A group of men gathers daily outside a big construction supplies warehouse in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, hoping for work and sustenance to drive up in a bakkie.
The men are all poor, and they rely on odd manual jobs – from construction managers, local residents and foremen looking for cheap, no-strings-attached labour – for their daily bread.
Occasionally, a resident brings the men water or bread, or the men themselves pool their cash to buy a loaf or two. But one man always refuses to partake in the feast. His family and children are hungry at home, so how can he, with good conscience, fill his own belly?
UCT psychology lecturer Dr Mandisa Malinga spent months on the side of the road with this group of men, trying to understand their efforts to find work, and how tropes of fatherhood and masculinity played out in a context of permanently being on the brink of destitution.
Day labourers pay a hefty price for their efforts to find work. Malinga, who teaches social psychology, looked at the men’s habits and struggles through the lens of what it means to be a father and a man, how that is entwined with employment, and how that is said to affect children.
“For me it’s really about how as a society we’ve constructed fatherhood in a way solely around the idea that fathers have to provide ... Men are expected to have paid jobs. As we can see now, that’s obviously not happening. That’s not possible for everyone.”
Referring to the decline in formal employment, Malinga speaks about job “precarity”. Even people with PhDs are lurching from post-doc to post-doc, she says.
“That’s precarity. It means that you’re not even sure you’ll have funding for that post-doc next year. It means you might not have a job next year. This is what people on the side of the road have to deal with every day, and it affects people in different employment sectors differently.”
A bakkie-load of dignity
When Malinga lived and worked in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, her 10-minute walk to work took her past a group of men waiting for casual, manual work.
“One day I was walking slowly and I saw a van stop. Three guys went up to the van, but the driver only wanted two of them. So they had to decide among themselves which two will go and which one is left behind.
“They negotiated for so long that the guy just drove off and left all of them there. So I stood there wondering what was happening. How do the men organise that space? Do they have a system where, if one person had a job yesterday, he stays behind today?”
Her supervisor at the time was writing on what being a father means. She mentions the idea of the “involved father”, who is actively involved in taking care of the kids at home.
“One of the questions was, if we are saying that men are becoming more involved in taking care of their families, which men are those, when in South Africa, most men are spending their time either working or looking for work on street corners?”
Having spoken to the men, Malinga was fascinated by the awkward dance between fatherhood, masculinity and employment.
“My position is that this nurturing, new, more involved father is a very middle-class idea of fatherhood, where someone can actually take the day off and take their child to the park, because their immediate concern is not, ‘ I have to feed my child,’ but ‘I have to be present.’ This does not mean that men who are in precarious work do not get involved, it just means that their circumstances make it hard for them to fulfil this ‘involved father’ ideal.”
With no steady paying work to guarantee that the basics were taken care of, their main concern was providing for their children, said Malinga.
“We can’t assume that they are completely not involved. But maybe there are different ways that they do fatherhood.”
This was a difficult ethnographic study for Malinga to do.
“Having to sit there and listen to their stories, but also having them see you in a different way [was difficult] ... Being a young black woman, I do not think it was easy for them to tell me their stories and difficulties.”
Malinga gradually became more integrated with the group, and was able to ask questions and conduct interviews. She ended up with 56 interviews in total, having spoken to 46 men.
“From what I found, their understanding of being a father is mainly constructed around biology – having fathered children. For example, if they didn’t have children themselves but were providing for their sister’s children, they didn’t consider themselves fathers, so I didn’t want to define it for them.
Many of these men now find themselves homeless.
“Because their families expect them to provide, because that’s what men are supposed to do, they don’t know how to go back and say, ‘I didn’t make any money so I can’t provide for you.’ So to avoid the shame and humiliation, they would go live under a bridge instead. Some of them just stay away from their families.”
Some of the men resort to harmful habits such as alcohol abuse as a way of numbing their pain, says Malinga.
“Listen, sister. Instead of going to submit a CV and then going home and waiting, I can come here and make R100 in a day, or however much money I make.”
“The assumption is that a lot of these men are people who are not serious about looking for work and are just hanging out,” Malinga adds, before exclaiming: “This is not true! I found that there were many men who were seriously looking for work, and some of them have qualifications. But he’s, like, ‘Listen, sister. Instead of going to submit a CV and then going home and waiting, I can come here and make R100 in a day.’ ”
The chances of getting work at that particular spot are seen to be high; three of the men travelled to the site from Paarl every day. Some people found permanent jobs after being picked up on the corner, but this kind of day labour work carries a very dark side.
Sometimes, Malinga discovered, men would get picked up on a Monday for a week-long job, and be promised payment on Friday afternoon. They’d work until Thursday, but the bakkie would not return on the Friday, and the men would never be paid for their work.
More disturbingly, when dangerous construction work needs doing, companies often turn to day labourers, who sign no contracts and for whom the company bears no responsibility.
On one such job, a man reportedly died after falling from scaffolding. He had no safety gear – if the men don’t bring their own boots and helmets, none are provided to them. The construction company’s response was to return to the group the next day to pick up a replacement. The man, who hailed from the Eastern Cape, died anonymously, and his family in the Eastern Cape have no way of knowing what happened to him.
The awkward dance between fatherhood, masculinity and employment, then, can create a deadly pressure.
“It’s not unnecessary pressure – we all have roles to play in our families – but these ideas about what being a man really is, in a lot of ways it’s destructive,” says Malinga. “How some of these men define themselves as men is very harmful to society. You hear about how they abuse their partners, and all these things that they do, part of it is trying to assert themselves as men. ‘If I can’t provide, she has to respect me somehow.’ ”
The men find different ways to display dominance, Malinga said. Even within the group of men on the street corner, one felt pressured to drink a lot to show you were a man, to show you could spend money.
“You can’t afford to be doing those things!”
There’s a tinge of desperation in Malinga’s voice.
“You don’t want to be the one that is not man enough.”
But it’s almost like fighting for a space in this masculine hierarchy, because you don’t want to the one that is not man enough.”
One man confided in Malinga that when people in the group spoke about how they recently bought school shoes for their children and so on, he would lie and join in with the sharing of good tales.
“You don’t want to be the guy that can’t do anything.”
Malinga is writing a book on day labour work and constructions of fatherhood, which might be one to keep an eye out for. But her academic output does not come guilt-free, and was expressed in a final rhetorical question.
“I got a PhD out of this research – what did those men get?”