support for the poor and
unemployed,” says Debro van Wyngaard, social worker for the Christelike
Maatskaplike Raad (CMR). She grew up in Belfast and returned to her hometown
after completing her studies. She can therefore talk knowledgeably about the
town’s needy residents.
In the past there was work for Belfast residents on the railways, when the granite
mines were in operation and when road works were done. That was also the time
When Eskom still employed whites. But as the town’s economy shrank and
increasing numbers of people lost their jobs, with many being forced to leave for
cities, the number of those who were able to help the needy also declined
“Compassionate fellow-residents can only do so much to help. They are
themselves beginning to feel the pinch, and where will our future help from?”
asks Debro. “We have so many people who depend on disability grants, people
with handicaps who live below the breadline.”
The town’s older section has gradually become “the wrong side of the tracks” as
poverty took its toll. The newer parts will probably soon be marketed to the
wealthy, and whether they will be prepared to help alleviate the suffering in the
old town remains to be seen.
Debro says that the poverty cycle in Belfast is never broken. As the older
generation passes on, the young ones take their place and the cycle is simply
continued from generation to generation. Many young people leave the town, but
if they do not make it elsewhere they return home.
It saddens Debro to see how hard the working community tries to help out. “The
people of Belfast feel for the less privileged, but their means are limited,” she
says. Unlike cities and large towns where there are more options to help the
needy, Belfast’s benefactors are themselves struggling to make ends meet. “We
are asking more of the people than they can give, because government does
absolutely nothing to help.”
It is clear from the visit to Belfast that people are losing hope. “One reaches a
stage at which escape seems impossible,” is how Debro describes the situation
among the needy.
“They have neither the courage nor the willpower to redeem themselves. The
system has shattered their resolve...”
As an example of the way in which the residents of Belfast pull together, Debro
singles out the commitment of Paulina Sithole. Every day Paulina helps to
prepare food for the CMR soup kitchen. There is only enough money to pay her
for three days’ work per week, but she works a five-day week to make sure that
the poor get something to eat.
The Jonker family
The Jonker family – one could be forgiven for calling them “children”, because
they live carefree lives, seemingly unaware of the need to worry about tomorrow
– consists of three brothers and a sister who have lived all their lives in the dusty
streets of “wrong side of the tracks” Belfast.
Every month they depend on others to take them to the post office to collect their
disability pensions. For the rest of the month, their lives revolve around their little
red-brick house with the large lawn. They come from a family of seven children.
The other three sisters live and work elsewhere.
The Jonkers’ father died in 1990 and their mother in 1995. Since then, they have
shared the house, where the CMR and the townsfolk keep an eye on their
wellbeing and lend a hand when needed.
The oldest brother, Jaco (46), bakes bread and makes jam for their own use. The
youngest sister, Toti (36), keeps the house tidy and does all the sewing. She is
also active in the CMR’s local women’s group.
“They are the sunshine children of our town,” says Debro. “We just check that
everything goes well and the community lends a hand where needed.”
Billy van der Walt
Billy (55) used to be a truck driver for the former Transvaal Provincial
Administration (TPA) and lived in Krugersdorp until his eyes gave out and he
could no longer do his job.
He subsequently moved to Belfast with his family, where his elderly mother lived
alone in her house. She died in 2001 and Billy inherited the house. “If it weren’t
for the house, I don’t know what we would have done,” Billy says. “The roof is
collapsing, but there is no money to fix it.”
He shares the house with three grown-up children, of whom only son has a job.
The rest are dependent on government pensions. “It is a struggle,” he says. “I do
odd jobs where I can to keep the wolf from the door. I am not the kind of man to
beg.” They do not get food parcels from welfare services and have to fend for
“The Lord looks after us, but survival is not easy.” His son does what he can to
help, but Billy feels that this is not right. “He has a wife and child to look after and
we can’t take all his money.”
Guiseppe and Agnes Pizzini.
Guiseppe (50) had an Italian father and an Afrikaans mother. He and his wife
Agnes (41) and their two toddlers Laluna (3) and Attulio (5) live in an “RDP
house” that Guiseppe had built for the family.
