THE LAST RESOURCE, SOUTH AFRICA | Apartheid and the useless men in our lives

Those who came to power became the new oppressors

Precious Mbewu, Prudence Mbewu and Evelyn Groenink


Anita, who sleeps on the floor with her five children, her granny and her two brothers in her one-roomed house, wakes up every morning at four AM to be on time at her cleaning job at a rich white school in town. She returns in the evening to cook for her kids, but can’t rest after that: it is now time to move on to the shisa nyama, where she dances on tables and hopes to find a guy who will part with two hundred Rand (US$ 14) for a session with her. Sometimes they don’t want to pay that much. Sometimes the money she makes is barely enough to fill one of the lunchboxes -steak rolls, chicken legs, avocado salad- she sees the white children eat from at school.

STREAMER After work Anita dances on tables at the shisa nyama

“Whites stole from us,” she says when asked who is to blame for her misery and she has a point. It was whites who created areas like Mshengu, Atteridgeville, for superfluous black people, only wanted for menial jobs like cleaning, but made to disappear out of sight as soon as that work was done. Large numbers of black people -in SA, a quarter of the population lives on less than US$ 1, 90 a day- are still relegated to places like Mshengu, with its daily rape cases, faeces stink, streaming rubbish.

Losing your soul

Eleven out of fifteen women we speak to in Mshengu do what Anita does, even if you risk HIV and your reputation. It makes you feel low, like you are someone you are not, that you have lost your soul, in the words of some of the interviewed women who sit outside their shacks waiting for piece jobs until they too have to go and seek out men who’ll pay them at night. Almost all say that they hate it. “I have seen people die of Aids,” says Nomthle, -part of the minority- who often goes hungry but says she will not resort to selling sex because of what she has seen. “It is horrible.”

It is because Anita and many others think that whites are to blame that the red uniformed Economic Freedom Front (EFF) ‘fighters’, opposition to the ruling ANC, obtain a following in Mshengu. The fighters never stop talking about the ANC being too soft on whites, how things should be taken from whites and given to the black majority. Even jobs, it says on the posters that hang all over here: our land and our jobs. It is not clear what jobs they are talking about, though, or where they will get money for salaries from. Or how you will get proper electrical infrastructure here that is affordable and doesn’t kill your children. A nine year-old girl died here recently on her way to the shop. She stepped into a ditch, lost her balance and stepped onto one of the snakes, the izinyoka, the illegal electricity connections that run through puddles and over metal fences. 

Another reason why Mshengu is full of EFF posters is because everybody here lives the reality of ANC government corruption. Nomthle mentions how the allocation of houses in the ‘Reconstruction and Development’ social housing programme (RDP) is decided by ruling party bureaucrats who favour their relatives and friends; others how there are no medicines in the clinic. The question is if you can trust those others, the red politicians. They may not wear their fifty-thousand Rand (US$ 3,500) shoes and bring their Louis Vuitton bags when they visit here to make their rousing speeches but they also will never come here after the elections. It is the same as during apartheid: the poor are hidden from sight and to forget about them again will be the easiest thing in the world.

The big stomach men

Moutse, Groblersdal

Moutse, one hundred and seventy-five kilometers east of here, is perhaps even more invisible. Here, too, women get by having sex with ‘any man who can provide,’ and here, too, they know that the politicians are corrupt. It is the reason why Moutse, twenty five years after liberation, still doesn’t have water, even though pipes and budgets were delivered once. Pieces of pipe can still be seen lying on the side of the road, overgrown with weeds. The difference with Mshengu is that the corrupt politicians are so close by. They are their landlords, the women say.

They talk of the ‘big stomach men’ from the ‘department of whatwhat’  who own the houses where they live. The houses sure look like RDP houses with their grey concrete uniformity, but nevertheless the women who live here pay rent and sex to men they call both landlords and boyfriends, as if these terms are interchangeable. Sometimes the landlords come to see the babies they made, which is good, because then they bring clothes and food and sometimes money.  

STREAMER You seem to have formulated an opinion of your own, which is dangerous

Asked about this, the spokesman from the municipality writes to say that he doesn’t know which houses we are talking about. This is surprising because this has been explained to him in detail: left from Moutse mall and after three hundred meters right at the tavern on the side of the road to Bronkhorstspruit. But the spokesman, still writing about the houses, also asserts that “you seem to have formulated an opinion of your own, which is dangerous.”

