Tag Archives: poverty

Saying my Farewells to South Africa

In the same week that South Africa commemorates the funeral of former president and national icon, Nelson Mandela, it seems that I, personally, will be remembering the country itself – only from afar.

Which is a shame as, before returning to the UK my Beloved and I had hoped to spend a final happy Christmas together here in Johannesburg, basking in the sunshine and enjoying a bit of relaxed African downtime.

But, sadly, it seems that bureaucracy has got the better of us. Despite a trip to Namibia, advised by two alleged experts on all matters immigration in order to obtain a 90-day visa extension, I found that on returning from a weekend away in the capital Windhoek, the said extension was arbitrarily denied.

The only way I could get one apparently was to fly off to the UK and back again. Namibia, despite being a sovereign nation these days, simply didn’t cut it – even though Namibians are just as entitled as subjects of Her Majesty to enter the country for three months on a visa waiver. Go figure.

So what all of this means is that I’ve now had to change my flight from early January to this Saturday, or risk being blacklisted and not allowed into the country again. Charming.

But I must admit that this apparent making-up-of-new-rules-on-the-fly without anyone ever seeming to know about them is one thing that I won’t particularly miss about the African way of life.

Another is load shedding, the name given locally to the scheduled, rolling national power blackouts that are designed to keep South Africa’s national grid from collapsing, and which are the talk of the nation at the moment.

For one, they take place at all hours of the day or night, which is deeply inconvenient at a personal level.

On the other hand, there is lots of concern, especially among small companies unable to afford generators, about the damage being done to their businesses, the inevitable worry being that the situation, if it continues, will kill them eventually.

A question of power

To put a price tag on the debacle, some economists have pointed out that power outages cost the economy a huge ZAR6.8bn (£37 million), or 0.2% of GDP, last year, with conservative estimates indicating that the situation this year will be at least as bad.

Indeed, state-owned monopoly Eskom may have promised that the lights should more or less stay on until January, helped by generally lower power usage during high summer.

But it has also warned South Africans to brace themselves for ongoing power supply problems for at least the next 18 months until it can bring two new power stations online – a situation that, I among others, find deeply worrying for the future financial health, and related long-term social stability, of the country.

At the end of last week though, President Zuma took the interesting step of denying that the country’s energy challenges had anything to do with years of government underfunding or mismanagement. Instead he chose to blame Eskom’s current difficulties in supplying demand on the apartheid regime, which collapsed 20 years ago.

The utility, he informed delegates at the Young Communist League’s congress in Cape Town, had been structured to provide electricity exclusively to the white minority, “not the majority”, which is where the foundations of the problem lay.

But unlike hospitals, airports, mines and Parliament, it seems that the President’s official residences in both Pretoria and Cape Town are, luckily, insulated from power cuts themselves due to “technical reasons”. Therefore, he is in the fortuitous position of not having to share the majority’s pain.

But all of this raises two salient points about South Africa. One is the desperate, grinding poverty that most of the population still, very noticeably, lives in once you leave the well-heeled, predominantly white suburbs and business districts.

A land of contrasts

The disparity between the prosperous and the poor in this beautiful, resource-rich country is the greatest in the world. But it is this very inequality, which drastically bumps up average per capita income levels, that means South Africa fails to qualify for all too many donor programmes from bodies such as the United Nations.

As a result, the country all too often fails to get the financial aid it so desperately requires to help its needy population – an obvious wrong that should really be righted somehow.

Another distinctively South African issue raised by President Zuma’s comments is the thorny one of race, in this land still so deeply scarred by the brutalities of the apartheid regime – and one that lives on to this day, in fact, through the economic and social structures introduced by policies such as forced resettlement.

As a result, I can quite honestly say that I’ve never lived anywhere where race appears to form such an undercurrent to so many conversations, and where so few people of different heritage seem to mix socially – a culture shock after living in multi-cultural Britain, and especially London, for so long.

