“We are the burnt out stompies of South Africa. When we are healthy and strong, we are in great demand. But we all get old and ill before our time from too much hard work and too little comfort. Then we are thrown aside like burnt out cigarettes. Like a cigarette stompie we are then of no use.”
These are the words of Oom Jan Schoeman. He is an old man from Prince Albert, – a small, dry, dusty town in the Karoo.
Prince Albert is no place for the weak. In summer it gets so hot that you can fry an egg on the pavement. In winter, so cold you can lose your teeth with all the chattering.
And like every other town in this country, Prince Albert has a location – a fenced off location.
That is where the poor people live. They live in little houses with no electricity and running water. For toilets there are buckets outside. And to get water people must take a long walk to a tap that is shared by many.
Most of the people work on the sheep farms or get piece jobs in the town. The wages they get are not bad they are terrible. For example, Mrs Annah Ras, a domestic worker, gets R1.50 a week. She has a family of four to feed.
Mr Hendrick Piet collects rubbish and empties the bucket toilets. He gets R24 a month. Before he can buy food or clothes; he must pay R11.35 for rent.
Then there are those with no jobs at all. And there are many of these people. How do they feed their families or pay their rent? How can they pay the high prices of today like 74 cents for sunlight soap or R1.98 for a kilo of sugar?
Life is a struggle for these poor people of Prince Albert. But they are not finished yet. They have not lost hope.
The “stompies” of Prince Albert are fighting back. They began to fight back a long time ago. At first the people began to speak out. They began to question the uncomfortable rides in the back of the farmer’s bakkie in the terrible heat – or in the freezing cold while the farmer’s dog sits in the front.
And then they began to fight against one of their biggest problems – evictions. Evictions have been a problem for many years. The municipality evict people who don’t pay their rent. And, the people will tell you, they sometimes evict people who do pay their rent.
“The municipality is often in the wrong’ says Oom Jan. “The people pay their rent – but the people who work in the rent office don’t sign the forms. Or they put the wrong date on the receipt.
“Sometimes they will come and say you owe them rent for a year or more. How can they come after a year and say you have not paid? This is not right. They let you pay and pay and they say nothing. Then suddenly they come and say you owe money since 1982. They give you two weeks to pay – or be evicted.”
Take the story of Mrs Dora Vries: the municipality wanted to charge her for the rent of the people who lived in the house before her. She took the municipality to court in 1982 -and she won her case. But after the case, her problems were not over. In February this year she got another letter saying she was behind with her rent. Once again, they were charging her for the other peoples’ rent.
Oom Jan himself has fought against evictions. He took the municipality to court when they kicked him out of his house in 1980. He won his case in the Cape Town Supreme Court -but he has still not got his house back.
He now lives in a small house outside the location.
Oom Jan did not only fight for himself. For a long time, his house was full of papers and documents that belonged to other people. He spent much time trying to help other people with their problems. He still sticks stories from newspapers on the outside walls of his house. He wants his friends and neighbours to know what is happening in the world.
Many people are angry with the management committee that runs the location. “The management committee has done nothing for us,” says Mrs Maggie Jaftha. “They don’t know our problems and we don’t know them. Because these people are on the committee, the municipality looks after them. But they don’t look after us. We need to look after ourselves. We need an organisation to speak for us, to protect us. To make sure this happens, our organisation must have leaders from the people who suffer most -not those who are better off.”
And that is exactly what the people did. A few months ago the people joined together in an organisation. They called their organisation the Prince Albert Workers Association. Now the poor people of Prince Albert can work together to solve their problems. They know strength comes from unity.
And the organisation follows Maggie Jaftha’s advice. The leaders of the organisation come from the poor people themselves.
And only the poor working people can belong to the organisation. Already the organisation is helping people with evictions and other problems.
The people chose Oom Jan to be the chairperson of their organisation. They trust him to talk for them. He is one of them.
“Here at this most southern point of Africa, there is enough for everybody,” says Oom Jan. “If a person does not want to work, then that person must not eat. But if a person is not lazy and is not scared of work, that person must not go hungry. This must be the rule for every healthy person.
“Like me, a standard three pupil, there are many workers who gave up their chance of schooling. They gave up school so others could carry on to become teachers, lawyers, office workers, doctors and ministers.
“While they sat on the school benches, we looked after the cattle, ploughed the land, chopped the wood and carried the water. We are the ones who made the bread and soap. While we were hard at work, these people reached their goals. So tell me, why do these people now keep us down?”