There is not much dancing on tables here. Even the local hub, Moutse mall, is grey and dilapidated: just another project that made money for someone, briefly, and then withered.  The women here simply hope for a baby daddy, landlord or politician, to add to the child welfare Social Security (SASSA) grant of around four hundred Rand (US$ 28) per month; or go with the truck drivers that move between here and the mines further north and the farms of Groblersdal.

Six out of the fifteen women we interview here say they do just that. “At first I would fall in love,” says Hlengiwe. “But it gets easier with time.” Three others suspect that their daughters are doing it. “I see her come home with food,” says Janey, “and I don’t ask where she got it.” A girl of around fifteen on the side of the road tells us that the richest girl in class is the one with the sugar daddy who gives her make-up and clothes. “And she has custard in her lunch box,” she says, with some longing.

STREAMER At first I would fall in love but it gets easier with time

Maybe, in an ideal world, the municipality would do something in terms of helping to farm, helping with child- and after school care, helping the small businesses the women try to run: growing peanuts in the yard and selling them, selling hairpieces. A caring police would assist them when customers don’t want to pay, because sometimes when you don’t want to give away your wares for free you get beaten up.

But the municipality doesn’t help the women and their children. It appears to much rather spend money in odd ways.  Besides depositing budgets through the fraudulent Zuma-era VBS bank (1), and losing that money, locals say it also pays R 500 000 a month, more than US$  35,000, for a garbage collection contract to someone who does not actually collect the garbage. The household rubbish and the waste from Moutse mall is instead collected for free by the local NGO, simply because otherwise there will be more rats and more disease in the river, and the nice NGO people can’t stand by and tolerate that, even if some might call them enablers of the garbage contract landlord thief.

Colourful signs

Asked about the garbage collection contract the municipality spokesman responds (sic) that “the municipality collected refuse removal twice a week to the following village Motetema, Hlogotlou and Elensdoorn (Elandsdoring covers the main part of Moutse, ed.) and that “there is a plan in place for refuse removal however there are people who taking waste privately to the Landfill site.”

The nice NGO people also ran an HIV/Aids and ARV distribution programme with home care until last year. But then the health department, saying it could provide the same care much cheaper. It took over the programme and now you can’t get home care anymore, say locals, let alone ARV’s because they run out, and you can only go test for HIV if you enter the clinic with another person: everyone is seen in pairs because of understaffing. “Who is going to ask to test for HIV when your neighbour is right there watching?” asks Hlengiwe. With a reputation for Aids you might as well die immediately if you are a woman in Moutse.

STREAMER Jolene has stopped breastfeeding because her partner sleeps around

So nobody goes anymore. You simply live with the feeling that you may have Aids. There are huge, colourful, signs, placed there by the NGO, all along the road past Moutse mall to Groblersdal: AIDS is everyone’s problem, don’t be a fool – put a condom on your tool, be wise, condomise. But Jolene has stopped breastfeeding because her partner sleeps around and refuses to wear condoms. Asked why they broke something that was working fine, the municipal spokesman says we must ask the health department.

If there is nothing else, you subsist on the SASSA grant with your kids, but sometimes you don’t even receive all of that. “The baby daddy will offer to draw the money so that the mother can stay home with the kids, and then take his own ‘share,’” says the NGO worker. She narrates how one day a young man came to her office for help because he was an ‘orphan,’ and as she checked his paperwork, he opened his wallet and she saw five SASSA cards, one for each girlfriend who had had his babies.  “He was collecting the money for all five of them.”

The criminals

Lots of things are the same in Moutse and Mshengu. The criminality, the corruption, the pain, the neglect. You might as well embrace the criminals. It’s what Thembi in Mshengu does: she helps the Nigerians forge money and also does sex work when needed. “It’s fine for me she says, grinning. “Though to make good money you need to polish up your English and work on your beauty.”

STREAMER Sammy is dead because he stole some tyres

You must just know you can’t steal from the big stomach men. Sammy, the young tsotsi (thief) who lived with his mother in Moutse, is dead now because he stole some tyres from the car shop that belongs to one of them. Sammy, locals say, was taken from his home to the car shop and beaten to death, but not before nails were drilled into his skull as a message. Sammy’s mother buried him and nobody in Moutse speaks of what happened anymore when we visit, three days later. Only the NGO worker cries.

The municipal spokesman writes to say we must talk to the local police about this matter weeks after he has promised to pass the questions on.

