At the end of the third quarter last year, South Africa recorded a high unemployment rate of 27.5%. Townships and informal settlements are at the helm of this problem where the youth lack resources to even apply for jobs.
A young, unemployed man crosses a busy street on 12th Avenue.
Dragging a greasy trolley filled with trash, he looks at us blankly as he continues to lug his garbage to the nearest junkyard.
It is a regular sight and a regular weekday on the streets of Alexandra, eight kilometers from Africa’s richest square mile, Sandton, in South Africa.
Sixteen-seater minibus-taxis dash from corner to corner, packing their vehicles with enough passengers before making their way out of the township.
It is 10.30AM on this sunny Wednesday morning in December.
The street corners are adorned with colorful tuckshops; they stand out against the backdrop of the grey homes around them.
One of the spaza shops is bright blue with light textures of yellow paint; a man sits behind a mesh by the sales counter. It is almost impossible to see his face.
He offers a young man a cigarette via a peep hole through the mesh.
Three men gather to smoke the same cigarette before making their way to the multi-purpose community center on the other side of the road.
Each carrying a sling bag and an A4 envelope, they disappear into a building located at the end of a twirling staircase. Young and old ceaselessly walk in and out.
The yard is filled with a number of service centers: the local clinic, revenue service offices, the post office, multiple internet shops and the Youth Advisory Centre (YAC).
At the end of the hallway, Themba Mafuya sits collecting dozens of résumés from the eager youth who are desperately in search of employment.
He gathers the pile of documents and hands it over to his assistant.
“People are hungry for jobs,” he says as he looks at the unending stream of visitors walking in and out of the center.
Mafuya’s institution creates a database of unemployed youth within the community with the sole purpose of collaborating with companies that are looking to hire.
By working closely with government, YAC reports to the City of Johannesburg on the state of unemployment in the community.
Dressed in casual wear, the 29-year-old has a friendly and positive approach when he advises potential employees.
“Go and correct the mistakes on your résumé that I explained to you. Make sure your documents are certified and bring it to me as soon as possible. Don’t worry, they will hire you,” he tells a young lady.
With Gauteng province being the economic powerhouse of South Africa, contributing 35% to the country’s GDP, according to recent figures released by Stats SA, unemployment remains an area of concern – 29.6% of people live in the province without jobs.
But the province is not among the lowest performing in the country. With an unemployment rate of 36.6%, the Free State has the highest provincial unemployment rate according to StatsSA, in 2018.
Limpopo, with a prominent rural population, surprisingly, has an unemployment rate of 18.9%, making it the lowest in the country.
Townships in the surrounding areas of Gauteng are still faced with an influx of challenges relating to unemployment.
Adding to the lack of jobs, social issues play a big part.
“We need to start doing follow-ups. Ask how many youth have been employed? Who are not employed? Why are they not employed? Maybe they do not have a correct résumé and we need to figure out why the employees do not choose them,” says Mafuya.
Just a few streets away is a compound adjacent to a block of fading pink apartments.
The yard is divided by a muddy passage with small dwellings on either side.
A smell lingers far beyond the cracks of the cement block as two buckets get noisly filled with hot water to clean chicken.
Alfredah Phuloane introduces herself after she wipes the chicken remnants off her hands using her multi-colored t-shirt.
With Phuloane is her uncle Velile Ndlovu who is her business partner.
“As long as I have chicken, they are going. If I have 55, all of them will be bought. I’ve already sold 25 for the day and we have just started,” she says.
A helper, who didn’t want to be named, gushes: “I love my job and I am proud of it.”
She too, like the 27.5% of the South African population who are unemployed, will celebrate any job that will help them put food on the table.
In 2018, StatsSA announced an increase in the unemployment rate at the end of the third quarter.
According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, there are 16.4 million employed people and 6.2 million unemployed people between the ages of 15 and 64 years in South Africa.
The latest figures record that the number of unemployed people in South Africa grew by 127,000 from the 6.08 million in the previous quarter.
StatsSA Statistician-General, Risenga Maluleke, says unemployment, according to the statistics collected, is calculated using the 4×4 rule.
These are job-seekers in search of employment four days a week in a four-week period.
Phuloane, who has been unemployed for three years, took the iniatitive to start the business when she realized there was a demand for freshly-slaughtered chicken in her community.
“At the time, when we were slaughtering the chicken for our own consumption, some people were coming in and asking if we were selling them. That is when we realized people needed chicken,” Ndlovu laughs.
Ndlovu leaves the compound at 4.30AM to stand in a long queue in Linbro Park where he buys the live chickens.
On his return, at around 7AM, he places the fowl in a makeshift coop.
With the helper, who earns a sum of money for her assistance, the trio spend the day processing and packaging chicken for customers.
Three years of unemployment led Phuloane, a former domestic worker, to entrepreneurship.
“If my business does succeed, I want to hire those who do not have jobs. I want to make their lives simple. They can start their own businesses then, because you can’t wait for work. There are no jobs now and it will be difficult,” Phuloane says.
Her uncle on the other hand, who worked as a recycler in a recycling company, decided to quit his job in late 2018.
When Ndlovu rejected a job transfer to South Africa’s capital Pretoria, it suddenly made him one of the thousands without employment.
The formal sector recorded job losses of 65,000 people, and agriculture lost 1,000 employees in the third quarter of last year.
