Hidden Minority

Photographs and text by Ian Martin

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When I first heard the term "white poverty" in South Africa, I thought it was an oxymoron.  The only whites I had seen were affluent; they had nice cars, homes and a lifestyle enhanced by labor made cheap by their country's huge black poverty. In contrast, shanty towns ringed every city I visited. I didn’t see any white people living there. Most white South Africans enjoy a standard of living far higher than most non-whites. However, there are exceptions.
     While statistics on the phenomenon are scarce, one study suggests that half a million white South Africans live on less than $35 US dollars a month. A South African labor union study claims that poverty among whites rose 95% between 1994 and 2004. A United Nations study similarly states that poverty among whites grew from 1.5% of that population in 1994 to 6.9% in 2002. There are 4.5 million whites living in South Africa, a country with 49 million people. 40% of this country's black population lives in poverty.

Apartheid subjugated millions while guaranteeing jobs for a comparative handful of poor whites, a minority of a minority. Now, lower-class whites must compete for wages depressed by high unemployment, often working against affirmative action programs implemented to undo the stubborn legacy of apartheid’s enforced poverty. Some are unable to find sympathy for a group of people who benefited from apartheid’s oppression. But many of my subjects were children when apartheid ended and are not to blame for its injustice.
     The future of poor whites is uncertain in South Africa. Jacob Zuma, South Africa's controversial new president, has expressed his concern; he has even made two widely-publicized visits to a mostly white poverty shelter to call attention to the issue. But it has been 16 years since the end of whites-only rule, and millions of blacks and other non-whites are still deeply impoverished. The memory of apartheid has kept the ANC firmly in power. But the recent elections show that this support is not as complete as it once was. Patience is running out and Zuma and the ANC are under pressure to bring about the changes millions have been waiting for. Where that leaves South Africa's white poor remains to be seen. By photographing this subject, I hope to tear away the easy stereotypes of a deep and intractable plight. I want to surprise the viewers of my work into seeing all poverty, regardless of race, with new and less jaded eyes