South Africa’s great depression

Boysens Xole and Steven Swartbooi rise before dawn to stand on a street corner in Cape Town.

As the sun rises, Cape Town's unemployed gather to hawk their labour at the roadside
As the sun rises, Cape Town's unemployed gather to hawk their labour at the roadside

They come to find work. “I’m looking for any kind of job. I can do anything … Many different kinds of job, plumbing, building,” says Swartbooi. “But sometimes there is nothing the whole week.”

These men, sitting smoking by the side of the road in the cold morning air, are just two of an estimated two to three thousand who congregate at more than 30 sites on Cape Town roadsides waiting for casual work.

They occasionally get a handful of rand for a day’s hard labour, but for most of the time they go home empty handed.

They illustrate a growing problem for South Africa. Official estimates of the number of unemployed have remained obstinately high and are now around 30%, while among the most impoverished communities the proportion is much higher.

“For me it is a sign of how unhealthy our economy is,” said Charles Maisel, director of the Men on the Side of the Road Project – the country’s first nationwide effort to address the difficulties these job seekers face.

He adds that the scenes from Cape Town are mirrored all over the country. “There are almost 50,000 people a day who stand by the side of the road. All men, all black.

“It reminds me of pictures of the great depression in America – It is an indication of a depressed economy.” 
Great depression

Maisel started working with the roadside jobseekers in 1999, when he began cataloguing the waiting sites and speaking to the men about their predicament.

Workers are often harassed by shopkeepers and residents, and are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers who underpay them.

He wants to help them organise into groups that will give some structure to the casual labour pool, reject bad employers and withstand harassment.

He hopes that the men will be able to find work more easily if they have equipment, and the project has set up a tool-lending operation to try to give them this head start. Some will take the tools with them to the roadside sites, others may set up their own businesses, doing carpentry or plumbing.

There are also plans to help establish a system that would certify recognised skills the men have.

But, as project fieldworker Patrick Mbanga says, there is a long way to go.

Workers are often harassed by shopkeepers and residents who do not like them loitering on their doorsteps, and are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers who frequently underpay them.

“We are trying to make the sites more organised, so that they have some power … Now they don’t even have a common understanding on the rate that should be paid,” Mbanga said.

Joblessness is a major problem.

South Africa’s economy is expanding steadily – GDP has grown by an average of around 2.7% annually since 1994 – but many of its people have yet to see that wealth trickle down.

No quick fix

All over the country, the disillusioned poor name unemployment as one of their most pressing concerns. They say their patience with the government they hoped would bring them a quick fix after years of apartheid misery, is wearing thin.

“If you can vote, you can vote for what? Vote for suffering again?”

Steven Swartbooi, jobseeker

Xole, 29, says he has been turning up on this street corner for three years in the hope of a day’s work.

“They pay us 70 to 80 rand ($10 to $11). Others, they give around 50,” he said.

“Sometimes you get a job and somebody says he can’t pay you, now you must come back in a fortnight, and then he disappears.”

Another jobseeker, Oupa Martins, arrives at the site. “There are no jobs in South Africa,” he said. “We have children, we have wives … but there are no jobs.”

Talk turns to the authorities. These men say they are disappointed with the government, that it has not provided them with work.

“If you can vote, you can vote for what? Vote for suffering again? So I am going to keep my ID book, but not for voting,” Swartbooi said.

A man on the other side of the road shouts in the Xhosa language of the far-away Eastern Cape province, where most of the 20 or so job seekers on this street corner come from, and points to a waiting car that has pulled up.

Xole runs off and joins him. Swartbooi follows, but turns around and heads back to the corner after the car pulls out into the traffic.

“He says he has got only two,” he said, taking up his position in the queue once more.

Source : Reuters

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