The family has no income apart from a R300 grant for the children. Guiseppe is a
carpenter who does odd jobs wherever he can.
Guiseppe says that “the man from the municipality” had told him that the family
qualified for an RDP house. The council dug the foundations and then told
Guiseppe that he should build the house himself and then claim back his
expenses. “When I went to claim the money, the municipality said: ‘Sorry, there is
no money left.”
They also refused to connect him to the electricity grid unless he paid R5 000. A
Good Samaritan came to their rescue and arranged electricity for the little box of
Guiseppe is very proud of his vegetable garden and regularly takes bunches of
spinach to the CMR feeding scheme out of gratitude for the help that he and his
family get from them.
Corrie van Zyl and his penniless benefactor, Alida Meyer
Corrie (53) is dying and has nowhere to go. He lost a leg when it became
gangrenous, due to cancer. He worked in construction until the cancer took hold.
He has no medical aid, no contact with his family and depends on an R870
If it had not been for the kindness of Alida Meyer (36) and her husband Michael,
Corrie would have been consigned to the streets, on crutches and riddled with
I met Alida and little Liz-Marie (6) at the offices of the CMR in Belfast when they
came to collect food parcels for Corrie and themselves on their way back from
school. Alida walks several kilometres every day to make sure that Liz-Marie gets
to school – and back home - safely. She does not have a job. Her life revolves
around making sure that Liz-Marie is safe and gets proper school feeding.
Corrie shares the ramshackle Meyer house in Belfast. Our first meeting, when
Corrie hobbled into the room, aided by a walking aid, was one of wordless shock.
Those large, empty, desperate eyes told a story of despair, pain and resignation.
Corrie is only alive in a physical sense – his spirit has long been dead.
“I just sit and lie around here in the living room,” he says. “But I really do not have
the strength to move. Every little movement is one of pain and helplessness.”
Alida says that it is hard to struggle for a living and a tremendous adjustment to
accommodate a seriously ill person like Corrie in one’s sitting room. “But what
else can I do? What would become of him if he could not live here?”
Indigent white children sold out to Nigerian drug lords in
Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape
One is only leaving the Port Elizabeth airport and already the poverty and
suffering of whites in Walmer are only too apparent. Walmer has always been a
poor area, but conditions in the cities poor quarters have deteriorated to a
According to Petronel Posthumus, CMR social worker, the poverty may not be as
conspicuous as in traditional black shantytowns, but these days the precarious
conditions in which many whites live is only too apparent, particularly if one goes
into one of the houses.
“We depend entirely on donations and all we can do is to help the poor to
survive,” says Petronel. “We cannot indefinitely care for these people, whose
circumstances deteriorate daily. There must be a way to break this evil cycle.”
She says that there are people in Port Elizabeth who live in basements without
any ventilation. Sometimes one family gets a grant and then has to take care of
all the others. “The poor are callously exploited by unscrupulous landlords who
take advantage of their desperation by charging exorbitant rentals for the hovels
in which they are forced to live.”
“There have always been poor people on the Eastern Cape, but these days one
encounters people who have seen better days, but now subsist in inhumane
conditions as families in single rooms.
An alarming trend that is rearing its head in Port Elizabeth is that Nigerians target
young Afrikaans girls, who are forced by circumstances to beg on the streets, for
the own nefarious ends.
According to Petronel, these children – some still quite innocent – are soft targets
for the smooth-talking Nigerians who first lure them with food and clothes and
then, as they are get increasingly entangled in the criminal web – make them
addicted to drugs and force them to work the streets as prostitutes and drug
dealers. “Once they are caught up in this, escape is virtually impossible,” says
Petronel. “We, as social workers, see this, but we are powerless to rescue these
poor children from the clutches of the drug lords.”
The Eastern Cape, landing spot of the British Settlers in 1820, is also a province
that was transformed into prosperity by these South African pioneers. This same
section of the South African community is now in danger of joining the ranks of
the poor whites.
Tim Bayliss of Union Road, Walmer.