Despite this, what did give me huge hope – and not just symbolically – was seeing young students at Stellenbosch University, the so-called engine room of apartheid, starting to do just that – to learn together, play together and even, in some instances, go out together. And although not enormously widespread, the same is true to some extent of the younger generation here in Johannesburg too.

But in spite of its troubles, South Africa has a lot of plus points. I’ll certainly miss the climate and its balance in favour of warm/hot weather, appalling winters notwithstanding.

I’ll also miss the friendliness and courtesy of the people – being called “Tannie” (Auntie) by Afrikaans speakers or “Mami” by black Africans whose gorgeous smiles could light up rooms, despite past and current circumstances. Such terms, employed as a mark of respect for age, show a civility forgotten long ago in the UK.

But I’ll also miss learning about the country’s fascinating cultures and traditions and the ways of a nation in some ways so viscerally linked to Britain and in others, so vastly different.

So all in all, it’s been a blast. Thank you, South Africa – for everything. I’ll remember you always.

If you’re interested in finding out about the social and cultural mores of the UK, feel free to catch up with my new blog entitled www.mygreatbritishadventure.com.


Desperate Unemployment Levels Cause South Africa’s ‘Hidden Hunger’

According to official figures, a quarter of all South Africans are out of work – although, even more worryingly, unemployment levels are believed to be a vast two in five across the wider economy.

To make matters worse, this high rate of worklessness has changed little over the last five years – and as long as low economic growth continues to stymie desperately needed job creation, things seem unlikely to get better any time soon.

To put things in perspective, the government estimates that GDP needs to increase by more than 5% a year to cut unemployment to a somewhat more manageable 14% by 2020, not least to try and avert social unrest.

But the fact that Africa’s second largest economy has been significantly underperforming since the 2009 recession means that it has also been struggling to create jobs.

A series of damaging strikes and rolling power blackouts earlier this year served to put a break on economic expansion, prompting growth forecasts to be cut to a mere 1.4% this year compared with 1.9% last year.

As a result, Statistics South Africa’s third quarter labour market report indicated last week that the number of jobless had remained more or less static, dropping by a mere 3,000 to 5.15 million or 25.4% of the total workforce, down from 25.5% the previous quarter.

But long-term unemployment is a particularly concerning issue here if both individual lives and communities are not to end up blighted.

The stats indicate that some 1.4 million people in the country have been without work for more than five years. A further 1 million have been unemployed for three to five years and another 1.1 million for one to three years, which when taken together make up a massive 20% of the jobless total.

While the state does offer some level of benefits – or social grants as they are known here – for around 15 million people, the money is barely enough to keep body and soul together, meaning that all too many people are living in desperate, grinding poverty.

But this situation, combined with relatively low average wages levels – the median income for a South African household is ZAR 3,100 (£174.16) per month, according to a national study undertaken by the Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit of Cape Town University’s School of Economics  – makes it no surprise that the country remains the most unequal in the world in terms of the wealth gap.

To put it in perspective, according to a 2013 Global Wealth Report cited by Oxfam at the end of last month as part of its “Even It Up” campaign on global equality, the two richest people in South Africa together possessed the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the population.

Wealth gap

These modern-day Randlords are luxury goods mogul, Johann Rupert, whom Forbes values at $7.6 billion, and diamond magnate, Nicky Oppenheimer who is worth $6.7 billion.

By way of contrast, while the number of South Africans living in extreme poverty may have fallen slightly to 17% of the total between 1995 and 2006, we are still talking about nine million or so people.

And such deprivation makes itself felt in various ways. On the one hand, it tends to fuel often violent crime such as the high-profile murder of Senzo Meyiwa, captain of national football team, Bafana Bafana. He was killed a couple of weeks ago following an apparent attempted robbery at his girlfriend’s home near Johannesburg.

On the other, it also results in too many people going hungry in a land of plenty.

Even though South Africa is self-sufficient in terms of food production, which means that there should be enough to go around all of its 53 million citizens, it seems that a quarter of the population (14 million) regularly suffer from poverty-induced hunger.

