2017-02-16 18:04:54 UTC
South Africa, a Nation With Sharp Inequality, Considers a Minimum Wage
By NORIMITSU ONISHI, FEB. 15, 2017, NY Times
KHAYELITSHA, South Africa He works in AIDS prevention & his wife
gets the occasional gig at a local supermarket. But neither job is
regular enough for a proper home, Zwai Lugogo says, so his family
lives in a shack here in Cape Towns largest black township, making
do with thin walls of painted metal.
Many of his neighbors housekeepers, factory workers, nurses aides
are in the same predicament, working hard at jobs available to
black South Africans, but barely scraping by.
That money that were getting from work is just not enough to be
able to take care of our families, said Mr. Lugogo, 34, as
neighborhood children, including his 3-year-old son, ran around
their narrow street recently. We need an intervention.
South Africa is now considering one. Faced with rising discontent
over the economy among black voters, the govt is weighing something
more common in developed economies: a national minimum wage.
Late last year, a government panel recommended about $260 a month,
or about $1.50 an hour a small amount even in South Africa, but
close to the median income in a country where the official unemploy-
ment rate is 27% & nearly half the population lives in poverty.
Last week, the nations deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, endorsed
the panels recommendation, vowing that the minimum wage would be
in effect by May 2018. But in such a sluggish economy, opponents
contend that the effort would destroy jobs, especially for the
Supporters counter that a minimum wage is the only way to reduce
poverty in one of the worlds most unequal societies, helping to
dismantle an apartheid-era system designed to provide cheap black
labor for an economy dominated by the white minority.
In few places do divisions run as deep as in South Africa. Wealthy
communities with living standards equal to those in the West and
inhabited disproportionately by whites rub shoulders uneasily with
desperately poor townships. A government survey released in January
found that black South Africans, who make up 80% of the population,
earned only one-fifth of what whites did in 2015.
Some smaller African economies, like those of Cameroon, Ghana and
Ivory Coast, already have a national minimum wage. But only a small
percentage of their workers are in the formal economy and therefore
eligible for the minimum, experts say. And even for them, the rules
tend not to be enforced.
A national minimum wage would be more meaningful in a big economy
like South Africas, experts say, because the formal work force is
much larger, around 80 percent of all workers. Millions of people
would be eligible.
Still, South Africa, sub-Saharan Africas most advanced economy, is
enduring the same forces as the rest of the continent. It is not
growing fast enough to absorb its rapidly growing population, which
is leaving rural areas to look for work in places like Khayelitsha,
one of the countrys biggest townships with about 400,000 people.
There is added urgency for the govt to act: The African National
Congress, which helped liberate black South Africans from white-
minority rule and has governed the country since 1994, is still
stinging from losing most of the nations biggest cities in
elections last July. The party could once bank on loyal support
from the nations black majority. But corruption and economic
stagnation for millions of people have steadily eroded that support
over the years, resulting in the partys worst showing in elections
since the end of apartheid in 1994.
The frustrations are evident in Khayelitsha. It is roughly situated
between two of South Africas richest areas: the city of Cape Town
and the famed wine country of Stellenbosch. Established in 1983 by
the apartheid government, Khayelitsha, which means new home in
Xhosa, still provides many of the workers for both communities.
On weekday mornings, soon after daybreak, the men and women of
Khayelitsha leave their neighborhoods & walk to the nearest train
or bus station. For many, the commute a legacy of apartheid-era
urban planning to separate white and black areas takes up to a
couple of hours each way.
Many on Mr. Lugogos street, known as Twecu Crescent, said their
commute cost them a quarter or a third of their monthly wages. For
black South Africans nationwide, the cost of taxis, buses & other
passenger road transportation accounts for 5.4% of their expenses,
compared with 0.2% for whites, who tend to own cars.
A bus called the Golden Arrow stopped not far from Twecu Crescent
with a few passengers already on board. It made several stops in
Khayelitsha &, after passing a densely packed stretch of shanties,
some precariously stacked two high, it pulled out of the township
on its way toward Cape Town. Headed to residential areas, the bus
transported mostly women who worked in malls or in homes as
Along the way, in a scene repeated in many buses that morning, a
woman, in this instance Julia Xakata, began preaching & leading the
others in song. Some sang softly while checking their cellphones.