Tim (54), one of the once proud descendants of the British Settlers, now faces
destitution. He says that it is alarming to note how many Settler descendants in
the Eastern Cape are joining the ranks of the poor whites, and this in once
flourishing communities like Grahamstown, Bathurst, King William’s Town and
Many South Africans may remember popular magazine programmes on the
SABC, like Graffiti and Antenna. Tim was one of the creative SABC programme
directors who were responsible for producing such quality television fare.
Today he is unemployed, because his white skin prevents him from doing the job
for which he was trained. “My last job was in 1999 in the communication
department of the Cape Town city council,” he says. When he recently applied
for a job with E-TV, the black person very diplomatically explained that, as a
white person, he will not even be considered for employment.
“Since then, all I did was to drive around with my wife when she still had a job as
representative.” The house in which he lives with his wife, Wendy, and their
daughter used to belong to his parents. If it had not been for that, the family
would long have been homeless.
Wendy’s 84-your old mother is in a home for the elderly and she sometimes
manages to give them something out of her tiny pension. “Do you know what it
does to a proud man to take money from his elderly mother-in-law in order to
Christine Killian of Noordeinde
From the family’s single room, Christine (39) has a glorious view over the sea
and Port Elizabeth’s harbour area, but this does not compensate for the cramped
conditions in which she has to live with her husband and 4-year old daughter.
He is a truck driver and earns R600 per week. Their rental is R900 per month.
Christine worked in a pub for 13 years, but says that this is not a proper job for a
family person. “I am getting too old for that kind of work and have looked
everywhere for alternative employment,” she says. Shoprite told her that the
company only appoints blacks and that it would be pointless to apply for a job
At her request the CMR places their 13-year old son in place of safety, since it
was hell for a hyperactive child to live in such cramped conditions.
“We buy groceries weekly, if and when we have money,” Christine says
Manie Cantoni. Consmurch Antimony mine.
Manie is Solidarity’s shop steward at this remote mine outside Gravelotte, and he
is a man who knows the struggle of people on the mines only too well.
“It is very clear that our people on the mines have been living in “loss mode” for
the past ten years,” he says. Miners have systematically been stripped of their
benefits and this plays a major part in poverty on the mines.
Many older people who lived on the mine’s premises were employed at the mine
years ago, but now they have nowhere to go. When they first retired in pension
they kept their medical benefits, but those were discontinued in 1996. Other
benefits, like bus transport to school for their children, are also no longer
available. ”Bottom line is that our people are going downhill rapidly.”
Manie sums up the decline in the quality of life of white miners as follows:
• The miners lose what they had amassed.
• This causes a loss of faith in the employer and the system as a whole.
• Next comes a stage of uncertainty that leads to conflict. Their lives lose
meaning. They feel drained and complain that the system had simply used them
up and spat them out.
• People give up. They leave to find another livelihood – where there really in no
other livelihood any more.
“The people here are angry,” is how Manie describes the mood. He blames their
purposelessness and loss of hope among whites on the fact that they have
withdrawn and have been forced to adopt a lower standard of living.
“Every day we read in the newspapers of grand schemes for the future of South
Africa. We also read about affirmative action, and we ask ourselves what this
means for the future of our people. Things get worse by the day.”
He says that the final stage is when these defeated people give up. They
abandon everything, even God, in their bitterness and give themselves over to
Peace of mind beckons from afar
Beukeskuil Help Centre, Hennenman district, Free State.
Take the main road from Kroonstad to Hennenman, past the Geneva grain silos
to where the F1162 dirt road turns off to the right. Carry on for five kilometres
until you reach a T-junction with the S161 farm road on your right. Here the road
becomes a two-track dirt road for another four kilometres, until you reach the
turn-off to the S175, where the tall grass on the hog’s back tells that the road is
not often used.
Beukeskuil is very remote – one could almost say in the back of beyond – and
this is where 14 unemployed men have found a refuge in the peaceful farm
atmosphere. Johan van Eeden, Beukeskuil’s “mayor”, says that the men have
reached this refuge from all over the country.
In summer, Beukeskuil is not that busy, in the summer months, but when winter
comes there is an influx of men who want to escape the cold. Johan has a
blacklist of troublemakers who are not welcome on Beukeskuil. “We live together
in harmony and we look after each other.”
