As you move from shop to car with shop- ping bags swinging, the blur of humanity at ground level that means "beggar" occupies your thoughts for only a fraction of a second - even when you are black and the beggars are white and the setting is the main shopping street of Durban, in Nelson Mandela's South Africa.

Poor whites are nothing new in South Africa, but their numbers have risen steadily through the Nineties. South Africa has been buffeted by the global recession, and for its victims there is no safety net of social security. Because in the past there was no need: to South Africa's whites, apartheid was in effect a gigantic affirmative action programme. Now that apartheid has been dismantled, the inevitable has happened. Competing in the job market for the first time with blacks and Coloureds, more and more whites are finding themselves first redundant, and then on the skids.

Many blacks in a similar predicament are saved from destitution by one generous relative who happens to be in work. For whites, however, lacking the support of an extended family, the drop from modest respectability to a life on the streets can be precipitous.

Nelson Mandela's government has held back from inflicting harsh economic punishment on its former oppressors: the deal the ANC made with the whites was, in essence, give us power and we promise not to take away your money. But times have undoubtedly been growing harder for those whites whose success owed more to their race than their talent. In the apartheid years, job reservation policies kept jobs in a slew of semi-skilled trades - in the railways, the post office, the mines and other industries - exclusively for whites. All these policies have been scrapped. As a result, many white farmers forced off the land by drought have failed to find alternative work.

Mandela has not pursued the sort of rigorous affirmative action policy to reduce black un-employment that might have been expected, but many employers have considered it either just or judicious - or both - to employ more black people than before. Blacks of education and ability find opportunities opening for them in sectors that were formerly shut tight, such as the civil service. Meanwhile, whites who are too dim or unenterprising or plain unlucky, plumb the depths. Thus, day by day South Africa becomes a more normal country. Its problems become normal ones, too. Photograph by Gideon Mendel