THE block of margarine proffered by an extended hand in a food-aid queue is a universal image. No arresting feature of the weather-beaten man grabs the eye, yet Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Finbarr O’Reilly prompts a flinch. His lens frames an ageing white South African receiving the handout from a fresh-faced black youth.

The photographs, which appeared in the New York Times before the 2010 Fifa World Cup, grabbed attention for various reasons. In Poor White, geographer and journalist Edward-John Bottomley, says O’Reilly’s images are "the greatest magic trick ever performed". The editorial timing and sociopolitical subtext of the photo essay aside, this social issue wants a fuller story. Poor White provides it in a compassionate and insightful narrative.

Setting a context for his perspective, Bottomley diverts the focus through an academic lens. He articulates the dissonance detected by students of postcolonialism between "the official history and the voices of the marginalised", highlighting how the interwoven identities of coloniser and colonised changed irrevocably. The riveting journey leads from Johannesburg’s Brickfields, the early mining camp slum where prostitutes and thieves intermingled across the colour bar, to the "Blikkiesdorp" squatter camp in the Western Cape (more formally and ironically, the Delft Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area), where tik addicts and gangs keep social workers out, and "white faces can be glimpsed … among the poorest of the poor".

Wide research consistently underpins and informs the text. Bottomley examines how "the magicians of Africa created an entire people from nothing…. Gave them a history, a home and a country to call their own". He traces the events: the rinderpest, drought, wars, epidemics and the Great Depression that influenced the move of the "bywoner" to the city. These were Dutch descendants who would later be moulded into the Afrikaner with a new language that would be used "as a weapon for white Afrikaner unity … scrubbed clean of its poor and multicultural roots".

The discovery of mineral wealth and the ensuing industrialisation enabled huge state resources to uplift the volk in pursuit of segregation and, later, apartheid. Those who were once seen as low-class criminals, unworthy of charity, were re-envisioned as having lost their way. In the bid to ensure white supremacy, there were training schools, preferential careers, sheltered employment and social schemes aimed at redeeming the underclass.

Bottomley is mindful that black poverty was on a significantly more serious scale. He views it as "impossible to understand the historical subordination of black, Indian and coloured South Africans without hearing the story of their poor white counterparts". The narrative of how "poor whites" were turned into "pure whites" and later abandoned as "white trash" has traction. This compelling and humane read renders accessible and comprehensible our complex and shameful past. It falters only in a mild inconsistency of writing style. At times, the flourish and composure of the seasoned journalist defines the text: "They came from the wide country to the new place stretching into the sky, bringing their few belongings and their wives with tired eyes … detaching themselves from the farms to haunt the long road to Johannesburg." Bottomley’s voice relocates as colloquial historian: "The colonials were concerned that blacks viewing whites as criminals and prostitutes would undermine the illusion of superiority on which colonialism rested." Then he retracts into academic detail: "The commission reported that in 1907, of the 470 scholars who attended school in Vrededorp, more than half were below grade 2; 74 (15.8%) reached grade 6….". A more integrated flow would enhance the reading experience.

A minor gripe is the lack of attribution for the historical photographs, which is odd in light of the extensive and rigorous acknowledgements of textual sources. That said, Poor White offers a relevant and important tale told by an imaginative and steady narrator. It adds significantly to an area that for many will be acutely disturbing.

About the Author

Bottomley is a well-known South African journalist published in Afrikaans and English. He holds degrees in geography and journalism from the University of Stellenbosch. Most recently, he completed his master’s degree at the University of Cambridge, achieving a summa cum laude for his research on the geographical history of poor whites in South Africa.

Last year, Bottomley published a popular version of his research on poor whites in South Africa. His book, titled Armblanke in the Afrikaans edition and Poor White in its English counterpart, looks at the response of those in power to this issue, from the government to the church. Bottomley also traces the historical roots of the issue, looking at the situation in the late 19th century, the inquests on white poverty in the early 20th century and the National Party’s response to white poverty. Two weeks before the 2010 Fifa World Cup, an article ran in the New York Times showing the new and invisible problem in South Africa: poor whites. According to this article, this problem grew — if not started — after South Africa become a democracy in 1994. Bottomley looks at this idea and finds that poor whites have always been a part of the South African landscape. But even more than that: they have always been seen as some sort of special problem to be solved.

Source: Wikipedia and Tafelberg Publishers