Most of the permanent inhabitants are sickly and need regular medication. The
Dutch Reformed mother church in Kroonstad takes care of their wellbeing. The
men also drive around and ask for donations and Round Table 40 in Welkom
helps them to keep body and soul together.
During the day the men chop wood and tidy up their living spaces. The stove and
hot water system need wood, and although Beukeskuil is not affected by Eskom
load shedding (the nights are pitch dark anyway) they do have a small generator
to watch television in the evenings.
“We watch the Afrikaans news bulletin and Sewende Laan,” says Johan. “We do
permit ourselves a little bit of pleasure.”
The men talk with great appreciation of Louisa van Niekerk of the Dutch
Reformed Church, whom they regard as their own Florence Nightingale. She
takes care of them and makes sure that they have food and medicine. On
Sundays a member of the congregation comes to the farm to hold a church
Beukeskuil was made available in 1983 by a certain Mr Armstrong and his wife
as a refuge for homeless men. After his death the farm was sold to Basjan Steyn,
who left the land and the old farmhouse as they were for the use of the men.
The imposing old farmhouse, more than a century old, has seen better days and
is collapsing in parts. There is no money for repairs and an engineer who came
to inspect the building said simply: “Level it.” But, says Johan, they can never do
that – where would they live?
Beukeskuil has a noticeably peaceful and orderly atmosphere, with its green
lawns and cared-for dogs napping in the sunshine. Johan’s shy sheepdog
shadows him wherever he goes.
53-year old Danie Muller is has serious heart problems. His only treasure is the
small Maltese dog, Solly, that he inherited when a friend died of heart attack in
Johan van Eeden, former miner.
He is nominally in charge of Beukeskuil; the “head boy” who maintains discipline
and sees that things go smoothly.
He says that people come here because there is no work for them, and if they
find jobs, the pay is so meagre that it is impossible to pay for accommodation
and survive on the remainder. “I worked as a miner in Stilfontein for many years,
before the big crisis. Politics are squeezing the life out of our people. We have
nowhere to go. That is why I live very happily here on Beukeskuil.”
The general consensus among the men is that they, as homeless men, do not
want to be a burden for the families. That is why they take refuge on Beukeskuil.
“This is our home where we take care of each other, even though we do have our
differences from time to time.”
The neighbouring farmers are very supportive of the refuge and regularly deliver
The small community of Beukeskuil is quite happy. “We do not go hungry –
people look after us very well. We would, however, like to get hold of a few old
caravans, just in case the farmhouse collapses one day.”
The Free State goldfields, Welkom and Virginia.
Since the Free State mines have begun closing down, once prosperous Virginia
has become a ghost town. Conditions are so bad that the town’s Round Table is
in dire straits itself – not only can it no longer collect funds for charitable word, it
can barely function at all.
Charl Whatley is the convenor for community projects at Round Table 40 in
Welkom. He is a young businessman with a passion for the labour of love that he
performs on the Free State goldfields.
He says that conditions in mining towns have really deteriorated in the past five
years. One-third of Welkom’s white residents have left the town to look for work
elsewhere. In addition, Eskom’s scandalous power crisis has cost another 3 500
miners their jobs.
“Pressure on the community to help the poor grows daily, while those who have
the means to assist have been reduced by half as people leave the town,” says
“Just take a look at the once neat shopping centre of the St Helena mine, to
which people could walk to do their shopping. Now it stands as run-down proof of
the decline of the white community.”
Welkom, known for its large traffic circles instead of traffic lights at crossings,
today has a virtually bankrupt city council, due to mismanagement. Businesses
have had to intervene in an attempt to save the once beautiful parks – a job that
is by rights the responsibility of the council. Now each business takes
responsibility for the upkeep of a park or traffic circle to prevent the entire town
from becoming a hovel.
Janet Botma, Eden Christian Ministry pastor’s wife.
Eden, in the centre of Virginia, is a community within a community of this
battered town. The ministry was originally established as a rehabilitation centre
for alcohol and drug dependents, but conditions in this mining town have
deteriorated to such an extent that Eden had to open its doors to the needy and
“You ask me where we get funds?” asks Janet with a smile. “We pray! The state
doe not contribute a cent.”
Pastor Herman Viljoen founded the first Eden in Bloemfontein fifteen years ago.