This means that, on a day-to-day basis, they do not know where their next meal will come from as they simply do not have enough money to buy food, according to another Oxfam report released in October entitled “Hidden Hunger in South Africa: The Faces of Hunger and Malnutrition in a Food-Secure Nation.”

And this situation has only got worse over the last six years as high inflation levels have seen the cost of basic items leap by a whopping 40%.

As a result, a further quarter of the population (15 million) is now also at risk of hunger, meaning that any cut to a household’s meagre income is likely to prove disastrous in terms of its members being able to afford to eat.

The worst-affected communities are, unsurprisingly, found in the informal settlements, where 38% of people suffer hunger on a daily basis. But even in more formal urban areas, where hunger levels are at their lowest nationally, one in five are also affected.

One of the surprising things about these depressing statistics though is that hunger does not necessarily translate into a slim physique. In fact, quite the opposite is true here.

As can be witnessed by simply walking down the street, South Africa is a nation of fatties – a 2010 health survey by pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, found it to be the third plumpest country in the world.

Hidden hunger

A study published by medical journal, the Lancet, in May, also revealed that it was by far the fattest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, with a stonking 61% of the population being overweight or obese – double the global average.

But unlike in developed countries, the problem is one that afflicts women more than men. A massive seven out of 10 adult females display unhealthy levels of body fat compared with only two in five men.

The same is true for a quarter of girls and 20% of boys compared with a global average of 13% for both genders.

A key problem beyond the usual health concerns over increased risk of heart disease and illnesses such as diabetes though is that malnutrition is rife.

The issue is one of so-called “hidden hunger’, in which people eat regularly and put on weight but do not receive the nutrients and vitamins they need, resulting in long-term damage to their health.

Because money is scarce, all too many fail to eat healthily, opting instead for cheap, poor-quality, highly-processed food that tends to be carbohydrate-rich and full of salt, sugar and fat.

According to local news channel eNCA’s Checkpoint recent documentary entitled “Nutrition in the Black Community”, fat intake among members of urban black communities has jumped 60% over the last 50 years, leading to stroke rates that are double those of white communities. Half of South African children under the age of five are also malnourished.

As in developed countries, it seems that more junk food and less exercise are definitely taking their toll.

But the situation is also not helped by cultural perceptions among black communities. Big men are generally perceived as wealthy and successful, while large women are considered beautiful and healthy – and, if married, as having husbands who look after them properly.

Being thin, on the other hand, is often associated with having HIV.

So it seems that to really grapple with this time-bomb of an issue, the government is going to need to do more than simply set up yet another commission to talk about it.

Seeing the Cape through new eyes

It’s amazing how quickly you get used to a place and, therefore, stop noticing things that originally struck you or made an initial impression for whatever reason.


So when my parents arrived from the UK for a couple of weeks holiday, it was fascinating to see the Cape through their eyes and get a fresh perspective on it all.


My dad, for example, made the point that tourist guide books are simply unable to get across the sheer grandeur and scale of the mountains that are not only integral to the Cape Winelands, but also encircle and dominate Cape Town – Table Mountain being the most famous and iconic, of course.


He was also charmed by the courteousness and laid-back amiability of the locals who, even in the Mother City, never seem too busy or rushed to give a friendly smile or take time for a chat.


Quite a change from the UK, where life’s stresses and strains mean that all too many people appear to have forgotten how to indulge in those niceties that make being alive just that bit more pleasant.


My mam, on the other hand, was struck by the huge disparities between rich and poor and the desperate levels of poverty in this country.


And it hits you like a hammer as soon as you arrive. Even as you drive from the airport to Stellenbosch, or Cape Town for that matter, you can’t fail to notice the vast, ramshackle townships of the Cape Flats lining the road for miles.


The corrugated iron-roofed shacks, some painted in bright, cheery colours and others constructed from barely-holding-together bits of this and that, really do make you wonder how people can survive in those conditions.


