by Edward-John Bottomley (Tafelberg)

Did you know the term “poor white” probably originated in the American south during the 1870s when the desperately poor conditions of millions of whites were argued to be nearly equal to those of the recently emancipated slaves?

Like in South Africa, author Edward-John Bottomley says the poverty of these American whites was viewed predominantly as a moral problem as the ruling class would not tolerate them stooping to the “level” of the black man.

Cape Town-based Bottomley deals with the great issue of poor whites in South Africa over the last century, sitting in between British colonial interests and competition from blacks in the unskilled labour market, and how this shaped our country’s politics.

A journalist with a Masters degree in geographical history from Cambridge University, he explains how the problem developed in the 1800s and how having poor whites living (and drinking and sleeping) with blacks in slums – after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand – was just not on for those who practised white superiority.

Much was done to alleviate the problem before and after the onset of apartheid, but “the phenomenon of the poor white is now crawling out of the woodwork” and the slums are back if we look carefully.

This is both a political and emotional issue for the author, who says that with South Africa facing poverty across the land, can these people really expect any hopeful treatment? – Carl Peters