Politicians who don’t respect us

The question is who is to blame for all this. Whites? Apartheid? Men? The ANC? “Powers in society and politicians,” say Yvonne and Nomsa. Hlengiwe mentions “government with its false promises,” Nomthle the corruption and Yvonne “the politicians who don’t respect us.”  Maggie, in Mshengu, blames the  “fathers who abandoned us” whilst Yonela summarises “men, as well as apartheid.”  “We were let down by men who were let down by the government,” says Khabo in Moutse, while Busi in Mshengu emphasises the “useless men in our lives;  generations of useless men.”  

They know that there is something wrong with men, almost all of them, but that they still have to please them with sex and risk disease and death if they want to feed their kids, every night again. So far, no politician has ever talked to any of them about any of that. 

Not even the women politicians. The Moutse municipality mayor is a woman but she never shows her face around here. The minister of water affairs until recently, Nomvula Mokonyane, is only known here as the one who brought the pieces of water pipe that still lie on the side of the road; the one whose fault it is that the children here are plagued by eye and ear infections for lack of regular washing with clean water.

STREAMER Linda’s daughter was in a movie, but she is back now

Some deal in their own way with the challenges of this universe. Like Thembi, who joined the gangsters, Linda in Moutse knows how to maneuver to get things. As we knock on her neighbour’s door for an interview Linda invites us to visit her instead, then ambushes the NGO worker who is with us with loud demands for food parcels. She has also corralled some apparently unattached children from the street and announces she’ll visit the welfare office to get grants for all three of them.

Linda’s own daughter can testify to her mum’s ability to spot an opportunity and make connections: she actually landed a role in the poor-black-women-and-HIV movie Life Above All that was shown in Cannes to much acclaim in 2010. But the daughter is back now, the NGO worker says. She is concerned that Linda is now pushing her to make money again, if need be on the road to Marble Arch, where Linda herself is also often seen.

Linda’s house has a fridge and a stove, a combination rarely seen in Moutse. But the NGO worker knows that even these possessions of crazy Linda, who blabbers on about how she works at a bank, whilst everyone knows what she really does, have come at the cost of much pain, too.

The new oppressors

“The pain continues from the days of apartheid,” says Emily, who is a social worker, an academic and an activist with the Bolsheviks: a small local opposition party with a minor representation in the city council, from where they -mostly unsuccessfully- protest corrupt tenders. “There is a vicious cycle in which those who came to power became the new oppressors and the men take it out on the women.” Emily combines passion for corruption-fighting and for the Bolsheviks (“Not the EFF, we know them to be just as corrupt as the ANC”), with feminism. Or rather, with an understanding for the mechanisms that turn men exploitative of, as well as oppressive and violent against, women.

“They have come to need violence,” she responds when we ask why ‘big man N,’  the car shop owner, would have felt the need to torture young Sammy by drilling nails into his head before killing him.  Couldn’t N, as a powerful man in the community, easily have ordered the police to arrest the thief?  But Emily explains that that would not at all be enough for the likes of N. “They want to brag: “Did you see how I killed him?” They brag equally about owning women, she continues. “They will say with conviction that equal rights for women are not on. That 50-50 -it’s what they call it -is a Mandela thing that they will beat out of our heads. They say that it is our culture.”

STREAMER Men have become perverted versions of men

But traditionally men were breadwinners and protectors, not murderers, exploiters and threats to their own. “It has been perverted -they have become perverted versions of men.” And all women are hookers? “Yes. You could say that.”  

Hopes for protest

Asked if there is hope, Emily says there should be a new -but better- Truth Commission, like the one that heard victims of apartheid in the nineties. Only this one should be for South Africa’s women to tell their stories “and be taken seriously, ward by ward.” And she hopes for protest. “There was one last week. They shouted at the premier who came campaigning. They demanded to see the provincial minister who is responsible for water, and the one for education.” A follow up protest meeting is planned, too, she says, but not for this weekend. This weekend everyone will be busy queueing or sending others to queue at the bank teller machines. It is SASSA weekend: month end, when the child welfare grants are paid out.

When we pay Anita her fixer’s fee of R 500 (US 35) for having introduced us to her Mshengu neighbours, she cries, because it means she can stay at home for the rest of the day without needing to go to the shisa nyama to dance on tables.

  • VBS Mutual Bank collapsed this year after being fleeced by the very people entrusted with looking after depositors’ money. Prominent politicians in the ruling party (ANC) had pushed municipalities to deposit large amounts of money in its accounts. Politicians in the opposition EFF party, who are influential in the northern provinces, also benefited from the fraud.

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CHAPTER 6: THE LAST RESOURCE, SOUTH AFRICA | Apartheid and the useless men in our lives

CHAPTER 7: THE LAST RESOURCE, UGANDA | A very public secret