Transposing emblem by Toni Wallis
Bradley* wakes up at three in the morning. His wife, Lynette*, wakes up even earlier to prepare breakfast for the family and pack lunches for themselves and the children (who will wake up after they leave). By four they are ready to leave the house.
The two walk together to the taxi rank, before parting ways: Lynette takes a minibus taxi (16 seat van that often packs in as many as 25 passengers) to the airport where she supervises a cleaning crew. Bradley catches a taxi to the other side of Cape Town where he works as a metered taxi driver. It will take them one-and-a-half to two hours to get to work by negotiating the complex network of minibus taxis that reach every part of the city.
Bradley was chatting to me about his life early one cold winter morning in Cape Town a few months ago, as he drove me to the airport at 3.45 am to catch a flight. He was at the end of a 24-hour shift and anxious to get home before his wife left the house for the day.
Bradley and Lynette’s story is not unique, but it provides a snapshot of the lives of millions of South Africans in the laboring class. It’s a tough life of long hours for little pay. But it’s a job. With an official unemployment rate of 24 percent, many people choose to endure difficult conditions rather than risk the onsekerheid of prolonged unemployment.
“Dis moelik (it’s difficult),” Bradley tells me. A few months earlier, he had been offered a nicer job with shorter working hours driving tourists. He turned it down, he says, “because the pay was kak (rubbish). No way the wife and I could make ends meet, not the way things are going. I thank God for this job. Some of my colleagues were laid off last year and are still looking for work.”
Uncertainty is the daily bread of the majority of our people. Those who have jobs hold on to them desperately. But even that doesn’t seem to be enough anymore. The cost of living is on the rise. Earlier this year, the South African government made the decision to increase the value added tax (VAT) by one percent to raise much needed public funds and channel them towards poverty reduction. The problem with that, of course, is that now everyone – both rich and poor have to pay 15 percent tax on almost everything, with few exceptions.
Despite this, salaries have not increased, and many small to medium sized enterprises, also under the pressure of rising costs of production, are struggling to stay afloat in an economy that is experiencing a technical recession (two consecutive quarters of negative growth). Downsizing and more job cuts make people fear that their jobs are no longer safe.
Even what we earn is no longer enough to live on. Forty-one percent of working-class South Africans run out of money before month-end and need to take out loans to buy food.1 This uncertainty of constant debt hanging over our shoulders makes it very difficult to plan for the future – such as moving to a bigger home or a better neighborhood, buying a car, or planning for our children’s education.
Bradley heads down the still quiet, pre-dawn highway, past the Langa informal settlement, a shanty town that lines the route to the airport and is home to some 60,000 Cape Tonians. He points beyond the tin shanties, saying: “I live over there, in Manenberg.”
“How do you manage with all the crime?” I ask. Manenberg is notorious for gang violence which often turns the impoverished suburb into a war zone. The situation has become so bad that the provincial government has called on parliament to deploy the army to fight the gangs.2 In the meantime, it is up to a very stretched police force to try and contain the violence.
“What can I mos do?” Bradley retorts with resignation in his voice. “That’s where the wife and I have our house. We’re sandwiched between two rival gangs. The skelms (criminals) attack people walking to the taxis in the morning. I worry about my wife when I’m on a night shift and she must walk alone.” He looks at his watch with concern. “She’s leaving (the house) now. I hope she is safe. But you never know. Maybe one day it’s you.”
In this twilight zone overrun by underworld gangs, even life itself is uncertain.
Our most recent crime statistics revealed that there are 56 reported murders in South Africa each day, that is, 35.8 murders per every 100,000 people.3 According to the figures, 428 reported assaults and 379 robberies take place each day throughout South Africa. There are 110 sexual assaults reported daily, but it is thought that these figures are far lower than the actual numbers because rape still goes mostly unreported. A large majority of these crimes take place in impoverished communities like Langa and Manenberg, making life a daily battle for survival.
As we enter the airport I thank Bradley for sharing his story and wish for better days for him and his family.
“Ag, it’s not so bad,” he replies. “As long as my meisie kind (little girl) grows up, finishes school, stays away from the gangs, gets a job and leaves this life, I’m happy. Then all this is worth it.”
For Bradley and his family, and countless South Africans, onsekerheid is our daily bread. Job insecurity, rising prices, stagnant salaries and rampant crime all stand in the way of its desired antithesis – sekerheid.
Despite all this, our people are resilient. Like Bradley, we carry a smile on our faces – even in adversity – and are generous to those who have even less than us. We remain upbeat in our hardships and dream of better days, or at the very least, that our children will have a more certain and brighter future.
* Bradley and Lynette are not their real names.
1. —- (2018). “Too much month at the end of the money for 41% of SA city dwellers,“ fin24, July 27
2. Davis, R (2018). “DA wants to send the army into the Cape Flats – communities not so much,” Daily Maverick,July 19 3. —- (2018). “FACTSHEET: South Africa’s crime statistics for 2017/18,” Africa Check, 17 September