Maverick Citizen: Cries of the Xcluded

‘If I tell my daughter there is no hope, I am killing her’

By Pamela Silwana  17 March 2020

Pamela Silwana and Mbali Ntuli speak at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering in Cape Town on Friday 6 March 2020. Moderated by Judge Dennis Davis. (Photo: Bernard Kotze)

I am an unemployed mom, volunteer and activist. This is my story. I ask that you read it.

On Friday, 6 March, I had the privilege of sitting on a stage at the Cape Town International Conference Centre. I was on the panel for a session called “The Monster Issue of Unemployment”. It was part of The Gathering, the annual event hosted by Daily Maverick and eNCA.

The panel was moderated by Judge Dennis Davis, the famous High Court judge, and my co-panelists were Mbali Ntuli, potentially the next leader of the Democratic Alliance, and Neil Coleman, previously a negotiator for Cosatu and an anti-apartheid activist.

I am unemployed and had been invited to appear because I volunteer at the Gugulethu branch of the unemployed movement, Organising for Work (OfW). As I sat on the stage looking out at the large audience and the television cameras, I was wondering whether anyone in the hall would want change as badly as I do.

You see, for me, being on that stage was a brief escape. Before I arrived at the venue, I was worrying about my daughter’s school project. I could not afford to buy the materials she needed to complete it. It depresses me to think that my unemployment affects my children’s education. Her dad is not willing to help. I was also concerned about what I could afford to buy for them to eat when I got home. 

My life

I was born in Gugulethu in 1986. My mother was then a domestic worker, the one job she could get with her grade 11. Like so many black and coloured women in South Africa, she raised her employer’s children. She loved looking after them and cooking for them, but she hated leaving us at home even more.

When we saw her on weekends, we would look forward to the leftover food she was permitted to take home. We would get particularly excited if she came home with clothing that her employer’s children no longer wanted or needed. Her dream for us was to have a better life and education, and hopefully to move out of the townships.

I never knew my father. He was killed on his way home from a prayer meeting one night while my mother was pregnant with me. They mistook him for an apartheid spy. He was a choir conductor. I think that is why I love music so much even though I cannot sing. Music helps me heal and be closer to him. I know he wanted to marry my mom and he was looking forward to my birth. They had decided to call me Lindelwa, which means “waited for”.

We moved home a lot when I was a child. At the age of 10, I suffered a sexual assault by a family member. I ran away and ended up in a children’s home for a couple months. Struggling with these circumstances, it took until I was 15 to finish grade seven. I finished grade 11 when I was 20 and pregnant. With a newborn on the way, I had no choice but to leave school and to then look for work. At the age of 26, I enrolled for and passed my matric by self-study.

Today, my oldest, Lukhanyo, is 12. Her name means “she brings light”. She is bright, caring and sensitive. Like me, she is a dreamer and says she wants to be a physiotherapist, or a vet. I also have a 4-year-old son, Owam, which means “mine”. He has a slight medical problem, is very hyper and is full of compassion, and love. Until he was three, he couldn’t speak which worried me. Today though, he is both a chatterbox and, true to his name, a mommy’s boy. My third child, Oluthando, meaning “this love”, is my twin. She has trouble eating, but if you see her she will greet you with a beaming smile.

We live on a budget that is too small for our family. I often cannot afford to buy the medicine they need, healthy food, nor pay for their creche. I don’t talk to my children about it, but they know it anyway. Children always know. Some months, I have to borrow money to buy my daughter sanitary towels.

The small things about being unemployed can be the most humiliating; like having to ask my neighbour, to whom I already owe money, for help to buy deodorant on the day of an interview. At times, my only option is the loan shark. I am in this cycle all the time.

Around Gugulethu, I notice more and more people using tik (cheap crystal meth), and turning to alcohol. I don’t feel free to walk the streets any more. How can this be South Africa we had so much hope for in 1994? Our parents had such big dreams for us, but almost everyone my age is struggling. We desperately want our children to have an easier life. 

Joining the unemployed movement, Organising for Work

I live near our public library and spend quite a lot of time there. In April 2019, they put up a poster saying that an unemployed movement called Organising for Work was to open a Gugulethu branch at the library. It said that they would train us, unemployed Gugulethu residents, to become volunteers to help others improve their chances of finding work while improving our own chances too.

But, what really caught my heart was that they were open to people of all ages, abilities, educations and criminal records. They were about dealing with unemployment and nothing else. The usual divisions and inequalities of the job market – being over 25, not having a diploma, even having a criminal record – were no barrier to joining.

On 18 April 2019, I attended the introduction with 320 other Gugulethu residents and then did their volunteer training. We were trained to help people improve their chances of finding work with good, short CVs built on OfW’s website. We used smartphones to capture our IDs, school certificates, SARS letters, bank statements and more to save us having to constantly copy and certify them.

We learned how to find large numbers of employers (hiring or not), in areas we chose, using Google Maps. We were taken through sending well-worded emails to those employers with subject lines summarising our skills and experience. The hope is that they might read them and, if not hiring, at least keep us on file.

We covered dealing with challenging interview situations. We shared information about the opportunities we were hearing about. We were able to spot scams better in groups. The community spirit at the branch made the job search less lonely. These effects and activities occur at all our OfW branches across the Cape Flats including Langa, Nyanga, Bonteheuwel and Khayelitsha (Site B, Site C and Harare).

You need to know too that our unemployed movement is about bringing our experiences to light. It is about letting the government know that their programmes are not reaching us where we live. It is about how unemployment crushes our lives and why it needs far more urgency.

Recently, the Presidency did respond to experiences and views of our movement and its members. They said they are revolutionising their approach to youth unemployment. We intend to hold them to this promise while also demanding action on unemployment regardless of age.

Finally, OfW is also about a woman voicing her pain and suffering; loudly calling out the terrible, inhumane conditions of unemployment. I got the chance to do this live on television at The Gathering. Hearing my experiences, Judge Davis asked me: “How do you hold out hope? What do you tell your children when they ask you, ‘Mom, How are we going to have a better world?’”

I told him that because I love my children so much, I know that hope will start with me. If I tell my daughter there is no hope, I am killing her. That is why I volunteer, knowing that there might be a chance for me to get a job, for someone else to get a job. My children see what I am doing. MC

Pamela Silwana is a volunteer staff member at the Gugulethu branch of the unemployed movement, Organising for Work. She has been a peer facilitator at the National Youth Development Agency and Khulisa Social Solutions, has done fieldwork and admin for UCT and University of Stellenbosch. She does occasional tutoring and childcare work, but is currently unemployed. She is a mother of three. You can reach her on [email protected]

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