South Africa, once a bastion of white rule, has something you don’t often see elsewhere on the continent: Poor whites.
A few years ago, it was unimaginable to see whites begging at traffic lights or working as parking attendants.
Now it is a common sight.
Pottering around in her scantily-furnished house with peeling wall paint, Ms Elsie Smit holds back tears as she talks of her family’s battle to survive.
‘We struggle a lot. My husband is unemployed. The only one who works in this house is my son.
‘His money goes to paying for the house and for water and lights. So there isn’t much that is left of his salary to feed us the whole month,’ she told Liquid Africa, an online investment website.
Several white families in the Vanderbijlpark industrial area, south of Johannesburg, are in similar straits and depend on food parcels.
Guaranteed quality education and good jobs by the former apartheid regime, some whites, particularly the Afrikaners (Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans of mainly Dutch descent) have seen a reversal of fortunes under democracy.
Estimates vary on the extent of the problem and opinions differ on the root causes of white poverty, but all agree that it is growing as South Africa struggles with rising unemployment.
According to a 2003 United Nations Development Programme report, 6.9 per cent of the country’s white population lived on less than 12 rand ($3.02) a day – the national poverty line in 2002 – up from 1.5 per cent in 1995.
LIFE OF LUXURY
Of the 4.2 million whites in the country, most are still in the top economic bracket, living in homes with swimming pools, maids and luxury cars.
According to a paper published by the Centre for Civil Society at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, only one per cent of whites live in poverty compared with 61 per cent of blacks and 38 per cent of coloureds (mixed race people).
Yet their lot has caught more attention than the hundreds and thousands of blacks who continue to live in slums that dot South Africa’s modern cities.
Critics, like the predominantly white Afrikaner Freedom Front Plus (AFFP), blame the South African Government’s affirmative action for the rise in white poverty.
They say policies to redress the injustices of racial segregation of the past were shutting new generations of white South Africans out of jobs.
Unemployment among whites has gone up by 200 per cent in the past 10 years.
And, according to Solidarity, a predominantly white trade union, if the government’s goal of creating a racially representative workforce succeeds, another million white workers stand to lose their jobs in the near future.