Amazing dignity


But they do, nonetheless, and with amazing dignity. As part of one of the excellent hop-on, hop-off City Sightseeing bus tours in Cape Town, for instance, we stopped at Hout Bay for a 40-minute guided tour of the Imizano Yethu township.


I’m never quite sure about the ethics of these things as I’m always torn between a fear of making people into a kind of Victorian peep show spectacle versus providing the community with some form of income from tourism.


But such considerations aside, what did become clear was just how hard the majority of inhabitants were trying to make the most of what little they had.


Despite the poor conditions, which included the provision of only four communal toilets for every 2,000 residents, most people’s clothes, including those of the children, were spotless.


The same was also true of the house that we invaded of one very sweet and very pregnant woman, who was cooking chicken’s feet and pap, or polenta made from mielie meal (ground maize), for her husband’s evening meal when we arrived.


Another thing that we noticed though was the politeness expected of even the smallest children. One couple from Durban bought a plastic bag full of tangerines from a Spaza shop – or small, informal township store that is often run out of someone’s home – for the guide to hand out to the kids.


Inevitably the news spread like wildfire and children immediately started materialising out of nowhere. But what the guide insisted was that, rather than grab the spoils with one hand, each child had to hold out both of them together in a cup shape so that they could receive rather than take.


It’s a gesture that you’ll notice among people begging or taking money when selling goods on the street in South Africa and, now that I know the symbolism, it strikes me as extremely courteous.


The Bo-Kaap


Another guided tour worth doing, meanwhile, was the one we took around the Bo-Kaap. Bo-Kaap, which translates from Afrikaans into ‘Upper Cape’, is the former ‘Cape Malay’ slave area. Located on the side of Signal Hill, within walking distance of Cape Town’s Parliament buildings, it affords stupendous views over the city.


Ironically though, despite its humble origins, the small, brightly-coloured, nineteenth century Dutch and Georgian terraced houses of this predominantly Muslim community now go for as much as R3 million (£200,000) a pop – an awful lot of money by South African standards.


But the high prices are at least partially due to the fact that the neighbourhood is one of Cape Town’s oldest and most unique.


Unlike the infamous inner city District Six, with which it had much in common but which was flattened under the apartheid regime in the 1960s and 1970s after being designated a ‘White Group Area’, the Bo-Kaap managed to remain intact.


Because it was considered far enough out of town to retain a ‘Coloured’ designation, its residents were lucky enough to escape forced removal to the Cape Flats.


Occupants of District Six, a poverty-stricken but lively and culturally-rich community of some 60,000 mainly coloured people, were not spared the same fate, however, and it is said that the soul was ripped out of Cape Town when they went.


In fact, after a huge international and domestic outcry over the demolition, which took 15 years to complete, redevelopment never actually took place, beyond the building of the ugly Cape Technikon college, that is – or the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, as it’s now known.


As a result, the only thing that remains of this formerly vibrant cultural heartland is a few churches, a couple of mosques and a lot of grassland that is to be kept as it is indefinitely and significantly, lest we do stop noticing and, therefore, start to forget.





A glimpse of South Africa’s underbelly

There are a couple of things over recent days that have given me pause for thought.


The first relates to the immense amount of poverty and deprivation that there is here in South Africa and the fact that, all too soon and without even noticing it, people like me, even if they reckon that they have some kind of social conscience, can all too easily find themselves insulated from, and inured to, it.


When I first came to this country, I simply couldn’t tear my gaze away from the vast expanses of corrugated iron that are the townships on the outskirts of Cape Town, and which seem to stretch on for ever as a testimony to human misery – and as a reproach to the rest of us for allowing this abomination to be.


While some progress has been made in building small breeze block homes to replace these tumble-down shacks that lack even the most basic sanitation, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could live in such conditions. It really is a testament to human endurance as well as people’s innate adaptability and ability to survive no matter what.


But as time goes on, to my immortal shame, I find myself staring less and less at these scarcely habitable monstrosities as I sit in my comfy rental car and I wonder if, after a while, I’ll even notice. It’s scary how quickly you get used to the impossible.


