Johannesburg, South Africa – Linda Elfs, 58, spends eight hours at a street corner in Harteebesport dam, a small tourist town in the North West Province of South Africa, begging for money.
She is too young to get state pension and “too old to be hired”, she says.
A former nurse and bartender, she joined the ranks of the unemployed white South Africans eight years ago, and life has since become a struggle.
“On a good day I make R400.00 ($37.57), which is not enough to pay for rent or food,” Elfs says.
Donovan Moolman, 46, has been begging in the streets of Johannesburg for six and a half years. With just a matric certificate, he struggled to find employment and began doing menial jobs like gardening and painting homes.
Now, he says, those jobs are gone.
“Once you find yourself in the streets, it’s hard to break the cycle,” Moolman told Al Jazeera. “We are struggling to find work because we don’t have homes. People won’t give you a job without a residential address because they don’t trust you.”
Poverty – still believed to be the preserve of black South Africans – now knows no colour. It is finding its way to white communities once associated only with wealth and privilege.
Stories like Elfs’ and Steyn’s were unheard of when white South Africans were in power during the apartheid era.
But the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS), a household-based sample survey conducted by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), which collects data on the employment trends in the country, showed the unemployment rate among white people increasing by 1.5% in the second quarter of 2014. This is the highest increase ever among white South Africans since the launch of the survey in 2008.
Labour Movement Solidarity, the union that represents white workers, downplayed this, saying the quarterly reports fluctuate and should not be seen as an absolute reflection of employment.
“What we are seeing is a movement that we believe was highly influenced by the long industrial action that has just ended in the platinum sector,” said Piet Le Roux, head of Solidarity’s research unit.
We are struggling to find work because we don't have homes. People won't give you a job without a residential address because they don't trust you.
People who may have lost their jobs are not necessarily mine employees but those who worked for small companies that are contracted to provide services to mines, explained Le Roux.
“Many of these contractors went out of business when the mines were not operating.”
Gareth Brickman, an analyst at ETM analytics, a macroeconomics analytics firm, blames white South Africans’ rising joblessness on a slump in the agricultural sector.
Many white people run small businesses and some of them supply goods and services to mines and farms, according to Brickman
“These sectors have been struggling since last year because of industrial action, and some of them have reduced their expenses or trimmed their businesses,” he told Al Jazeera.
“As a small business, if you are supplying those sectors, you would be affected. Perhaps this is where the increase in white unemployment comes from,” Brickman said.
Before South Africa’s liberation 20 years ago, most whites had jobs – with or without qualifications.
Even though there has been a growing number of white people without jobs, the percentage of those employed far exceeds those of other racial groups, especially blacks.
According to a survey conducted by Solidarity, it appears over the years there is a significant drop in the numbers of white people employed by the government, which was their biggest employer prior to the new dispensation.
Of the 38 national government departments surveyed by Solidarity, 74.8 percent of all employees are black while only 12.2 percent are white.
Economist Mike Schussler of Economist.co.za, one of the leading independent economic research houses in South Africa, attributes the number of unemployed whites, some of whom have become street beggars, to changes implemented by the government across the board.
‘A lot of white beggars’
“There are clearly a lot of white beggars these days. There are now fewer white people employed in the public service and in the state-owned entities such as transport and freight company Transnet, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and power utility company Eskom. These were mainly the employment domain for white people before 1994,” Schussler said.
The private sector is also changing, with many companies implementing affirmative action – a government policy that encourages companies to give preferential employment to blacks, coloureds and Indians over whites.
“If you look at big companies like platinum company Lonmin, the CEO [chief executive officer] is black and the COO [chief operating officer] of Anglo Platinum is black. You are seeing more black faces with companies that are expanding overseas like mobile [phone] company MTN,” he said.
and killed by cars at any minute especially at peak hour, which is also a time where you’re likely to be given something.”]
Schussler acknowledges that there is still an over-representation of minority groups in the work place but he says it will normalise in the next 20 years.
“In the normalisation process, a lot more Africans will be eligible for management, specialist and professional positions, especially with the help of affirmative action programmes. It’s a long term correction and by the time it normalises, there will be just under 12 percent of white people unemployed.”
Schussler also says that many black South Africans are graduating at tertiary level and getting qualifications. More than 20 years ago, 80 percent of coloureds and Indians had degrees. Now 50 percent of black South Africans have a tertiary qualification, he said.
But 39-year-old Daniel Long, who graduated with an electrical engineering diploma and has been in the streets for seven months, says “this is not the case at all”.
“Not only do I have a qualification, but I have 16 years of experience working as a technician and a sales representative,” Long said. “I can also find fault in a high voltage cable within seconds, which requires skill and knowledge, but I can’t find a job.”
But Schussler adds that people who are struggling to find work are those without skills. He says they also may be refusing to take jobs they are fit for.
Jobs where little skill is required, such as gardening and domestic work, would be generally seen as demeaning by white people because those roles were once thrown to Africans.
When compared to the R400 day that could be earned in the streets these jobs become even less attractive. An average wage of a domestic worker a day is R170.00 ($15.92)
“You come with a placard that has a sob story asking people to share their hard-earned money with you, while some of us are actually working hard,” said 25-year-old Abigail Moyo in protest.
“We do understand that jobs are hard to come by, but I would be embarrassed to go out in the streets begging for handouts,” she added.
“I don’t care how much they make, as long as I’m still able-bodied, I will continue to work hard for my children rather than take an easy way out.”
John Murphy, 28, went to beg on the streets of Melville, Johannesburg, out of frustration. He was forced to drop out of university and tried manual labour which did not last.
“What we do here is not just totally demeaning but it is unsafe. You are at a risk of being knocked [down] and killed by cars at any minute especially at peak hour, which is also a time where you’re likely to be given something. I find it painful to hear people say we cherry pick jobs. No one wants this kind of life,” says Murphy.
He also blames his unemployment on affirmative action, which favours blacks, coloureds and Indians over whites. He feels if he was not white and male he would have a better chance of a job in the new South Africa.