Whites taste apartheid's shame: John Carlin in Pretoria talks to impoverished Afrikaners who must swallow their pride and seek charity hand-outs

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The Independent Online
A MAN is standing on a Pretoria pavement with a plastic cup in one hand and a hand-written sign in the other: 'No job. Two kids to feed. Please help.' Immobile as a wax model, staring hard at the ground, he is a study in desolation.

The spectacle itself is common enough. What is unusual, and shocking, is the man's skin colour. White street beggars were not written into the apartheid script. Apartheid, after all, was, at one level, a gigantic affirmative action programme for white South Africans, especially Afrikaners, for whose benefit was built a state bureaucracy of Eastern European proportions. Impoverished blacks have always been able to blame the system. But whom to blame if you are white and impoverished? What more ignominious symbol of human failure than a white South African who cannot feed his family?

Kleintjie Pereira runs an establishment in Pretoria, which each month provides free food and second-hand clothes to 6,000 white families - 26,000 people in all. 'This used to be the country of milk and honey, but things today are very different. People are so confused. We've had men coming here with briefcases, telling us they've come to have a look around. They'll come once, twice, three times, and in the end they'll say: 'Look, man, please. Give me some soap and sugar.'

'We're a proud people, us Afrikaners. We don't ask easily. We don't like admitting to others that we're struggling. But things are getting so bad that people are losing their pride. They've reached the stage where they can't save face any more.'

Mrs Pereira's charity, which exists on private donations, is called Werk en Oorleef (Work and Survive). But the emphasis these days is more on survival than on work. 'Theoretically, we have two files: one for people looking for work, another for people offering. But no one's offering. One file's bursting, the other's empty.'

Since November, Werk en Oorleef has been registering an average of 10 new applicants a day. Depending on the size of the family, they are entitled, once a month, to one brown bag of provisions - a bar of soap, a toilet roll, a tin of tuna fish, sugar, tea, jam - and one kilo of porridge.

Every morning they stagger in, drawn women with lank hair, barefoot children, men in flip-flops and greasy trousers. The better-off drive spluttery, beaten-up old Fords, usually with 'For sale' signs on the rear windows, asking absurdly optimistic prices. The priority is to pick up the food rations, but, that done, they trip over each other in their haste to get down the corridor to what passes for the local boutique. They scour through the dresses, trousers and shirts, neatly hung on rails. Shop-lifting without fear, they rush because they want to get the better stuff. The men, unused in the old days to doing their own shopping, skulk off with pairs of trousers over their shoulders. The women, less diffident, gather up armfuls, their eyes acknowledging some respite, if not much joy.

Trix Cotzer, who is separated and has four teenage children at home, was a nurse for 11 years until a car accident put her out of action for six months. Now she cannot find a job. 'My problem is that I'm too well qualified. For my level, they have to pay me more than they want to.'

Martha Labuschagne, her friend, has been coming to Werk en Oorleef for 18 months. She has two young children and a husband who was a traffic policeman. They used to live in a house with 'five-and-a-half sleeping rooms'. Today they live in a small council house, and her husband, for some reason she would not explain, cannot get his job back. She is a trained switchboard operator, but struggles to find more than three days' work a month. 'The blacks always come first because they settle for lower money.'

Why not do the same? 'I've tried that,' said Martha. 'I said to the man at the Defence Force office that I'd take less money, but they gave the job to a black anyway.' But don't the Defence Force, which is run by Afrikaners, look after their own any more? Trix, who has also tried to go for a lower wage, piped up: 'Look, this is the way it is. Two people go for a job, one black, one white. The black gets the job.'

And the political changes planned in the country, are they good or bad? In unison: 'Bad]' It would be even more impossible, they said, to find work. Why? They cast dark glances, but would not elaborate, having acquired the wisdom, a reflection of the times, not to vent their views before a stranger.

Hennie was less coy. In his mid-twenties, recently laid off from a cement plant, he cracked jokes about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, which his two mates, Piet and Jannie, found wildly funny. 'That Nelson Mandela, we'll level the gravel with him, like Eugene Terreblanche says. Do you know the one about Mandela when he jumps into his pool and the water goes all brown?' Piet and Jannie were collapsing even before the punchline came. Then they joined the queue to pick up their brown bags.

'Most of the men who come here have been laid off from the factories,' said Dalene Lund, one of Mrs Pereira's volunteer assistants. 'White people are losing their jobs all the time. It's because, when employers are faced with a choice between the unionised and the non-unionised guys, between white and black, they'll always hire the ones that are going to cause less problems.' The answer, surely, was to join the unions, even if there was some emotional resistance because of the ANC links. 'Yes, some are doing it,' said Mrs Lund.

Mrs Lund runs a computer business, wears a gold watch, drives a Mercedes and travels to Britain - 'I need my London fix' - twice a year. She is the spitting image of the well-off white ladies in Johannesburg, who do voluntary work for black charities. She also shares the attitudes of some of them.

'It's so difficult to re-programme them into a new way of thinking, such as family planning. We try to teach them, but they won't stop having children. There's a quite a population explosion among these people, you know. The other day a pregnant woman came in with seven kids. But what can you do? They have no recreational facilities. They're at home all day, unemployed.'

The question that begged to be asked at Werk en Oorleef was why no blacks were included in the programme. 'Look, there are plenty of people helping blacks,' said Mrs Pereira. 'Look at Operation Hunger. We can't stretch things any further. We have to pose limits. And anyway, these people are on our front door-steps. We can't ignore them.'

And the most curious sight at Werk en Oorleef was Joshua, a salaried black employee who works in the store room, preparing the food packages. His appearance was almost mockingly smart. New, shiny brown shoes; knife-sharp trousers; shimmering shirt; golden ear-ring; and a permed, wet-look hairstyle.

What did he think about all these white people who came for food? 'Ah] I feel sorry. I feel much, much sorry for these people.' But did he think black people should be allowed to come here, too? He shrugged, smiled and preferred not to answer. 'I feel sorry, I feel sad for all poor people, black and white.'

(Photograph omitted)