Closer to home, meanwhile, there’s the matter of the relative value of R500 (£35). The other day, I met up with a lady who, under the auspices of the Catholic Church, organises a couple of soup kitchens for children (and all too often hungry adults too) in Cloetesville, one of the ‘coloured’ or mixed race areas of Stellenbosch.


One of the key issues she faces is that, as tends to be the case everywhere, it’s the same people from among the congregation who keep on providing the vital veg, meat and other necessaries such as rice and lentils each week. The local Spar also gives bread that’s just passed its sell-by date when it’s available, which really helps too.


Stark contrasts


But when it’s not, she has to try and eke out a R500 monthly donation from someone that likewise has to cover the cost of gas and any other supplies that may not have materialised for whatever reason.


Which is all well and good, but the fact that my beloved and I spent more than twice that on a posh lunch at the IndoChine restaurant at his favourite wine farm, the Delaire Graff, to celebrate our twelfth wedding anniversary this weekend, does make you think.


Don’t get me wrong – it was a fabulous experience. They seated us in a lovely blue wood, semi-circular loveseat that would have afforded stunning views of the mountains if it hadn’t been so misty and wet that day, although the quality of the food and expertly-matched tipples more than made up for any deficits weather-wise – and the company was superlative too, of course.


But the contrast with the soup kitchen scenario was stark. While friends have told me that I can’t right every wrong in the world, which is true, it did serve to point up to me the huge canyons between those who are lucky enough to have in this country and those who haven’t. Because there’s not even anything approaching the UK’s increasingly despoiled social security system to fall back on here as a safety net. There’s nothing.


And so, with unemployment rates upwards of 25% across South Africa, and a huge 50% or so in many of the townships, one of the few things that all too many people rely on to get by is charity and hand-outs, if they can get them.


So my role in the soup kitchen context, while meagre, will hopefully prove at least vaguely useful. The idea is that I take letters stamped with the official emblem of the Catholic Church to the various supermarkets in the vicinity in order to ask them for veg donations, hopefully on a regular basis.


White, middle-aged males


Once pick-up times/days have been agreed, it’ll be my role to deliver any offerings to the hall at St Mark’s church and to help with sorting it into two bundles, before it’s carted off to the good women of Cloetesville for cooking up.


And it does appear that Cloetesville is a community in need of help in more ways than one. According to the care professionals that I’m working with to put on a substance abuse educational drama at the end of September, it suffers from the worst addiction rates in the Stellenbosch area, closely followed by the Idas Valley, another coloured community in which we’ll be holding a second event. So things certainly aren’t easy there.


The second thing that gave me pause for thought this week though was the apparent plight of a growing number of white, middle-aged South African males. I’d met a couple of guys for lunch and we were talking about the useful role that the almost forgotten art of story-telling can play in corporate life by helping to stimulate discussion and get a point across in an entertaining and memorable, as opposed to dull PowerPoint-y, kind of fashion.


As this form of consultancy is only nascent here, I inquired about who their customers tended to be. They replied, with a remarkable lack of bitterness, that things weren’t always easy because large corporates were effectively no-go areas for them as they didn’t fit into the black economic empowerment (BEE) agenda. As a result, most of their work was generated, via word of mouth, from smaller, more flexible organisations that were more able to fly below the radar.


And similar tales of woe seem to be making the rounds elsewhere. Nearly everyone you speak to in the white community appears to have a story about a friend, or friend of a friend, who found their services were no longer required after training up a BEE successor, a situation that resulted in them not only losing their job, but in some instances, their home.


So, while John Simpson’s article on the BBC website entitled ‘Do white people have a future in South Africa?’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22554709) may have been leaped on in fury by the establishment over here (http://www.africacheck.org/reports/do-400-000-whites-live-in-squatter-camps-in-south-africa-the-answer-is-no/), it would appear to have at least a grain of truth in it, no matter how politically unpopular.


And when push comes to shove, what is very clear is that poverty and hunger are no respecters of colour.