Postcard from Johannesburg

Saturday 1 March 2003, by Ingrid HEIN

PHOTO: Eza Paventi

For nearly 20 years, Godfrey Seneso has been guarding cars on 7th street in the Melville district of Johannesburg. He guides cars to an open spot, then keeps an eye on the car while its owner wines and dines or goes shopping. He makes sure nobody steals the car or anything in it, and he polishes it up so it looks sharp for the drive home. When the car owner returns, Seneso hopes the owner has the good grace to give him a tip; usually he gets one, but often there’s an excuse why the owner can’t cough up any change. Business is tough - and it’s only getting tougher.

With about 60% unemployment in Jo’burg, Seneso is happy to eke out a living on the streets. On a good day, he can make up to 70 Rands (about $12). But on January 1st, a company called Ushaka took ownership of the streets of Melville. Ushaka is a security company, claiming to "clean up" the streets, which charges Seneso 20 Rands every day he guards cars, cutting his maximum earnings to about 50 Rands. What’s more, Ushaka dictates how he should do his "job." He has to show up on time for a day or night "shift," work the street corner the company dictates, and wear a uniform buttoned the way the company tells him to.

He’s one of the lucky ones. Ushaka doesn’t let just anyone "work" as a car guard. "All the old guys have been chased away. At least 60 old guys who used to park cars are getting arrested if they come out. Ushaka chases them away," Seneso said. "They get arrested, then discharged without ever seeing a magistrate."

Just as I was interviewing Seneso, a stocky middle-aged guy holding a clipboard came bounding across the street. He inspected Seneso’s block, then angrily called a car guard over from the next block. "Come here! I want to talk to you!"

It’s a perfect example of a blatantly exploitive business created to the detriment and exploitation of poverty-stricken people in Jo’burg. It is ludicrous to privatize the work of beggars, charging them to have a street corner. Car guards are not the only ones being harassed. Police are also arresting street vendors and repossessing their goods, in order to "tidy up" the town.

It’s a sad state of affairs when begging gets privatized. In a city as crime-ridden as Jo’burg, car guards are an essential (if unregulated) service, but letting security companies exploit workers is not the way to make the street safer.

This is just another example of the post-apartheid new struggle that the poor of South Africa are fighting against.

Ingrid Hein, Alternatives media intern in Johannesburg, South Africa

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