South Africa

Op-Ed: Youth unemployment in SA – Apartheid is alive and well

By Gcobani Qambela & Simamkele Dlakavu 22 September 2014

There are a number of white South Africans who complain that the local job market excludes white recruits. This narrative, when it arises, often comes with fears that “our children won’t get jobs” and that there is “no future” for them in the country. But are these fears valid? By GCOBANI QAMBELA & SIMAMKELE DLAKAVU.

Concerns about racism against whites in the job market are largely due to government attempts to reverse the effects of Apartheid, through Employment Equity, Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment, amongst other measures. However, even with these attempts, the South African job market still reflects our racialised, gendered and economic exploitative past. White men and white women still have it good in South Africa, and as a group, they have the smallest chance of being unemployed.

This is asserted in the “graduate destination survey” that was published in 2013 by the Cape Higher Education Consortium (made up of Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape and Cape Peninsula University of Technology) on “Pathways from University to Work” which cautioned that graduate entry into pathways of employment in South Africa continues “to reflect Apartheid-era patterns of discrimination.” The report from the survey found that whites (at 61%) and Indians (at 58%) attained employment in the private sector, while only 35% of Africans and 45% of coloured graduates were able to attain employment in the private sector. The report notes that the unemployment rate for coloured and African people would be significantly larger if it were not for the intervention of the public sector, which employs a large number of African (at 42%) and coloured (at 45%) graduates. Despite this, African graduates maintained the highest unemployment rate (at 19%) with coloured graduates following at 7%. The report emphasised the importance of social capital and connections in graduates being able to attain employment.

Jeremy Seekings, in his 2003 Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR) working paper, Do South Africa’s Unemployed Constitute an Underclass? noted, “In South Africa, evidence from the mid-1990s suggests that, at the end of the Apartheid era, one section of the unemployed suffered systematic disadvantage in terms of access to employment. Given that people get jobs in South Africa primarily through friends and family, people without such social capital are relegated to an especially disadvantaged position in the labour market and society in general.” The opening up of universities, especially the traditionally white universities, to larger numbers of black students, was meant in part to not only allow black students a chance to gain their rightful place in higher education but also to increase the chances of entry into labour market alongside white peers. Yet despite such measures, being white still remains the “strongest indicator” in South Africa for whether one will be able to find work or not, particularly in the private sector.

While recent scholarship suggests that graduate unemployment in South Africa is “a much exaggerated problem” and that “there is little cause for concern about broad trends in graduate unemployment”, the CHEC report informs that African students (at 75%) are the most likely to ‘walk from door to door’ approaching government departments for assistance, in comparison to only 9% of whites; this is indeed a worrying sign that African graduates “are more desperate to find work” in comparison to their peers. These African students occupy the duality of being the ‘new’ so-called “privileged blacks” as they boast education (often) from some of South Africa’s finest universities, while at the same time being structurally constrained in South Africa from being able to translate this ‘privilege’ into anything that meaningfully alters post-graduation life circumstances.

A black woman friend, at 24 years, already held three degrees (a Bachelor of Social Sciences degree (in Psychology and Law), joint honours in psychology and law, and an LLB degree (all from a highly rated university), yet it took her nearly a year and a half to find a job in South Africa. The stories of these students are too plentiful – young black graduates with undergraduate and post-graduate degrees too often have to go back home to often poor rural and township areas after completing their degrees as a result of not being able to find a job.

There are many prevailing false assumptions and generalisations that are painted of “these” unemployed graduates setting typologies that suggest black unemployed graduates are mediocre, lazy and entitled. Such arguments can be found in articles and arguments presented by the likes of University of the Free State Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jonathan Jansen, in his article ““THE BIG READ: Dear Jobless Graduate”. He paints a picture of a jobless graduate as a “male [or] female, in the early to mid-20s, mostly black, from a poor family, and from all nine provinces”. He states that these young people often have transcripts that don’t reflect excellence. He says they have “floppy” and “thin” CVs that often “make no reference to voluntary work or holiday occupations”. He further says that “While you were concentrating on passing, other students were focused on excelling; there is a big difference”. Although common, this is a completely flawed generalisation that paints black unemployed graduates with one paintbrush.

As young black graduates ourselves who have worked since our teenage years, formed and supported a number of volunteer initiatives, worked both professionally with local and multilateral international institutions, represented our country in many international youth forums, with transcripts that have distinctions as well as numerous accolades and recognition awards locally and internationally, this still did not spare us both from experiencing unemployment in South Africa. We are not unique; there are many of our black peers who have worked as hard as we have but also could not find work. This is not a result of lack of initiative from black youth, but is by design and the direct consequence of living in a country with blacks having political freedom but existing in a context of untransformed labour. This is a structural issue that black youth cannot fix alone without the necessary support from both the government and the private/non-governmental sector!

This happens in a context where, during orientation week for example, most universities sing the same tune, affirming students as the “cream of the crop”, reminding them that they were accepted from “thousands of applications” and that upon graduation students are almost not only entitled, but guaranteed a certain promising future. Wits University, for instance, boasts greatly about their “illustrious alumni” of people “who have excelled in every field of endeavour”. Many black students quickly realise that this is not a future that is guaranteed to all, but is rather racialised, classed and gendered toward white males and white women in our labour market context – one that is still keen to exclude black graduates. DM

*Gcobani Qambela is a graduate student in medical anthropology focusing on sexual and reproductive health of men.

**Simamkele Dlakavu is human rights television producer and runs a social enterprise aimed at developing rural and township youth in South Africa.

Photo: Thousands of hopeful job applicants queue for 200 positions advertised by the Metro Police Department in Durban September 9, 2009. Unemployment figures in South Africa for the second quarter of 2009 stand at 23.6 percent, according to official government statistics. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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