The caretaker


The caretaker

Poverty is easy to see but hard to define, writes VIV VERMAAK, who recently lost her job.


THERE are blisters on her hands from all the hard work, her arms ripple with muscles and she doesn't wear shoes. No bra either. What for? She is still on duty now. She will clean herself when she goes to Checkers to buy mielie meal, but first the toilets need to be scrubbed. Then she must sweep the yard; with a rake or a broom, doesn't matter, whatever is available. If she can't get hold of a machine, she will finish cutting the grass by hand with the garden shears before the home owner comes back, because she wants to prove herself. What's more, she will lose her room if the man is not satisfied.

At 44, she is not young, but she works loudly and briskly. Her body is limp and her ankles swollen due to health problems, but that doesn't stop her. She is proud of herself because now she is the caretaker. “Tannie!" she calls excitedly to me from across the street. “Doesn't Tannie have a lawnmower for me to borrow?" She smiles broadly as she wipes the sweat from her forehead. Her teeth are crooked. There are yellowish ones and brownish ones. They startled me when I saw her for the first time.

I guess I haven't realised there are still “such" people. Poor whites. Especially not ones who live right across from me. Can one speak the term out loud? I didn't even know how to think it out loud. How does one identify a poor white? There is a quality to the skin that tells you the person spends a lot of time outside and not in an office, is that what it is? After all, we are no longer farmers, we are urbanites, so our skins are less wrinkled and brown, so what am I talking about? The Boer War and the poor white question are long over, aren't they? Seriously, by now everyone can speak English. My own reaction was quite disturbing to myself. To be honest, I can describe it essentially as a type of racism or at least a narrow-minded and judgmental attitude that cultivates a sense of superiority.

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There are 21 rooms on the property where Vicky lives. She, her husband and two sons are the only white people there. No stoves are allowed, only small gas appliances. There are no geysers because the paperwork is too complicated, the cost too high. The area in which we live is, according to city planning, suitable for households of about six people; here about 30 live on one plot. Everything is technically legal, but one sacrifices certain things, hot water for example. Rolls of black plastic pipes are unfurled on the corrugated iron roof. Solar power has a different meaning here: if the sun shines and the black plastic heats up, you have hot water.

Their room is large, with access to its own outside toilet, a luxury at R2,300 a month. When her youngest son lost his job she had to make a plan or they would be evicted. Her work as a caretaker earns her R1,000 a month off the rent. Now her hands are raw but her mother's heart is strong and her family has a place to stay.

When I walked around this street barefoot as a child, the “poor whites" were a scare story like Antjie Somers or Daisy de Melker. You don't want to come cross them, you don't want to be one. Our family was closer to the poor side, so the spectre of poverty was real for us. We were six little children who swarmed around, a little worn-out and noisy. “Civilised people don't scream like that," the church elder, who lived a few houses away, used to scold us. Then we got ashamed of our roughness and made quieter noise. Vicky's landlord tells the children to shut up or “I'll cut your dickies off". That also works well. When you consider how many people live on that property, it's surprising how quiet it is. The only sounds you hear are cars honking at the gate to enter and Vicky ordering her boys around.

Poverty is easy to see but difficult to define, especially if you want to know exactly how many “poor whites" there are. Estimates range wildly between 40,000 and 400,000. It is more helpful to try to capture various aspects of poverty in a spectrum, for better insight.

Stats SA's Community Survey has compiled a multidimensional index and presented it on sliding scales. Health, education, standard of living and financial activity are the four main categories. According to the survey, the Eastern Cape has the most poor people and Gauteng is the richest province. There are 610,000 “poor" people in Gauteng. Vicky is not one of them because she has a TV, stove, running water and access to a flushing toilet. Furthermore, everyone in Vicky's family has gone to school for more than five years and they earn more than R1,138 a month. In my opinion, Vicky is destitute, but for her roommates, their living conditions are a step forward in life.

To my mind, white people shouldn't be in Vicky's situation. Because we had the privilege of education and affirmative action. My parents were both civil servants. In those days it was a status symbol but I later realised it was BEE in a different-coloured jacket. I recently lost my job so these types of thoughts are now prominent and visceral.

I wonder how much of my “talent" and skills stem from myself as an individual and whether that matters. I am close to 60. Will my family end up like Vicky's too? I hope we will have her strength of body and mind. There are no longer government old-age homes and some members of my family are already old and needy. I've been taking care of them financially for a long time, but if I don't get a job quickly we're going to have a problem.

So I stand and project all my primal Afrikaner shyness and future fears onto the dumb woman who has to finish mowing the grass before the owner comes back. “Yes, I have a lawnmower," I say. “I'm bringing it now. I'll put petrol in."

“Thanks ma'am!" she says excitedly. “I'm going to finish work soon, then I'm going to tell Seuna to boil water on the stove so I can make myself a nice bubble bath in the sink."

Sometimes I send her a Checkers voucher souced from my eBucks. But I don't always answer the phone when she calls.

♦ VWB ♦

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