Black Looks - Including an African LGBTIQ+ Archive

South Africa

SA working class in hard economic times

The only news we seem to hear about in South Africa, after the elections, are about the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the recession and worker strikes.

On one hand things are looking up, the elections are over and the democracy is still going strong after 14 years. FIFA 2010 World Cup preparations seem to be finally getting somewhere, at the same time various sectors are being disturbed because people have decided to take a stand by striking and demonstrating, asking for better pay and an improvement in working conditions. What do these confusing times mean for the woman and man on the street? Nurses, teachers, doctors, miners, bus and taxi drivers and many more in the public sector have taken this course of action. These demonstrations over the past few months have immensely delayed service delivery simply because workers feel that they are not met half way by the authorities.


One Saturday, my friend asked me what I think a recession is, I told him that: “it’s recess, a break from consumption. Human beings are constantly consuming food, money, information, alcohol and a lot more. So if we are limited by our wallets, we consume less.”

Also, another friend said, “it is also a chance for people to stop taking credit and buying things that they cannot afford, rather than making the money available to them, this could give them time to get over and settle debt.”

“The only way to recover from consumption is consuming less, so you begin to think economically.” I add, “You plant veggies, cut down on drinking and smoking, invest in something, begin to save and live minimally.”

I went out on the street to ask a few people about how they are dealing with the recession and if they understand it at all. I also wanted to understand how are they beating these hard times and what type of measures are in place to protect these small businesses as they also contribute to the countries economy.

‘All I know is that prices are rising,’ says Jabu*, a street vendor, ‘so I raise my prices too. I voted for Zuma, now I am waiting to see what will happen next.’

Jabu has a stall on a street corner, which he says he has been operating for a couple of years, he has to move around a lot because the cops sometimes chase them away as their chosen spots are not legally theirs. ‘I am avoiding the taxman!’ Jabu laughs. With money he makes he supports his family, living in Alexander Township.

‘This country has a lot of money,’ says a North African businessman, Mike*, ‘It’s not in the public sector though, it’s on the streets and everyday businesses generate a lot of income. From the hair salons, the cellphone shops and corner shops, they provide essential services.’ h e smiles, points at three white men, ‘those are my employees.’

Mike is very confident that he will survive the recession, ‘profit is easy to make, people will spend money either way and we try to keep things cheap and easily accessible.’ Mike runs an IT shop, an internet café and a hair salon all in same space, which he rents from a private company. ‘Also a lot of companies are buying property, as property prices are dropping and when the economy recovers, the property will be worth more.’

Cecilia*, on the other hand, doesn’t feel so confident about the country’s progress. ‘I think that South Africa needs to grow more in order to host the world cup. Apart from that, prices are going up, I am paying R10 for a loaf of brown bread, my child goes to school and I just got a letter that they are increasing school fees, the teacher strikes have affected her schooling and the taxi strike was also bad for us.’ she frowns, ‘where is this country headed?’


Cecilia should consider herself lucky to have a job, she is probably amongst the 311 000 South Africans to get jobs in the first quarter of 2009. According to Statistics South Africa, this is a drastic improvement, increasing by 8% since the first quarter of 2008. The statistics show a good improvement, although I have come across many of my employed friends who fear getting retrenched or fired. **

For the unemployed 300 thousand people in South Africa, maybe they can find comfort in our president, Jacob Zuma’s words, when he was addressing the World Economic forum, he said:

“For most African countries, that are still highly indebted and dependent on aid for their revenues, the continuation of the current crisis will mean increased starvation, poverty and child mortality,” he continued, ‘we must cushion our people against the impact of the crisis as best we can, but we also need to respond in the spirit of planning for a recovery.”

*Not their real names.
**Faith Nkomo provided this information, she is a researcher for the National Labour Economic Development Institute (NALEDI).
Photos by Robyn Field

Vuyo Seripe is a freelance writer and artist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Apart from working on corporate writing projects, she contributes articles to a variety of publications and is a keen observer of South Africa’s emerging urban cultures.”

1 Comment

  1. nice story…

    we talk about developing entrepreneurial ability in this country all the time but the reality is that we actually rely on our street level business to support the entire economy. just think of the taxi industry…

    we need to radically revise how we assist and grow working class entrepreneurs, otherwise all we’ll have is a business sector that feeds off the poor.