Waging their own wars

The wage negotiations and strike threats have been well-publicized, but what happens to the Rhodes support staff behind the scenes? 

Grounded

By Judy Dlamini

Walking around campus, one is sure to get a glimpse of green trees, a bed of flowers or maybe even the brick paving and barely a pothole in sight. This is all thanks to the hard work of the grounds and gardens staff.

But as much as Rhodes University is at its best presentable state, the people responsible for this are one of the groups who were not happy with their wages early last week. In an eight-hour working day, the workers are given an hour and 15 minutes for break time. This is for lunch and tea breaks combined. They then look forward to R2900 per month – which becomes R750 after deductions – with which to sustain their families. The last wage increase given to the grounds and gardens staff was in August 2006.

Often enough, these people have to operate under strict working conditions. Each day is a working day, even in unfavourable weather. The grounds workers receive no benefits from the university and if they should fall sick, they have to pay for their own medical expenses. One of the workers told an Activate reporter that he had to support a family of five, with three of his children still in school.

Another upsetting factor for the workers is that they are required to do work outside their job description but do not get promoted or receive salary increases for it. Even though the workers may get a 13th cheque on their birthdays, it is the same as the normal monthly salary and, according to some, this is still not enough.

The grounds and gardens staff are finding it difficult to support their families, especially with the interest rates expected to rise soon. However, like most of the Rhodes support staff, they continue to work together in the interest of themselves and the university.

The secret lives of cleaners

By Nontobeko Sibisi

Nomusa Mbatha has been working for the university since 2001, at first as part of the catering staff and later for housekeeping in one of the residences. She has three children which she’s struggling to keep in school, and other expenses which include transport, rent, and electricity. By the time she’s partially paid for all her expenses, there’s barely any money left to buy grocer- ies. She has no other alternative but to approach loan sharks if she wants to get through the month. “Life is tough,” she says. “Even though you see us smiling and working, it’s tough.” Mbatha is satisfied with her work as a housekeeper but she says, “There’s too much work expected of one person.” She’s divided all her duties over a three-day plan and her work begins at half past seven in the morning. Her duties include sweeping, vacuuming, mopping, polishing the whole res, cleaning the toilets and thoroughly scrubbing the showers. She says the worst part of her job is cleaning after students that leave their dirty water in the bath and cleaning vomit stains off the carpet.

Sibongile Ndokweni, who is also part of the housekeeping staff, has been with the university for 17 years now. She has four children, three of which are still at school. Her eldest child stays at home because she doesn’t have money for him to continue studying. The salary she receives is gone before she even realises it because of all her expenses.

Ndokweni wakes up at 5am and she takes an hour’s walk just to get to work on time, because it is too expensive to take a taxi. Ndokweni’s duties are the same as those of Mbatha except she has to clean a res, an annexe and the warden’s flat all in one day. By the time she’s finished she’s dead tired and still has to walk back home.

Every day, life somehow carries on for people like Mbatha and Ndokweni, tirelessly providing us with a clean and comfortable life while they hide their world of struggles.

Anything but pork chops

By Phumzile Manana

Vuyelwa Ngesi serves you your food in the dining hall. To many, she is just another faceless kitchen staff member. That doesn’t bother her though, because she loves her job and has been at it for three years. Vuyelwa’s life is dedicated to Jan Smuts hall. It’s all she has time for.

When she has a day or the weekend off, she goes to church and to her mother’s house to clean. She lives in Joza and travels to work by taxi. Vuyelwa is an assistant in the kitchen, which means she helps with just about every activity involved in feeding students. From dishwashing to dishing up, she does it all with a smile. However, that very smile fades when she talks about her personal life.

“I was a casual for six years before I was hired,” she says, looking down at her hands. Those days were very difficult for her. Vuyelwa would get paid R50 for a day of work, or R200 for a weekend when she was called to work. It wasn’t enough for her family. Sometimes, she would go to her mother’s house in hope that she might find food, but no one back home had a job either. She has two children, aged 21 and 24. The younger of the two is currently studying Management at Walter Sisulu Technikon, near Port Elizabeth, while the other battles to find work.

One may think that having found permanent employment has solved Vuyelwa’s problems, but this isn’t true. Almost all of her R2000 salary goes towards her child’s education fees. At the end of the day, she barely has money to spare. When she can afford it, she gives her older child some change for half a loaf of bread. She has lunch at work but supper is no common luxury. “We are used to going to bed without food. There’s nothing else I can do.” But it’s not going to bed hungry that bothers her. It’s going home to an empty pot after having spent the day cooking.

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