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Page last updated at 14:01 GMT, Tuesday, 29 July 2008 15:01 UK

South Africa's hidden white poverty

Peter Biles
BBC News, Bethlehem, South Africa

Karel and Annetjie du Randt moved to the Bethlehem settlement in Pretoria West five years ago after falling on hard times.

Previously, Mr du Randt had been employed, making tombstones in the town of Rustenburg.

Karel du Randt
Karel du Randt and his wife live in a hut without sanitation or electricity

The du Randts' home today is a tiny wooden hut on a private plot of land where about 30 whites make up the small community.

The huts have no electricity or individual toilets, but there is a spacious garden where the residents can grow and sell vegetables.

"We try to help each other", says Mr du Randt.

"We're not just sitting around and crying. Most of the guys here don't have any income, but we're just starting a new project, making small folding tables. You have to be part of the set-up here, in order to survive."

Bethlehem is not nearly as crowded or as impoverished as South Africa's teeming black townships such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town, or Diepsloot in Johannesburg.

However, Bethlehem reflects the face of South African society that is rarely seen - white poverty.

People are homeless. They have no jobs. They don't earn anything
Elsabe Blignaut, Danville Help Project

"It's a huge problem, and I don't think people realise how bad it is," says Elsabe Blignaut of the Danville Help Project which assists poor white Afrikaners.

"People are homeless. They have no jobs. They don't earn anything. We try to get them off the streets, feed and clothe them, and make life better for them".

Privileges of apartheid

In the days of apartheid, impoverished white Afrikaners were amply protected by the state.

The National Party which came to power in 1948 on a wave of Afrikaner nationalism, guaranteed Afrikaans-speaking South Africans employment, subsidised housing and state benefits.

Today, the ANC government provides a safety net of social grants and basic services for all South Africans who need them, but Afrikaners have lost the privileges they once enjoyed.

ANC President Jacob Zuma visits Bethlehem white settlement near Pretoria (July 24, 2008)
Jacob Zuma said he was shocked by living conditions in Bethlehem

The mainly white Solidarity trade union says South Africa must accept that poverty is not only a "black" problem.

"Although poverty is less prevalent in the white communities, there is an alarming increase amongst white South Africans," concludes a Solidarity report that has been handed to ANC President Jacob Zuma.

Mr Zuma went to the Bethlehem settlement earlier this year, and promised to return.

His second visit last week, brought South Africa's presidential hopeful face-to-face with the daily problems of poor whites.

Accompanying him was Minister of Social Development Zola Skweyiya, who told the residents that in return for government assistance, they must make available whatever skills they can offer.

South Africa has a major shortage of skilled workers.

The leader of the Solidarity trade union, Flip Buys, is upbeat about Mr Zuma's involvement.

With the help of Jacob Zuma, the door is now open
Flip Buys, Solidarity trade union

Mr Buys says it used to be very difficult to get the government to address the issue of white poverty.

"We had knocked on the door, and there was no answer," he says.

"But with the help of Jacob Zuma, the door is now open. People will be able to access government services".

Mr Zuma is an unlikely ally of poor white Afrikaners.

Admitting that his command of the Afrikaans language is weak, the ANC president chose to address his audience in English when he spoke at Bethlehem.

His natural charm may have disarmed some members of the local community, but the Afrikaners remain cautious.

"We're encouraged by what Jacob Zuma has promised to do for us," says Mr du Randt, "but we're not putting our faith in him completely.

"If the people here don't want to get up and work together, then we're not going to make things any better for them."


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