Trying to make a living: mini jobs in South Africa

Besides the braai-addiction and other, smaller cultural practices, what struck me most was the abundance of mini jobs that exists in South Africa. The first time I entered a supermarket – and it doesn’t matter if it is a brand or a no-name store – I was surprised to see so many people working in one single store. There was someone at the bread corner, handing you the bread you desire (although it would be perfectly possible to just grab it yourself); there is a person working at the hot food corner, weighing the box of food you picked out; another person is only there to weigh the fresh fruits and vegetables, on a normal scale accessible to everyone like we have it in Switzerland as well. Furthermore, several employees are constantly walking around doing inventory or assisting you with directions; at the check-out there is the cashier but also another person packing your groceries into your own bags or plastic bags (at every single check-out!); and when leaving the store there is someone else putting away the baskets or charts.

Another, very widespread job is the one of the parking guard. Street-parking is free in South Africa (in all the places I’ve been to, at least), meaning there is no parking meter. However, the way it works is that there will be a parking guard – sometimes they show you a free spot, guide you in, watch your car while you’re out, and/or guide you out. For this service you are supposed to give the guard a few Rand (SA currency). Very often, the guard only shows up when you are leaving the parking spot, to collect the money (especially when parking early morning and leaving around noon only). The whole parking guard story is quite a big thing in South Africa, as mostly, these guards are not officially employed by anyone, but are self-proclaimed guards wearing official-looking, bright yellow or orange vests. Sometimes, in bigger cities especially, there are official parking guards – you know that when they give you a receipt when parking that you pay when leaving. In parking lots there are always many parking guards, who literally fight over you, yelling at each other when someone for example tries to walk up to you claiming your car and tip (“Remember me, I guided you in”), although it was not him/her.

At first glance, these little jobs seemed very useless to me, as I don’t need assistance while getting my groceries and it seems rather strange to let strangers weigh my food although I am a grown, independent woman. I also do not necessarily need a parking guard, especially when that person only shows up in the end to collect the money, or waves me in while I am already driving in anyways. But knowing South Africa’s history and current economic situation for the different groups of people living there makes me then appreciate the various opportunities for people to earn a salary, however small it might be. At home, these jobs do not exist because yes, there is no need whatsoever for a packing-my-bag-person at the check-out, but also because there is no need for unemployed people to rely on such jobs, as a developed, non-corrupt social aid structure is existent, unlike in South Africa. In addition, with the race issue in mind (which you cannot ever escape in South Africa, in no aspect of life), I value the effort every person makes to go to work (almost) every day, in an attempt to break out of the cycle of poverty, unemployment and inequality, avoiding to live solely off the system. Personally, it does not have any big nor negative effect in my daily life, so I will gladly have a little chat at the check-out or the parking lot and give them a few Rand (which really isn’t any amount in CHF). I would rather do that than supporting beggars or someone approaching me in a very audacious manner.

Vanessa Zehnder

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