Without the promise of an increase, had he accepted the job in Pretoria, Ndlovu’s expenses would have increased by $111 to travel 41 kilometers to the north eastern part of Johannesburg.
He decided to quit.
“We realized that there is a big opportunity in the township. We are trying by all means to not rely on anyone. We can take our children to school. No one will suffer if they think about starting a business,” he says.
Social engineer Action Setaka, from the organization ACTIVATE! Change Drivers (ACD), who advocates for the unemployed, says there is a copious amount of injustice hampering access to employment.
It is even worse in the townships.
ACD is a network of young people interested in driving change for the public good of the country through innovation and activism.
For Setaka, unemployment has become a commodity for business and institutions to exploit those desperately in search of work.
From the seemlingly endless amount of documentation required when applying for governmental posts, to the costs of printing and accessing the internet at internet cafés, money is required.
It does not end there.
“Transportation costs for traveling to interviews; posting of résumés cost money, which benefits the internet cafés; data to browse job opportunities and mobile networks make money out of this. Searching for employment requires money, yet you find people who claim that our young people are lazy and, therefore, they are not prepared to find work,” Setaka says.
The dire plight of the jobless youth in Alexandra is not in isolation.
Similar circumstances reverbarate throughout the townships of South Africa.
Another township, much like Alexandra, with compounds filled with shacks, is swarming with people seeking jobs for survival.
Located in the northern part of Johannesburg, Diepsloot has the highest concentration of unemployed people in Gauteng.
This is according to the Gauteng City-Regional Observatory (GCRO)’s Mapping Unemployment publication, released in August 2018.
The location, established in 1994, has grown into a community with a population of more than 160,000 with an estimate of “24,737 shacks alongside more than 5,000 formal housing units, such as RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses, self-built houses on serviced sites, and a small number of bank-financed houses,” as quoted in Diepsloot, a brochure compiled by the Johannesburg Development Agency.
Based on the StatsSA 2011 census, the GCRO map shows the concentration of unemployed people in areas that had rates worse than the provincial median in 2011.
According to GCRO statistics, “the square kilometer areas with the highest concentration of unemployed people are observed in townships such as Alexandra and Diepsloot and contain 4,965 and 8,758 people”.
Diepsloot’s South African Youth Project (SAYP) general manager, Clifford Legodi, says gaining access to employment for unemployed youth in townships is harder than it is for youth who grow up in urban regions. This points to a system exclusion due to the lack of access to resources.
Thus, the development programs that will meet the demands of the working environment will, in turn, open up opportunities.
It starts with breaking norms.
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“Young black people or previously disadvantaged communities are still using the traditional method of taking a taxi, printing a résumé or going to the offices. We felt that it was important to incorporate an online skills program. You look at their online presence. How they apply for a job online. Are they actually keeping a good online profile and how to secure opportunities in time?” Legodi says.
SAYP is a youth development organization aimed at the empowerment of young people by giving them the skillsets to utilize the opportunities around them.
This is done through the ‘Power Through Jobs’ program offered by the non-profit.
Life skills, work-readiness, and getting a job are some of the main points of focus for the youth of the township.
Online job-searching skills have been implemented in order to keep up with the evolving working environment.
Through encouragement and continuous skills development, Legodi says the notion of staying in one position will fade away, and the youth of Diepsloot will aspire to climb the corporate ladder.
“If they can conduct themselves in a professional manner, they will gain credibility,” he says.
The population is dominated by black people and for Legodi, the lack of opportunities within their reach means that those who are able find employment will have to travel long distances to get to work.
“Diepsloot has its own reputation that is quite limiting for young people to get opportunities out there.
“The media also has a bit of an influence, bad news sells. A lot of the things you see are about the crime, but everyone is treated equally within the community,” he says.
“The mistake we have been making in the past when it comes to addressing unemployment, is that we tried to develop a program that put everyone in the same box. We tend to forget that people come from different geographical locations and they are exposed to different lifestyles.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Thapelo Tau sits in a living room watching television.
It is noon and he is catching up on his favorite shows in the home he shares with his mother and two sisters.
“I have been unemployed for five or six years. It has been difficult to look for work. Many people here give up and they just sit at home and watch television,” he says.
He spends most of his time on his phone and reading.
“You may take your documents to look for work, but when you leave, they tear it up. We just give up because there is nothing we can do. I have an uncle who has been looking for work for a long time. He just stopped looking,” Tau says.
When approached for comment, the uncle dismisses the interview in vernacular.
“We are looking for work. We can’t even speak English,” he says.
English is widely considered the language of access in this nation where there are 11 official langages. Those who can’t speak the language are almost always immediately excluded from public participation.
“The problem that we have seen with people from townships is self-confidence. They get afraid when they have to leave their comfort space. They then need to present themselves in a different way, they have to adjust to a different lifestyle to showcase an approach,” says Legodi.
Afri-Berry founder and director, Relobohile Moeng, says the language barrier is one of the biggest challenges for the youth in the townships. Going the extra mile for an intern who lacked verbal communication skills, she offered mentorship and guidance. “The confidence part I had to build in, as her mentor,” attests Moeng.
Townships have the undying potential to contribute greatly to the country’s aggregate economic growth; this can be achieved only if the high populations are granted the opportunity to play their part in the economy. Alexandra and Diepsloot are testament to the facts.
In the interim, Ndlovu, much like the rest of the unemployed population, strives against all odds, hoping against hope to continue to put food on his own table whilst feeding his community.
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