Cracked glass: What it’s like to be young, qualified and unemployed in South Africa

Cracked glass: What it’s like to be young, qualified and unemployed in South Africa
(Photos: Hoseya Jubase, Oupa Nkosi, Supplied)

Youth unemployment has reached a disturbing 46.3% – and 74.7% under the expanded definition, which includes those who have given up looking for work. We chat to young people about their experiences.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Free State

Despite having a BCom degree, 26-year-old Dikeledi Moeleso has not been able to find a job. Moeleso, who lives in Bohlokong, Bethlehem, said waking up without anything to keep her occupied for the whole day was a significant challenge.

“I never thought that, after obtaining my degree, I would be at home all day just waiting to take a nap,” she said.

She described her life as cracked glass that could not be put together again, adding that it was painful to see other people getting jobs.

“Some just have temporary jobs and not in the field they have studied for, but at least they have something. Some have completed their studies after me and they are already working. For me it is heartbreaking.”

Moeleso depends on her mother, a cashier at a supermarket, for her daily needs. She said her dream was to build her mother a house one day to thank her for everything.

Trying not to lose hope, she keeps on applying for jobs. “The only significant challenge is pleading for data, while I was supposed to be the one providing it to my brother who is in Grade 12 now. But I hope one day God will listen to my prayers and revert,” she said.

Dineo Mofokeng (29), who has a diploma in animal production, said unemployment was a serious challenge. She would accept any offer of work that came her way. Mofokeng, who lives in Phuthaditjhaba, said her first daily goal was to be able to buy data bundles so she could search for jobs online.

Western Cape

Gangsters and drug merchants in Parkwood on the Cape Flats have become the best employment agency. They are the ones giving out-of-work young people some sort of income.

Unemployed 25-year-old Chad Crowley, who matriculated in 2014 and completed his N4 certificate in public administration the following year, is one of those who has resisted this temptation.

For seven years he has mailed his CV to government departments, private companies and the City of Cape Town, without any success. “On their website[s] they say drop off your CV. But it is just a matter of dropping it in a pile again. I’ve studied public administration and it should have gotten me in somewhere. I can’t find a job anywhere.

“For the past seven years I’ve been getting the same letter saying ‘Thank you for your application and regret to inform…’ That is just for entry-level jobs where the requirement is a matric certificate.”

He reiterated that unemployment was a huge issue in Parkwood, saying that nobody even comes to teach young people a skill or a trade in this gang-ravaged area.

“Gangsters are the only people [who] are offering jobs now in our communities. You are offered a gun and maybe a R1,000 to shoot a person. That is their way of giving employment to the youth.

“Gangsters and drug merchants are offering more than any corporate or government organisation and that is the sad part. That is why we have so much youth falling into gangsterism,” he said.

He recently featured in a book called Gangster. A woman read his story and paid in full for a diploma course at Unisa for the 2022 academic year.

“What happens after I finish my studies? Will I go back in that cycle of struggling to find a job? They tell you they need a matric certificate, [but] when you get to them then you are under-qualified. When you give them a college certificate they tell you that you are over-qualified. So what do you need to actually find employment?”

Despite these adversities, Crowley, raised by his 59-year-old grandmother Jennifer Mott, who died in 2015, still tries to rise above his circumstances and be a beacon of hope to other young people in Parkwood.

On Wednesday 9 June, he took a crate full of job seekers’ forms to the sub-council in Lotus River for jobs.

“I have a motto that I live by each and every day: If I can put a smile on at least one person’s face for the day then I know my day is made.”

Eastern Cape

Asanda Bashala is one of 13 children living with her mother, Nosisa Bashala, in a decaying temporary house in Chris Hani Park, Mthatha.

The entire family is unemployed and her father, Mlamli Mazithambe, died in 2010 after the roof of their shack collapsed during heavy rain. Asanda said she had tried almost everything to restore the dignity of her family but all those attempts had failed and she remained unemployed.

She passed Grade 10 in 2016 at Ngubesizwe Senior Secondary School, but then dropped out of school because of financial challenges. Even her uniform was a donation from other schoolchildren.

Now, at the age of 22, she feels like she is living a useless life.

“The mess you are seeing here at home is because of the consequences of being unemployed. This trend has passed from generation to generation in this family,” she said.