Sitting near the front of the bus next to a window, Makatiso
Sekhamane moved her lips while knitting a black cap. I knit
whenever I have some free time, Ms. Sekhamane, 47, said, explaining
that she usually completed a cap in two days & sold it for about $4.
Its something. The caps supplemented the $400 a month she made
working six days a week cleaning white peoples homes. Her husband
earned maybe $150 repairing refrigerators. Their combined income
supports five children and two grandchildren at home.
Much of the discussion surrounding a national minimum wage led by
government, business, labor & academics is expected to focus on
the amount. According to the panels report, a monthly minimum wage
of about $260 would maximize benefits to the poor and minimize any
possible disincentives to work. The amount proposed by the panel
is below the working poverty line of $325 a month, but because the
median income of South African workers is only $280 a month, the
minimum would help reduce inequality, the panel said.
On Twecu Crescent, many of the employed already earn the proposed
minimum, or more. But their wages are far below the salaries earned
by the few residents in the nicest homes $600 a month for a govt
worker, $900 a month for a young police officer.
The proposed minimum is not enough, said Nombeko Mndangaso, who
earns about $165 a month working five hours a day as a cleaner in
a nursing home. It wont make a difference. With her husband,
who makes $245 a month as a full-time security guard, they earn
more than $400 a month. But with rent, transportation, electricity
and two daughters, there is little left at the end of the month.
A minimum wage of at least $340 a month per person, she said,
would improve her familys situation.
Sparsely populated a generation ago, Twecu Crescent now has little
or no space between homes. Many homeowners earn extra income by
renting out shacks on their property to the endless stream of new
arrivals to Khayelitsha. On Twecu Crescent, a short street divided
into two blocks, the handful of sturdily built homes belonging to
the upwardly mobile stand out. There is, in a two-story house, the
woman who works at a bank; down the street, the man employed by the
government power utility; and, on the corner, the police officer
whose still unfinished house has a new red Peugeot in the driveway
and a low wall with spikes to discourage people from sitting on it.
The street is otherwise lined with more modest homes under corrugated
roof sheets, inhabited by those making a third or half of what those
in the nicer homes do, and shacks of varying quality occupied by
those worse off. Discolored concrete blocks are neatly piled in many
front yards, a sign of the slow and unsteady pace of progress for
most on Twecu Crescent.
Sinovuyo Gadas family moved here in 1998. There was no road here,
just gravel, she said. There were no houses, just shacks. Her
father, a welder, & her mother, who sells homemade food from a shack
in their front yard, built the house in which she & her brother grew
up. After finishing high school in 2012, she sent out her résumé to
countless companies for three years before finally securing a part-
time job through a friend. She now works four days a week at a
supermarket at a mall in Cape Town, earning $60 a week. About 30% of
that, or $18, goes to transportation. Ms. Gada, 22, is part of the
born-free generation of black South Africans who came of age after
apartheids fall. But like many in her cohort, she was deeply
dissatisfied with the pace of change in her familys circumstances.
The apartheid, its still there, she said. The wages she earned
from the job that took so long in finding would do little to improve
her situation, she said. She did not believe that a monthly minimum
of $260 would help. Employers control the balance of power over
people like her, she said. They think sometimes we are desperate,
she said. Yes, we are desperate, because we have families & children
to take care of.
It was early evening, &, all over Khayelitsha, men & women started
coming home, most of them walking from bus stops to their streets,
their gait slower than in the morning. On Twecu Crescent, girls sat
on a corner playing a game of rocks. A boy pushing an old tire with
a stick cast a long shadow up the street. The woman who was knitting
on the bus, Ms. Sekhamane better known on Twecu Crescent as Mama
Kakiso, or the mother of Kakiso, her son arrived home. She had had
a busy day and, arriving late at the bus stop, had found no available
seats on the Golden Arrow. She took a taxi instead, paying an amount
equivalent to half the price of one of her black caps. Im going to
wash my body & sleep now, Mama Kakiso said as she slipped into her
home. I cant do anything.