- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

JOHANNESBURG | Cecilia Dube’s dream has taken her from dust-choked building sites to university classrooms, from the rubble of demolished food stands to cooking meals in a park in an upscale neighborhood where fans watch World Cup soccer on a giant screen.

The World Cup. Biggest sporting event on Earth. The host nation’s month in the world spotlight. Tourists in droves. A jolt of adrenaline for a sluggish economy.

Or so goes the promise of mega-events such as these.

For Mrs. Dube, some of the rewards have already arrived, but for her and millions of her fellow citizens, the route out of poverty has so far proved fickle and arduous.

Her dream is a humble one — to one day run her own restaurant. But for now, she must suffice with the title of “trained food handler,” tending a food stand at the park consisting of a table, two chairs and a gas cooker. It’s a long way from owning a restaurant, but at least she’s no longer up before dawn frying doughnuts by candlelight.

Mrs. Dube is 36, with a 13-year-old daughter. She’s a cheerful-looking woman with a fierce work ethic that can leave her limp with exhaustion. She immigrated to South Africa from neighboring Zimbabwe in 1997 and married a car-parts salesman. She was pregnant with their second child when her husband died of kidney disease in 2003. The shock made her give birth prematurely. The baby boy, Thandolwenkosi (it means “God’s love”) died within a year.

She fell ill. A knee problem put her in a wheelchair for a while. She became depressed. Then she learned that a friend had been living with HIV for a decade. The friend’s fortitude strengthened her.

“I just thought, if this one is living with HIV, I have to live with what has come to me,” Mrs. Dube said. “I decided to live.”

Life for her and many like her is a constant struggle. Two decades after South Africa broke free of apartheid, being judged fit to host the World Cup is a huge achievement. But what it most desperately needs is more jobs, houses, clinics and self-starting, taxpaying entrepreneurs.

Mrs. Dube would love to be one. After her husband’s death left her without income, she worked at a fast-food restaurant and traded in cheap clothes. She took extra work selling sandwiches in a tavern with no kitchen. When the tavern owner took over her business, she decided to strike out on her own.

South Africa had been picked for the World Cup and needed to build facilities. In 2006, Mrs. Dube opened shop — in a shack, then a trailer — where the soccer authority’s new offices were going up. The following year she moved to the nearby site of Soccer City, the main World Cup stadium. It was being renovated and there were hungry workers to feed.

She lives with her daughter and mother in a three-room apartment in Johannesburg, an hourlong commute to and from work on two minibus taxis. She has not remarried. What keeps her going, she says, is her daughter, Thandekile, which means “loved one.”

“I need something big, so I can look after that girl,” she said.

“When I’m doing my budget, I first take out the school fees. Even before paying my rent.”

For three years, she was one of a dozen cooks providing meals at Soccer City. They called themselves the Soccer City Traders. A typical day would begin before dawn with Mrs. Dube barefoot and hard at work by the light of a candle stuck in an empty soda bottle, making triple-decker bologna-and-cheese sandwiches and frying vetkoeke, South African doughnuts.

On May 22, the stadium, renovated into the shape of a giant clay pot, opened with a match between two local soccer teams, and Mrs. Dube’s sales topped $400.

But the next day, with the first World Cup match less than three weeks away, the police ordered the Soccer City Traders to leave for good. Mrs. Dube had to hunt for a new place to set up shop.

Though she’d heard promises, she wasn’t certain that she would be able to serve food at World Cup events. Authorities were licensing only those hawkers who had been serving the stadiums before South Africa was named the World Cup host.

But Mrs. Dube was still dreaming of that restaurant. Once a week, she would shed her apron and head to the University of Johannesburg’s Center for Small Business Development.

There, she says, she and other hawkers learned about the importance of tracking earnings every day and keeping close tabs on what sells best. At a graduation networking session, a representative of a big-box store explained credit terms. Another speaker said she could offer micro-loans. A third advised the class on how to Google for business information.

Thami Mazwai, head of the university’s small-business project, explained, to enthusiastic shouts from his audience, why South Africa needed people like Mrs. Dube. South Africa can’t go on handing out welfare grants to 13 million people while only 7 million pay taxes, he said.

“The only [tax] income that will come into government is when people start forming their own businesses and employing people,” Mr. Mazwai said. “The decision you made to become an entrepreneur is not only good for you; you’ve got to see yourself as a very serious player in our economy.”

Finally came good news for Mrs. Dube: The city had decided that in recognition of their hard work and perseverance, the Soccer City Traders would be among the 88 officially sanctioned World Cup food hawkers.

A week into the games, she has been rotating among sites under a system designed to ensure that everyone gets a chance to trade in the most crowded venues. Each day, she gets a text message telling her where she’s working next and earning about $6 per boxed meal.

And thinking about that restaurant.

“It’s still my dream,” she says.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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