In next month's South African elections, one constituency feels it has no party to vote for. Alex Duval Smith meets some of the new poor, the white underclass that has emerged since the end of apartheid
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KALLIE and Lynnette Matthee's story does not, at first, sound particularly out of the ordinary. Both aged 38, he works as an odd-job shipyard mechanic and she as a cleaner. They have two school-age daughters and they are poor. But Kallie and Lynnette stand out because, unlike almost all of the other 7 or 8 million South Africans who live in shacks on land not intended for housing, they are white.

Five years after the first multi-race elections brought Nelson Mandela to power, Kallie and Lynnette live at the sharp end of lost privilege, in a "Coloured" (mixed-race) squatter camp south of Cape Town. It is 10 days now until the national and provincial elections, but no political party can be bothered to solicit their vote.

"We got tired of hearing about whites leaving the new South Africa to go overseas," says Kallie, "so two years ago we wrote to You magazine and told them that there are poor white people, like us, who cannot afford to travel abroad."

The magazine, which caters mainly for a white readership, sent a reporter and photographer to Hout Bay. The journalists found a horror story for their readers: a working-class couple who, during the apartheid years, held jobs secured by their colour but who, under majority rule, have lost all the material comforts with which South African whites used to be mollycoddled.

If poverty is a great leveller it is also a filter of attitudes. "You will not find whites showing us much sympathy," says Kallie. "Knock on their door and ask for food for the children and they will slam it in your face. But the Coloured people have helped us because they know what it is like to have nothing. The African National Congress government helps blacks, and you cannot blame them. Most whites are rich. The Coloured people are like us, stuck in the middle."

Kallie and Lynnette's home, at the top of a steep hill behind the fish- packing factories, is a draughty box of corrugated plastic and metal, built by them in one day when they arrived from Port Elizabeth four years ago. It has no toilet, no drains, no telephone, only cold water (illegally diverted from a standpipe) and electricity supplied through an extension lead from a nearby block of flats.

Dogs run loose and pick at litter. Men and women with chesty coughs, dependent on casual work in the factories and on the fishing boats, hang around outside a green truck-container which has been converted into a public toilet.

They are all Coloured, like most of the population in the Western Cape, which, at the last elections, installed a provincial parliament led by the National Party, the old guarantor of apartheid. This time, the Western Cape is again expected to vote for the party, now renamed the New National Party.

"We thought the Nats would be better for us brown people than the ANC," says Rachel Wilschutt, a 36-year-old neighbour who works as a fish packer. "But they have not been able to do much. In Mandela Park, the black township near here, new houses have been built and the school has been improved. Here, everything is the same as it ever was." But, as whites, Kallie and Lynnette and their daughters, Adria, six, and Carnette, eight, have experienced drastic change since 1994. Before the ANC came to power, poverty among whites was anathema to the minority government. Subsidised housing, child maintenance and priority in the job market provided a safety net for the least well-equipped whites - even for people like Kallie, who had a drinking habit.

"When I was at my worst, I could get through three bottles of hard liquor a day," he admits. "Those days are over - drink is the easy solution and I have children to think of." You cannot help thinking that, somewhere along the line, the pulling away of the apartheid-era safety net was a life-saving wake-up call for Kallie. This may also explain why, as he tells his story, he is not bitter.

"I was a machine-setter at the Delta car parts plant in Port Elizabeth," says Kallie, "and Lynnette was working for a bookbinder. We got our jobs, which we had for two years, because the blacks had gone on strike. They took us on as replacement labour. I got 700 rands [pounds 70] a week and Lynnette was paid 350 rands [pounds 35]. Then the black strikers won their court cases and we were both fired overnight by different employers." He now gets paid 50 rands (pounds 5) a day when he works and she 80 rands (pounds 8).

It is a sunny day in Hout Bay, one of the less precious settlements of the smart Cape Peninsula because it is a working port for crayfish and snoek. Despite the pervasive smell from the fish factories and the very visible squatter settlement, it has its share of smart homes with terraces looking straight out over the turquoise water. In the port there is a fishing museum, trinkets for sale to tourists and booths advertising seal- and whale-watching trips.

"In Port Elizabeth we had a flat, we were not poor," says Kallie, an Afrikaans-speaker who struggles a little with English. "We are not rasistiek [racist]. After we were sacked, people came to us and told us to join the Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging (AWB) of Eugene Terreblanche and stand up to our employers. When we refused we were called kaffir boeties ["nigger- lovers"] and they gave us hell.

"That is really what decided us to leave Port Elizabeth. I had a connection with Hout Bay because, as a young man, just out of jail after the army, I had spent some time here on the boats. The army was terrible, nothing prepared me for it, even though my father was a soldier. They sent me to the border [with Angola] for 18 months and I was supposed to kill women and children in the name of apartheid. I could not see why I should, so they put me in prison for six months." Kallie knew he could find work in Hout Bay, through old connections and because, in a port, there is always an engine that needs fixing. "We sold our backie [pick-up truck] and everything in our rented flat, filled up two bin liners and hitchhiked here." The 700km journey to Hout Bay was an indicator of what was to come. "Whites never gave us lifts, only the Coloureds in their crowded backies and minibuses. We arrived at Hout Bay and Dennis, the Coloured car-park attendant, looked after our stuff while we went hunting for a place to live. A Coloured stranger let us use a room in her bungalow. Whites will never give you anything - it is because they are rich that they are mean, not because of their colour. They see a poor person and assume he or she is going to steal from them.

