South Africa wakes up to growing white poor

Townships are used to visits and pledges from politicians. What made special the visit of the man expected to be South Africa's next president to a settlement called Bethlehem was that the population there is white and Afrikaans.

Most visitors to South Africa know the sprawling black townships of corrugated shacks and endemic unemployment, and contrast them with the obvious signs of white wealth, upmarket restaurants and shopping arcades.

Less well-known is that since apartheid ended in 1994, there has been a growing number of poor, white Afrikaans living in smaller settlements without state pensions and relying on government social grants, unskilled jobs or begging.

The trade union Solidarity, which brough thet ANC leader Jacob Zuma to Bethlehem, estimates 700,000 whites cannot afford a basic house, and 130,000 are classified as poor. These figures are dwarfed by the numbers of impoverished non-whites but discussion of white poverty has been taboo.

"It is not politically correct to talk about white, poor people," said Dirk Hermann, a senior Solidarity official. "They are the nation's forgotten people. Zuma's been surprised by the level of poverty among the white population which is not talked about. They have been poorly served by the government. Jacob Zuma comes from a working-class background. He finds no contradiction in fighting for working-class, poor people, black or white."

Cazandra Nel, 49, met Mr Zuma. She helps manage the settlement on church land for no pay. She has been destitute since losing her husband and only daughter aged four in a motorbike accident in 1992. Ms Nel, who has chronic asthma, has lived in Bethlehem for five years. She does not have a pension and the wooden hut she calls home has no electricity or running water. "Life is very hard here," she said. "We share a toilet and there's not much water but we get on with God's help. Some of us grow vegetables and have small jobs but it is hard."

Some of the middle-aged residents have modest state pensions and supplement it with selling vegetables, blankets or unskilled jobs in restaurants and shops.

The present South Africa President, and Zuma rival, Thabo Mbeki, has said there are two population categories in South Africa: rich and white, and poor and black.

More than 1,000 homeless white men, women and children from 40 squatter camps in the Pretoria area were at Mr Zuma's visit. Bethlehem, south of Pretoria, is usually home to about 40. Later, he said: "I am shocked and surprised by what I have seen. The vast number in black poverty does not mean we must ignore white poverty, which is becoming an embarrassment to talk about."

Solidarity has 130,000 members, mostly working-class Afrikaners. It was established in 1902 to represent former Afrikaner farmers turned miners driven from their land by British forces using "scorched earth" tactics in the Boer War. It is not affiliated to a political party or the TUC equivalent Cosatu – Congress of South African Trade Unions – and regards it self as a "social movement" as much as a trade union.

Mr Hermann said between 1997 and 2002, white unemployment rose by 106 per cent. Many in blue-collar or clerical jobs in large companies and councils were offered severance packages in the post-apartheid government's policy of transformation.

When the money ran out, Afrikaners were left destitute. Mr Hermann said the white English population was less affected because they were more "entrepreneurial" and had less-protected professions under apartheid. He acknowledged indifference to poverty among Afrikaners, the main beneficiaries of apartheid who enjoyed subsidised housing, jobs and benefits.

"I was on a radio phone-in programme the other day and an English caller phoned in and said, 'You discriminated for years and so you cannot complain now'," he said. "Yes, there was discrimination but I told the caller I'd take her down to a soup kitchen and tell a child in the queue that he deserves to be poor."

South Africa by numbers

Population: 43,786,115

Percentage below poverty line: 50%

Unemployment rate: 24.3%

Life expectancy at birth: 42 years

Source: CIA World Factbook