At the time he was unemployed and homeless himself, but he turned to God and
realised that he had to a mission. With R10 in his pocket and enormous faith he
“squatted” on an empty plot in Bloemfontein and created his Christian ministry
Once his achievements were noticed, donations began trickling in - a bed here, a
wardrobe there, until the contributions became a flood. Today there are several
Edens: two in Bloemfontein, one in Virginia and one in Kroonstad.
As with Beukeskuil, people come and go at Eden in Virginia. In the summer they
depart like swallows to look for jobs, and when the winter chills being to bite the
unsuccessful job-seekers return to shelter under Herman and Janet’s wings.
Janet is convinced that the white residents of Virginia are the worst affected
group in the Free State. She can tell by the many small children who throng the
streets every day, unsupervised. “The closure of the mines and affirmative action
are the main causes of our misery,” she says.
Alcohol abuse goes hand in hand with the hardship and uncertainty of
unemployment and Janet experiences that increasing numbers of people are
referred to them by the courts for rehabilitation. People who have no work, no
money and no prospects often use alcohol as a crutch to escape from the
Eden has established its own nursery school to offer a safe haven to the children
of the poor while the parents look for work or perform piecework to keep body
and soul together. “Things have turned really ugly, and one sees this in the
dreadful conditions in which children are being brought up,” says Janet.
“The unkempt condition of the children in our nursery school drives home the
point that the residents of Eden are indeed better off than the needy people of
Virginia – and conditions are getting worse.”
Eden does not solicit donations and their sole regular contributor of money and
donations is Round Table 40 in Welkom. Janet says that local businesses no
longer want to help, because there are too many people begging on the streets.
“Things are completely out of control,” she says.
“As the community becomes poorer, our outside help shrinks and the need for
our services grows. We are not facing a crisis. We are in the middle of a crisis.”
Janet showed me through the neat centre and introduced a few cases of people
who have reached a dead end. To her, the saddest cases are those of elderly
people who are rejected and abandoned by their own families.
Granny San Mostert
Granny San (87), who suffers from Alzheimer’s, was picked up for dead in a
Welkom flat four years ago. Her own people had turned their backs on her. She
does not always know where she is, but at Eden she can at least live out her
days surrounded by love and care.
She is 77 years old and her husband, Dougie, recently passed away in Eden at
the age of 93.
They were homeless and living on the streets of Cape Town when social workers
sent them to Eden in August last year.
After Dougie’s death, his relatives did not even bother to attend his funeral or to
contribute to the costs.
Kroonstad, Free State.
Jacoba Ferreira is the Kroonstad office manager of the Kerklike Maatskaplike
Diens (KMD) of the Dutch Reformed Church. She has been doing social work
here for 17 years.
“We have real poverty in this town,” she says. “White poverty is particularly bad.”
In 1994 the cost of KMD food parcels was R31 000 per year. In 1995 it came to
R34 000 for the year. Last year it was R101 000.
If it were not for the goodwill of the Kroonstad community, the town’s hungry
residents would not be helped. The Christmas Fund of newspaper Die Volksblad
is another vital source of aid.
A twice-weekly soup kitchen has run for years and feeds an average of 110
people – as many as can be accommodated. Food parcels are handed out to
approximately 30 families every two weeks and a clothing store distributes
blankets and clothing once a week.
Jacoba says that the railways, the defence force and the Department of
Correctional Services training centre were the backbone of Kroonstad’s economy
for many years. Since these institutions have systematically been withdrawn, the
economy has collapsed and unemployment has got out of hand.
“Kroonstad seems to be systematically going downhill and affordable housing for
the poor is a tremendous problem.”
Koos and Martie Roodt.
Life used to be good for Koos. He was born in Kroonstad 62 years ago and
shared in the town’s growth and the economic boom in the northern Free State.
He was a bricklayer who was eventually employed by the local municipality.
Things went well – until 1992, when Nelson Mandela took over as President of
the country. Then the tide turned against Koos as a white South African.
At the age of 52 he was kicked out by the local council without any pension, just
a cash payout. For a time he managed to make ends meet as a truck driver, but
this ended when the municipal abattoir was closed. Now Koos and Martie rely on
the regular food parcels to survive.
