My neighbor, Bessie, and I shared a banana and coffee this morning, sitting on a bench in the shade next to his garden. He told me about his efforts to find a job.

He interviewed for a job to unload tires off of a truck into a factory. All day long. Four other peopl interviewed at the same time. Bessie asked, “How much will it pay?” The man informed him it would be R13/hour (about $1.85). Before anyone could respond, one of the other guys jumped in, “I’ll do it for seven rand.” “Where is your taxi fare?!” Bessie exclaimed to me. The job market is so bad, people are negotiating below minimum wage. It is an “employer’s market.”

Themba had joined us by now. Hearing the ending, he immediately asked, “kwere?”—short for kwere-kwere, or foreigner, “because when they talk, that’s what they sound like.”

The story brough a few thoughts to my head:

1) Need for effective enforcement of minimum wage.

2) Utility of a trade unions.

3) Xenophobia will not die easy.

4) Comparison to USA and Mexican labourers?



The scorching sun impedes movement while the smell of dagga (marijuana) wafts through the air, carried by the howls of small children.  I sit in an old chair, drawn to the last remaining shadow in a steadily decreasing area close to the neighbor’s shack.

My visitor is new to Riemvasmaak and is describing the ritual for informing his ancestors he has moved.  He offers umqomboti, the homemade maize beer revered by the Xhosa tribe, and introduces himself.  “Me, my name is Zaliwe.  Another name is Welcome.  Surname is…”

Behind him, a young boy, shirtless in the sun, pushes around an old tire with two short planks of wood pushed into the hollow core.

Zaliwe wears a striped shirt, alternating stripes of dark and light red.  The collar is turned up and it is ripped on one sleeve.  He leans backward on the stump he uses for a chair, effecting a kind of self-cooling system by lifting his shirt and holding it between his shoulder blades and the wall to reveal a thin, muscular back.  Light blue jeans taper off at (out of place) black dress shoes, worse for wear and losing flakes of leather. The end of a “Black Label” lanyard hangs out of his back pocket.  Dark eyes with yellowed whites look down upon sunken check and a scraggly goatee. A white and grey beanie bunches up at the top of his head.

He worked as a fork life operator for eight years before losing his job in 2008.  He relates his job search and his struggle, never losing a sense of hope.  “It is not only me suffering.  I ate this morning; I should be grateful.”

Conversations in the township often veer into sermonettes.  Zaliwe is no different.  He reveals a staunch faith that teeters between fatalistic and realistic., punctuating statements with “If I’m not supposed to die today…” and “It is God that gives you life.”  He also describes racism in the New South Africa and his new child.  I tell him about my life and where I come from.

We discuss the perils of unemployment in Port Elizabeth and the quest to transcend it.  He shows me his CV and it reveals a man who is immensely qualified to do what he does, but it also shows the lack of familiarity and understanding of the Information Economy.  People who are otherwise qualified are unable to produce effective CVs to market themselves.  In this case, Zaliwe had solicited help from the police station, which charges six rand to enter your information into a program which prints out a CV.  A useful service, only it is not personal or precise enough to render good results.

But better than nothing, anyhow.  I asked if I could borrow the CV for the weekend.  Time will tell if anything I can be helpful.


Packing list for move:

1 tattered, red and white blanket

2 pairs of shoes

2 of every other essential article of clothing

1 jacket

1 winter hat

1 puzzle of Africa

The house is 3.2 x 3.7 meters.  I know this not because I am Rainman, but because it is spray painted in large red numbers on a dusty piece of scrap metal that is perched above the double swinging window at the front of the shack.  On each side, old addresses from previous government administrations have been marked and forgotten by the (Housing Department).  The current address, RVO 337, is hardly distinguishable from the multiple previous manifestations.  This is a classic “shack,” walls and roof of silver and rust from edge to edge.  A single, wooden door to the right of the windows allows a manageable space for entry before wedging stuck between the laminate floor and plywood ceiling.

Inside, the room is dominated by a full-size bed, complete with decorative duvet and pillow covers.  In case of insomnia, the wallpaper features newspaper from 2008, horizontally plastered for ease of reading.  Last night, I christened a crossword puzzle by filling in the word, “engine.”  A fairly “busy” wall, the only additional adornment are three poster/photos of 50 Cent.  Underneath one, on a worn, but still very comfortable loveseat sits Thabiso.  With his diffusive yet goofy smile, the only obvious resemblance he has to his hero is a gold tooth, and a stab from a fight over a girl.  A paraffin lamp sits on the bedside table while a battery-powered radio dictates in Xhosa.

It is not your average bachelor pad, but a largely resembles a place of transience, as Thabiso has been “commuting” for two years from this shack in Riemvasmaak to his parent’s house in Izinyoka for food, clothing, and bathing.  I make fun of him for being a “mama’s boy,” while some in the community call him bederft. Nevertheless, there is a bucket outside for a toilet and a basin inside for bathing.

We spent the afternoon I first moved in sitting on the couch, and getting acquainted while putting together a puzzle of the continent.  He honored me by bestowing upon me a Xhosa name, Elethu.  He explained that his reasons: first, it forms a piece of his full name, Thabisolethu, symbolizing that we were brothers; second, the literal meeting is “our hope,” which he said is what I symbolized to the community.  “I am the first one of my family to go overseas,” he grinned.  “I have an American living in my home!”

Thabiso has been unemployed since 2008.  He says this with no emotion. He estimates that Riemvasmaak experiences 65% unemployment.  This is no scientific study, but accurately captures the depth of the issue in South Africa.

There is a photo of his daughter on his cell phone, which turns itself on and off of it’s own volition.  He sees the girl’s mother a couple of days a week when she is not working, but cannot stay too long, otherwise he will incite her parent’s ire.  When Liefie was born, Thabiso’s parents had to visit hers to pay a fee for the pregnancy.  Now, he has to wait until he can earn enough money to present a “labola” in order to marry her.  He usually refers to her as “my future wife.”  Her brother is frightened of him.  “He won’t look me in the eye,” he explains.

Most people in Riempi can’t afford airtime (which functions pay-as-you-go, like a debit card), but everyone seems to have a cell phone, anyway.  The phone companies have a function whereby you can send an SMS that reads, “Please Call Me” to any other phone for free.  You simply enter a short code before the appropriate phone number.  If you’re cagey, there is room for a message of about 6 characters alongside the “Please Call Me.”  My friend, Andre,  has saved every number he has in his phonebook with the code in front, meaning this is the sole function for which he uses the phone.  Thabiso and his girlfriend have a ritual communication each day before she goes to work.  She sends a PCM with a message that reads: t.ilu.d.  Decoded, it means: Thabiso, I love you, Disa.

Most township denizens are entrepreneurial at heart.  The ordinary individual has extraordinary dreams of buying low and selling high.  Thabiso is no exception.  Plans are now in the works to expand Thabiso’s shack to make room for a spaza shop (the equivalent of a corner store).  Buying paraffin and peanuts in bulk, one can sell for a modest profit.  In a few years, there may be enough for his labola.  He has decided the name will be “Thabiso and Elethu’s Spaza Shop”