PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA—A few miles west of Pretoria’s downtown, away from the buildings that house the nerve centers of South Africa’s bureaucracy, is the old neighborhood of Danville.
This was once home to civil servants and factory workers, miners and truck drivers—all Afrikaners, descendants of long-ago Dutch settlers. They had brick houses and fenced-in yards, pensions and job security. They had promises from South Africa’s leaders that no white brother would be abandoned to poverty—a main tenet of the apartheid system.
Irene and Jannie Dupper rented a house in Danville. It had three bedrooms and a yard for Jannie’s gardening.
“Ach, it was a nice house,” sighs Mrs. Dupper, a slight smile creeping in with the memory.
But to find the Duppers these days, you must go to the end of Danville, and down a short driveway. There, you see an old army building, surrounded by a collection of tents, trailers, and “Wendy Huts,” room-size wooden boxes that look like Home Depot tool sheds. This is Kwaggaspoort Reddingsdaad, a white squatter camp.
Twelve years after the end of apartheid, whites on the lowest rung of South Africa’s socioeconomic ladder are experiencing role reversal. Apartheid’s safety net for Afrikaners is gone, and now blacks are the preferred candidates for civil service positions and private-sector jobs. Whites are even living in squatter camps—the type of settlements long home to millions of impoverished blacks across the country.
Whites—Afrikaners and those of British descent—as a whole are still far wealthier than the 80 percent black majority here. Median income for whites is $11,000, compared with $2,000 for blacks. But what’s changing is that whites and blacks seem to have reversed roles at the lowest income levels. The number of whites earning less than $80 a month grew by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2004—while the number of blacks in that bracket decreased by half, according to a recent Standard Bank study.
There are many white squatter camps around Pretoria. But most are hidden—either because Afrikaners are too proud to let their poverty show, or because squatting is illegal, social workers say.
The Duppers’ middle son, 23 and also named Jannie, is confident that this life is, in fact, temporary. But the high school graduate, a welder, hasn’t found work for two years. Companies tell him they don’t have positions. “Everything is falling apart now,” he says. “With this new government, they are looking out for the black people, instead of looking out for the white people.”
The reality has left his parents perhaps less optimistic about their own way out of the camp. “It’s been so long, you just get used to the way we live,” says Irene.
“If we were black, it would be easier.” The irony is as thick as her Afrikans accent.