Are we really stealing your jobs?

2015-04-27 12:00

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A Nigerian-South African remembers what it was like to grow up in this country and her family’s relentless slog to get ahead

These street vendors ply their trade on the streets of Joburg. The writer says there is a disgusting entitlement attached to the notion that jobs can be stolen. This implies that there are jobs waiting for you.
Picture: Nelius Rademan

Growing up in South Africa, I was always reminded by those around me that I was different. In primary school, I had a much darker complexion than I do now and superwhite teeth – the marks of a foreigner that betray you even when you put on your best English accent.

My name is Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi. I am Nigerian. I was born to two Nigerian parents. I was raised in Queenstown, Eastern Cape, by those parents until I completed my bachelor’s degree at Stellenbosch. I bear the citizenship of both worlds. I speak fluent isiXhosa, Igbo, Afrikaans and English. I can make sense of Setswana and Sesotho.

I enjoy a good braai, I love vetkoek and bunny chow, I can’t get enough of Bokomo Weet-Bix, I love Ouma rusks and I can pull off my pantsulas with any outfit on a lazy Saturday when I want to head to town. I am the first to break it down with the ngwaza and the ndombolo at the sound of some decent House music or kwaito, be it in Pick n Pay or at a party.

I can sokkie and I enjoy it, my darkest moments can be reversed by koeksisters and a cup of rooibos tea any day. I can jump between the high- pitched and arguably annoying accents of some Constantia mums, the lank kif and apparently sophisticated English of my Hilton brothers and the heavy accents of my fellow Eastern Capers. I can even attempt the fast-paced, lyrical Afrikaans of my coloured brothers in the Cape.

I am as South African as you need me to be.

Navigating spaces

But my ability to navigate all these spaces did not just happen. Learning to blend into all these spaces was a matter of survival for me. You see, from the day I set foot in Queenstown and started primary school, it was always made very clear to me that I was an outsider.

I only had white friends in my first few years in school because the other black girls couldn’t understand why I was black, but only spoke English. They thought I thought I was better than them. So I spent most of my breaks eating my peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches, surrounded by those who had Melrose cheese and Provita crackers with Bovril in their lunch boxes. The rest of the time I spent alone, save for the few brave souls of similar complexion who tried to befriend me.

What nobody knew was that for the first three years of my life in South Africa, my little brother and I barely saw my dad.

What was he doing absent from home other than selling pillowcases, duvets and sheets from door to door, on foot through the streets, villages and back roads of the old Transkei and Ciskei. My father would leave the house on Monday mornings after he and my mum got us ready for school and he would be gone for days, even weeks, on end selling the few supplies he had. On foot.

We were never sure when he would return. But when he did, we were always more grateful for his safety and the fact that he was alive.

From Queenstown to Cala, Mthatha, Qumbu, Qoqodala, Whittlesea, Mount Fletcher, King William’s Town, Mdantsane, Bhisho, Indwe, Butterworth, Aliwal North, and even as far as Matatiele and Kokstad. There were so many other places he went to that I do not even know of.

That is how my parents put us through school, until they saved up enough money to open their own little shop where they started selling sewing machines and cotton, and then community phones, sweets and chips, takeaways and then hair products. The list goes on. It was on this that I was able to go through primary school, high school and university. My parents have no tertiary education. It was not until their late forties that they decided to register for part-time studies at the Walter Sisulu University to get their diplomas.

It took them four years to do this because they were busy trying to keep their kids in school, while selling sweets and sewing machines, and trying to dignify their efforts with a degree.

Starting at the bottom

My story is not unique. It is the story of most foreigners in South Africa.

Very few foreigners come here with skills that make them employable. Unless you are a medical doctor, an academic, maybe an engineer or an established businessman before coming here, your chances of getting meaningful employment in South Africa are almost impossible.

Most foreigners arrive with the ability to braid hair, carve wood or sell fruit, vegetables, clothes and sweets. Some are graduates, but what can an African degree do for you in South Africa?

All of us started at the bottom, doing work that carries no dignity and very little financial reward.

But when you have left or lost everything you know and love, and end up in a foreign country as unwelcoming in its laws and restrictions as South Africa, you have few choices available to you.

I can bet you there are not even 10% of South Africans who would be willing to do the menial and embarrassing work my parents and other foreigners did for as long as they did, and for as little financial reward as they did. So it annoys me, to the deepest part of my being, when South Africans say we are stealing their jobs.

Lazy arguments

South Africans who spout these arguments are lazy. There is a disgusting entitlement attached to the notion that jobs can be stolen. This implies

that there are jobs waiting for you – of which there are none.

Pick up a bucket and start washing cars. Put on your shoes and walk through your streets selling tea, eggs and tomatoes – anything people eat, they will buy. Or pick up a book, hustle your way into university, work for a scholarship and get yourself an education. But stop this senselessness. Nobody is stealing your jobs.

I got my first job when I was 11 years old. I worked on the school bus in my town. I collected money for the bus driver, wrote out receipts and kept order on the bus. I didn’t get paid much, but it helped me learn that nothing comes easy. I learnt to be responsible and accountable to someone else.

So people see me and my family now, several years later, driving a decent car and living in an average house and they say: “Ningama kwerekwere, asinifuni apha. Niqaphele, aningobalapha. (You are foreigners, we do not want you here. You better watch out, you are not of this place.)”

They are unaware of, and unwilling to hear of, the years of struggle and hustle that came with the decent car and the average house. (Which, by the way, you can never fully own as South African law now restricts ownership of property by foreigners – but that’s another discussion.)

Is it really the little Ethiopian man with his spaza shop who is threatening your progress, na bhuthi? Is it really the Nigerian woman who braids hair and sells Fanta who is stealing your job and place in your own land, na sisi?

Nwadeyi studied international relations, and peace and conflict studies. She works with a recruitment technology firm in Lagos

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