"In those days, a bachelor flat in Hout Bay cost 1,500 rands [pounds 150] a month so we decided it would be better to settle somewhere with no rent to pay. I constructed our shack in a day, with a builder friend. We are on the council's list for a flat and have another six or seven years to wait." In the afternoon, Lynnette comes home from her twice-a-week "Coloured woman's job" at Lucille Parker's house in town. It has been a day of heavy ironing and cleaning up in the children's room.

Adria and Carnette arrive home, dressed in dusty navy blue school uniforms. "They are going to end up very well-prepared for the new South Africa," Lynnette explains proudly. "They already speak fluent English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, which is more than can be said for most whites." The Matthees' two daughters are the only whites at their 100-rand-a-year (pounds 10) government school.

And even though there is nothing the family would like more than a bungalow, or a ticket to Australia, they are relieved at not sharing the everyday fears of well-off whites who live, behind high walls topped with spikes, in houses wired with alarms. "We have no problem with crime because there is nothing to steal from us," says Kallie. "In this area, everyone helps everyone else. There is a real sense of community."

The Matthees' shack - which has expanded in the last four years from one room to four - is as cardhouse-like as all the others on the hill, but it has a name, Candle Light, "because that," says Lynnette, "is what we lived by at the beginning". She has tried to grow a creeper by the front door but nothing thrives in the sandy soil. Inside, Kallie has used crayons to decorate the white sheets of hardboard which divide the rooms. One drawing is of a huge vase of flowers.

In the kitchen area, an electric cooker with no knobs sits alongside a washing machine and a tumble dryer, given to Lynnette by Mrs Parker. "She is a very special employer, a journalist who has lived overseas. Whites usually will not give you anything, they always sell you their old things. But Mrs Parker gave me those and also the big old television, which is now broken, but we will fix it." Behind Kallie's drawings, Tracey Kruger, aged 25, is asleep. She is five months pregnant and arrived last week with her husband, Marius, 32, from Pietersburg, north of Johannesburg.

Both are white and their story is like a re-run of the Matthees'. Marius explains: "I was a security guard on 1,820 rands [pounds 180] a month and Tracey worked in the same firm. But our company was taken over and they sacked everyone. When it came to re-hiring, they only took the blacks.

"Kallie encouraged us to sell everything and come here - he and I met years ago on the boats and we both know that there is no racism in fishing. The boat owners do not care what colour you are, as long as you can get the fish out of the water. But the price of a bachelor flat is now 2,800 rands [pounds 280] a month, so it is going to be hard for us to be independent. I think we will also build a shack."

Statistics are not available to show whether there has been an increase in the number of whites living below the poverty line. But their number is probably growing, based simply on the fact that, since apartheid ended, state aid is now stretched between many more people. Certainly the proportion of whites among the highest earners had declined from 51 per cent to 33 per cent by 1996. (There are 4.5 million whites in South Africa - about 12 per cent of the population.)

The perception is clear. White poverty in the form of beggars with scrawled cardboard signs can be seen at virtually every traffic junction in middle- class areas. They compete for takings with black or Coloured beggars, and with hawkers selling fruit, drinks or coat hangers. But in this ever- complex society, the increase in white beggars since 1994 does not provide incontrovertible evidence that there are more poor people among the former ruling race. In the apartheid days, it would have been unthinkable for whites to lower themselves to begging; now they can play on white fears of "there but for the grace of God go I". On the other hand, black car drivers often seem more willing to give, perhaps because they are less embarrassed or squeamish about the sight of beggars. For every new white prostitute, there are several "buppies" (black yuppies) pulling into golf clubs in spanking new BMWs.

The government has built some 750,000 new homes since 1994, set in motion land redistribution programmes, and carried out impressive schemes to take basic amenities to townships. But the unemployment rate stands at about 34 per cent and the economy is stagnant.

In Johannesburg, Tannie Swannie (Auntie Swannie, short for Swanepoel), a 60-year-old white woman, sees the unemployed, the motherless and the hungry every day of the year. In the white working-class suburb of Vrededorp, she runs a soup kitchen at the back of her house, takes in orphans from the police child protection unit and generally helps those who cannot fend for themselves.

You know you have found Tannie Swannie's bungalow because her front door is always open - a rarity in this society of walls and gates. "When I buy the house I shall take down the fence at the front," she says, pointing to a length of chicken wire which is hardly forbidding.

Tannie Swannie, a nurse whose late husband was a council caretaker, began working with the dispossessed more than 20 years ago. "At first it was just lonely and hard-up seniors [pensioners] and some child-abuse victims. But, increasingly, people of all colours come to me, for all sorts of problems. My association is completely mixed - the chairman is white and the treasurer is black.

"It would appear that more and more whites are having trouble, and there is less and less I can do for them. Until about four years ago, I used to be able to take them down to the Clover [margarine] factory and get odd jobs for them. Now there is no work there, and I can only guess that this is because black people are getting the jobs."

In a society which remains unable to show the imagination required to straddle old racial categories, Kallie, Lynnette, Marius and Tracey seem like foreigners. They do not, racially, fit the socio-economic mould they are in, and their poverty terrifies their apartheid-era kin of skin.

The fact that they exist, even in small numbers, is not even proof of levelling by hardship. The new poor whites of South Africa inhabit an unhappy no-man's-land defined by double rejection. Kallie, Lynnette, Marius and Tracey all agree they have no one to vote for on 2 June. 1