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Some Unemployed South Africans Guard Cars to Make Ends Meet - 2004-02-20


Rising unemployment and high crime rates in post-apartheid South Africa combined to create a new industry, which after nearly 10 years has become entrenched in towns and cities around the country. They are called car guards, and they stand on the street and watch people's cars in exchange for tips. It is a hard way to make a living.

The hot summer sun beats down on the streets of Melville, a trendy neighborhood in northern Johannesburg full of shops and restaurants. Scores of workers from nearby offices drive into Melville for lunch every day. In Johannesburg, nobody walks.

So the streets of the neighborhood are lined with cars. And Nisbert Parella is there to keep an eye on them. "Yeah, I work seven days a week. Seven days a week. Every day, I am here," he said.

The car guards see themselves as performing a much-needed service. They work entirely for tips. People lunching in Melville's fashionable restaurants will emerge and give them, on average, between two rands and five rands each for keeping their vehicles safe from car thieves. In U.S. dollars, that is between 30 cents and 75 cents per car.

Down the street, another car guard named Robeson says not everyone bothers to pay. "Yeah, some others, they can pay. Some others, they don't. I can't force somebody to pay. It's not a force matter. If they pay, they pay. If they don't like, I can't do anything," he said.

Analysts say the South African car guard industry emerged in 1995, driven by high crime and unemployment. Although the economy is growing and new jobs are being created, most of them require skills and training that the South African work force just does not have. Unemployment is at 31 percent and rising.

And so the car guard industry has grown and spread to just about every town in the country. The irony is that crime, one of South Africa's greatest scourges, is keeping thousands of people legally employed. Well, sort of.

Labor economist Derek Blaauw of Rand Afrikaans University has researched the car guard industry. He says most people only do it because they cannot find another job, and they are just barely getting by. "We raised the question, and I am still of the opinion that to a large extent you can almost call them disguised unemployment. Because they are engaged in something that puts food on the table, but it's not nearly as lucrative as formal employment is," he said.

Back on the streets of Melville, Mr. Parella wears a bright orange plastic vest with the name of a local car guarding company emblazoned on it. But he is not paid by the company - on the contrary, he pays them five rands a day, or about 75 cents, to rent the official-looking vest so he can have the privilege of working in Melville.

Most of the Melville guards say they earn $11 or $12 a day on weekdays, and more on weekends. Car guards working elsewhere in the city do not make anywhere near that much. Melville is a popular, upscale neighborhood, where the money is good but competition is stiff.

And any way you cut it, the job is not easy. Today is a good day. It may be hot, but at least it is not raining. Johannesburg is prone to violent thunderstorms in the summer, and the temperature can drop below freezing on winter nights. Bad weather is not only uncomfortable for the guards, it cuts into their earnings by keeping the customers away.

Most of the car guards in Melville say they would rather be doing something else. Several mention that they are saving their money so they can get a driver's license, which might bring new job opportunities. One says he wants to be a business manager, but admits he has never finished high school. Mr. Parella says he would like to be an actor.

But economist Derek Blaauw says for most people, car guarding is a dead-end job.

"Without the necessary skill that is required in the labor market, these people will never be able to get back, or with great difficulty get back, into the formal labor market," he said. "The skills that they do have are becoming redundant at an ever-increasing rate, as the skills requirement of the labor market increase. And that is a problem I think that is evident in all of our labor force. It is of vital importance that we get people with the right skills for the positions that are available, and to be a production factor that we can rely on."

Many car guards used to have better jobs but have been laid off. Nisbert Parella says he worked as a real security guard for 10 years, with a license and his own weapon. He says, unconvincingly, that he prefers watching cars because he likes being his own boss.

But Mr. Parella admits this is not the life he wants for his three children. "My children, first, they must learn, go to school. Therefore when they will grow up, therefore they can decide themselves what they can be. But me I'm working hard for them. They must not be like me, not be standing in the streets. So I wish, and I hope that they can get a better duty," he said.

As for himself, Mr. Parella takes great pride in doing his job well. He says as long as there are cars on the street, he will be there to watch them.

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