Today’s exchange rate for 2,000 South African rand is about 258 US dollars. This is what Mtuseni’s mother earns each month, cleaning airplanes between flights. We’ve all seen the chaotic mess left behind as a couple hundred passengers race to “de-plane.” I wouldn’t wish that job on anyone.
Yet Nester works, day and night shifts, and gets $258 to support herself and three kids for a month. I’ve spent that much with a friend during an extended afternoon of cocktails and bar bites. I cannot fathom trying to live on this amount of money each month, never mind raising a family on it.
It is true that Nester is illiterate — likely a function of rural upbringing and apartheid policies — so her employment options are limited. But, amazingly, her income is above the minimum wage for South African non-farm workers employed more than 27 hours per week. The upper range for monthly minimum wage is R1,167.. or $150.
South Africa’s minimum hourly wage measured in 2009 US dollars is $2 per hour. When I got my first job in 1977, my hourly wage was $1.85, but it jumped within a few months to $2.10. That was 35 years ago. Jimmy Carter was president. Laverne and Shirley was the top TV show.
I’ve been to South Africa. Prices seem on par with those in the US, so the rand-dollar conversion factor doesn’t mask some benefit of really low prices in rands. I seemed to hand over a R100 note every half hour during my visit; I had R2,000 in my wallet on a few occasions.
It took more than a year before Mtuseni talked money with me, and it came up only as college registration approached. He rarely talks about financial challenges, and when he does I know it’s because the situation is really affecting him. He’s never asked me for money. When I first heard his mom’s income and did the conversion to dollars, a lot of things finally became clear to me. Like why Mtuseni doesn’t eat breakfast, so the kids can have bread in the morning. Why he hasn’t been to a dentist since he was five. Why my seemingly simple requests for him to buy some highlighters or a healthy lunch at school were like asking him to buy a Rolex. And why my initial offer of paying college tuition quickly expanded to a monthly expense allowance.
Because 2000 rand a month isn’t about living; it’s about survival.
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