Their two sons, 32 and 26 respectively, share the house and help with the rent,
but the younger son is getting married soon and will move out afterwards.
“He is very worried about us and wants to know what will happen when he
leaves,” says Martie, “but the boy cannot take care of us for the rest of his life.”
Rudie and Santjie Gertzen of 43a Brandt Street
The first thing one notices when meeting this family is the love and affection that
they have for each other. Despite all the hardship and the worry about where
their next meal is coming from, the couple remains upbeat, revelling in the centre
of their universe, 9-year old Suranda.
Rudie was involved in a serious car accident in 1986 and has to use churches to
get around. He also started developing kidney trouble and currently suffers from
kidney failure. They have to depend on state hospitals and have to buy Rudie’s
medicine cash at the pharmacy.
Santjie has suffered from epilepsy all her life and has never been able to work.
Their modest rented house in the middle of the town’s business centre costs
them R650 per month. “The electricity bill catches us out every month,” says
Santjie. “I don’t know how we will manage is Eskom’s puts up its rates by 54%.”
Little Suranda is a bundle of energy; a lovely youngster who already does a lot to
help her parents.
Sonja van den Bergh.
She is a very young mother who already known what hardship means. Sonja, her
husband and 4-year old Clifton moved from Welkom to Kroonstad six months
ago to look for a better life.
Pieter works as a security guard on an egg farm outside town and earns R1 400
per month. Their garden flat costs them R650 per month, which leaves them with
around R300 per month for food and clothing.
Sonja would like to find a job, but it would have to pay enough to put Clifton in a
nursery school. “Who else would look after her if I have to work?” They also rely
on food parcels from the church to make it through the month.
Johanna Pietersen of 7 Jacob Street.
This 39-year of mother of three cares for her seriously ill father. The house in
which they live, this side of the railway line near Kroonstad’s S bridge, belongs to
her brother who lives in Belfast. If it had not been for him the whole family would
have been on the street. Johanna’s husband, Robert, has epilepsy. He is always
on the lookout for a painting job in town, but work is scarce.
Life used to be good to Johanna and she could take of her three children. For
nine years she worked for the commando in Kroonstad, until the ANC
government finally dissolved the commandos in March last year. She has not
managed to find another job in town. Her eldest daughter, 19, has found work at
a take-away restaurant and she helps as much as her paltry wage allows.
Johanna’ father, Lood Steyn (76), used to work for the railways. His monthly
pension is R1 300. He has emphysema and Johanna doubts that he will make it
to the end of the year.
“The nights are difficult. The pains in my chest are so bad that I can’t sleep,” says
Lood. He does not belong to a medical fund and is regularly sent from pillar to
post at state clinics and hospitals.
He has no reason to live any more, but it breaks his heart to see the hardship
suffered by his daughter and grandchildren. “How can a parent look on as his
children suffer like this?”
Eden House. Old railways hostel.
Pastor Johan Esterhuyse, his wife Carol and Hannetjie Bester are the movers
behind the Eden Christian Ministry in Kroonstad. The large building is rent-free,
but they take care of the maintenance and see to it that it does not, like so many
other empty government buildings, fall into disrepair and become a home to
layabouts and criminals.
The hostel currently has 81 residents, most of them white. Hannetjie says that
none of them is a vagrant. “These are simply people who have been cast away
She says that they go to Eden House when everything they had is gone and they
had given up all hope. These people are beaten. They have nothing to live for.
Eden House is the only refuge in Kroonstad. Here people are assisted to get
back on their feet with painting jobs, garden jobs and piecework in town, but the
wages are so small that they are forced to live in the shelter.
Hannetjie says that the residents of Kroonstad are very sympathetic towards
them and give the residents a lot of assistance. Eden House gets nothing from
the state and depends entirely on benefactors.
As part of the rehabilitation, the residents attend Bible courses for which they
receive a certificate, to show them that there is someone who cares for them.
Solidarity Research Department
Statistics South Africa
Mail & Guardian
South Africa Survey. Labour Force Survey
Guthrie, T: Childhood Poverty in South Africa. Children’s Institute