The official unemployment rate in South Africa is 25%. According to some sources more than 50% of young South Africans (18-24) are unemployed and as many as 66% of South African women.
The other day as I pulled out of the Johannesburg campus and headed home to Pretoria I passed long lines of people coming through the tall brown grasses of the open veldt between the school and the nearest township. Parents and children and stooped old folks all walking up the road carrying buckets and pails and jugs. Some pushed rusted, bent-wheeled barrows loaded with containers. They’d been without water for the better part of two weeks and were now walking 2-3 miles to the nearest taps.
Most of the support staff at the school cross between parallel worlds every day. In Pretoria they stay in Mamelodi, a sprawling tapestry of shacks built of scrap and poles and sheathed with corrugated metal sheets or bits of scrap metal and plastic. Many of our staff are the one working member of their extended families. Elizabeth sends home money to aunts, uncles, brothers, and cousins. Some months she runs short.
Mr. Ben, she says. I need to talk to you.
She always waits for me to sit first. She explains it is her culture.
It is not a simple request. She explains. Ten years ago I was impatient for the bottom line. Now I listen until it is right time to give her money for food to last to the end of the month.
For her, for the drivers, for the cleaners, gardeners, and security workers, I have listened and paid first month rent for the kids going to university, paid school fees, paid taxi fare, paid to have a nightmare over electrical billing with the municipality go away, paid for cows for weddings and cows for funerals, paid for the vast amounts of food that must accompany funerals.
The Pretoria campus used to be located near the US Embassy. Each year the Embassy sponsors a jumble sale.
Elizabeth and Christine asked if they could go. I always say yes.
It is just a short walk across the way and they go early so they can buy the household goods and clothing from embassy staff who are leaving. I always gave the ladies something to spend as well. The first few years no one said anything. Not a thanks, or anything. It didn’t bother me but I wondered.
It took a couple of years before people began to say thank you.
Today I gave them each 150 Rands (about $20). Elizabeth got all teary and put her hand on her heart and looked down at the floor scuffed her feet, cleared her throat, mumbled.
Elizabeth is my age and big. She could look me eye to eye. When we move school furniture she hikes the elementary tables up and carries them on her head. When she worked at the Jo’burg campus and her husband beat her she stabbed him with a kitchen knife. She is not a woman who is going to be pushed around but suddenly she was just a shy kid.
She said they have never had a job like this before. One where they were treated nice and God must be smiling on them to have sent them this, sent them me.
I was mumbled and cleared my throat equally struck by the moment.
Later, they called me in to the cafeteria where they were having their tea break to show me what they had bought at the jumble sale.
Elizabeth had brought a real suitcase. She opened it and caressed the silky inner lining. Her big rough hands so soft and gentle with this treasure.
I have never quite been sure if their thanks are a blessing or a burden but I see her hands against the blue silk lining of that suitcase and know that it is worth it either way.