The hidden entrepreneurs

Posted on July 14, 2019


Recent weeks have seen some of the coldest weather for years right across South Africa. And this has raised again not only the plight of the homeless, but all the bile, prejudice and bigotry of sections of the comfortable classes.

It has also revealed quite how callous and insensitive the bureaucracies of local governments can be. Not only have metro police officials confiscated the possessions of homeless people, in Cape Town homeless men and women have been fined up to R1 500.

Not that many — or any — are likely to be prosecuted for payments they cannot afford. Cases, so far, seem not to get to court or are simply dropped whenever they do.

In any event, most among the fined will continue to “duck and dive”. Even the precarious life on the streets is seen as preferable to what are regarded as filthy, overcrowded, and dangerous prisons.

These are the realities about which the complaining classes have no idea. So they remain vociferous about drug addicts, alcoholics, thieves, deadbeats and assorted ne’er do wells who allegedly make up the homeless.

They maintain that these individuals clutter our streets and pavements, defecate in the privacy of doorways and otherwise despoil the urban landscape. On one point they are right: there are today many more desperate homeless people forced to cope as best they can in a generally uncaring and brutal world.

Which is not to say that there are not, among those who huddle in doorways or under bridges and motorway overpasses, people addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Sometimes this may seem the only way to dull the pain and humiliation of sleeping on sheets of cardboard, while being kept barely warm by rags, newspapers and old blankets.

But missing in all the debates are two crucial factors: the persistence of the geographic legacy of apartheid and the fact that many among those “sleeping rough” are the working homeless. Among the latter are men and women who provide the raw data that enables the government to lower the official statistics about the horrific level of official unemployment.

These are the workers, women and men, who gain temporary jobs through the Expanded Public Works Programme. They wear yellow bibs and sweep, clean and otherwise maintain streets and parks, many in the leafier suburbs.

Under the new minimum wage dispensation, their labour is bought for R11 an hour or barely R2 000 a month. If they were to live in one of the far-flung townships — the inheritance of the apartheid Group Areas laws — they might have to spend more than half of that pittance on accommodation and transport to get to work.

Then there are the homeless who wash and guard cars, fetch, carry and do odd jobs and are, in effect, part and parcel of many neighbourhoods. One such is JJ, a 31-year-old who supports a wife and five-year-old child. He works “in town” while they live as “backyarders” in a township shack.

During the week, JJ sleeps in a well camouflsged — donated — tent in some bushes within walking distance of his “workplace”. He has already lost one tent to “law enforcement”, been issued with a fine he had no hope of paying, and wasted a day in court where the case was dismissed.

Eventually such harassment and the harshness of the life may wear him down as it has so many others. Yet he and others like him display incredible survival skills; they may not be part of any digital revolution, but they manifest the very entrepreneurial spirit praised this week by President Cyril Ramaphosa.