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South African Census Begins With Search for Homeless

October 10, 1996

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Richard Shorten spent the predawn hours Thursday stumbling in the dark in search of homeless people.

Shorten was one of dozens nationwide assigned to survey South Africa’s poorest of the poor on the first day of a new national census intended to finally determine how many people live here and what they do.

Unlike the apartheid days, when white officials flew over black settlements to estimate the population, the government is spending $81 million to go door-to-door throughout the country over the next three weeks.

The purpose, it says, is to determine how best to spend resources to develop the country and help those who need it most.

Census-takers experienced problems in some areas, with local officials chasing them off because the jobs were given to outsiders instead of unemployed local residents, the South African Press Association reported.

For the homeless, there were dawn parties with free coffee and corn meal porridge with tomato gravy aimed at attracting the needy so census-takers could interview them.

Shorten, however, went further. He and some helpers searched the alleys and fields for society’s strays.

``We only found out that these people were there when we almost stood on top them,″ Shorten said. ``Most were huddled under plastic bags for the night. But it helped when one or two volunteered to work with us, and pointed out, `That’s where John sleeps. That’s where Pete sleeps.‴

Most of the 50-odd people who gathered in Joubert Park in downtown Johannesburg did not understand what the census was about. Once it was explained, they answered questions freely.

``I have been sleeping here in the park for five years,″ said Tembi Kaya, 31, who had a swollen lip and seemed slightly intoxicated. ``I hope after this counting we might have jobs and food.″

On his forehead was a small white official sticker that showed he had been counted.

In the Alexandra black township in Johannesburg, Moses Mokoena was the only resident of one street found at home by a census-taker. His neighbors all have double-income households that take them to work during the day.

It took him about 45 minutes to fill out the 12-page booklet of questions ranging from personal information to living conditions.

He acknowledged the census would help government efforts to lift the poor but otherwise echoed sentiments more typical of white South Africans.

``The crime rate dents everything good the new government has done,″ he said.

Nearby, census supervisor Audrey Shabangu’s family is one of 49 who have lived in a community hall since they fled violence six years ago. Little has changed for them since, despite promises from President Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.

An unemployed secretary, Shabangu’s census job brings in a welcome $272.

``The election gave us nothing,″ she said. ``We hope the census will help.″

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