“Being unemployed is not affecting me alone but also my siblings.”

She said she had applied to many supermarkets in Mthatha but had not received a  response. She does not have an identity document, and neither do her two children.

Bathandwa Mtwa (28), who has a degree in animal science from the University of Fort Hare, was queuing among unemployed young people this week outside the Public Works Office in the hope of landing a job.

Mtwa has been unemployed since 2016.

“As young people there are certain things we want to achieve for our families but we don’t have a source of income… In order to do anything you need to ask for money every time.

“It is about a year now that I have been applying for animal science posts but there is no response. I don’t know the exact amount of money I am spending, but I can estimate around R2,000 for data because I do online applications,” Mtwa said.

“What causes the most stress is that for most posts there is a requirement of two or three years’ experience. The question is: Where do I get experience when I am fresh out of university?

“Our government must provide youth with resources like opening a free internet café in each town so that everyone can have access to apply for jobs online.”


Malehlohonolo Sejane, who was born in Daveyton, matriculated in 2018 and has been alternating between seeking employment and trying to do short courses to earn a qualification that will help her get gainful employment.

She said she was raised by her grandmother and never really knew her parents. When her grandmother died in 2014, she was placed in a children’s home in Benoni, where she stayed until she matriculated. Sejane, who is now 21, was then taken in by family members who offered to help her get on her feet.

“Growing up I wanted to be a pilot because I was interested in how plane engines worked and how they were able to keep something so big in the air,” she said. But her school marks did not allow her to pursue this career, even though she tried to upgrade her marks in 2020.

Sejane said that one of the most frustrating things about looking for employment was the expense of having to pay for transport, printing hard copies of CVs and having to fend off scams. “I have had two experiences of scams where people pretended to be employment agents but they asked that I pay ‘registration fees’ in order for me to be placed in a job. That’s when I knew it was a scam because, if I am unemployed, where am I supposed to get money?”

Going for interviews straight out of high school was also very daunting, she said. “In school nobody prepares you for how to conduct yourself and what to expect in interviews, only how to draw up a CV.”

Most jobs required some level of experience, Sejane said, which was difficult coming out of high school.

But she had been volunteering at a nearby nursery school to try to gain some experience for the career she would like – teaching foundation phase children.

“I’m not getting paid for the work I do but at least I’m getting the experience that will be needed when I apply for jobs after getting my qualification.”

Although Sejane appears upbeat, she said it could be emotionally draining looking for employment to no avail. “I am too old to still be depending on my parents to buy me things like toiletries.” At times she felt she might be becoming depressed because nothing seemed to be working out.

The youth of South Africa is ready to take on opportunities – they just need to be given them, says Zuko Ntsonkotha.

He has spent the last decade training in various fields – from retail to plumbing – to best equip himself for the working world. But even with all this know-how, employers say this is not enough. They want work experience, but no one is willing to give young people the chance to get it, he explains.

Ntsonkotha grew up in Qhoboshane village, about 80km north of Komani (formerly Queenstown) in the Eastern Cape. He moved to Gauteng during his school years in search of better education and work opportunities.

He finished his schooling in Diepkloof in 2010, and worked in retail and sales until the end of 2020. These jobs offered little – he earned enough from commissions just to get to and from work. “This is no job,” he says shaking his head.

He studied and qualified as a plumber during this time “because it seemed like it had opportunities to get me money”. However, potential employers insisted on three years’ experience. But there were no ways to get this experience, as everyone insisted on years of work in the field to qualify. He was hugely disappointed.

He got his driver’s licence hoping this could also open doors. “They want five years driving experience and you don’t have it. Where do we get this experience if we can’t work?” he says.

In January 2021, he moved to Cape Town. “I hoped that by coming this side I would find something better. It’s not been easy,” he said. He has resorted to working on “piece jobs” which last for a few days or weeks.

It’s all about survival. “I will take any job – domestic work or hard labour even. I will do any job because I have to survive. At the end of the day I have to pay rent and take care of myself,” he explained.

One of his main motivators is to provide for his “beautiful daughter” living in Johannesburg. “I don’t feel good when I’m not providing for her,” he says.

He is about to graduate from a short course. “A friend of mine recommended that I do it as he is also working in that industry with the hope that like him, I will find a job,” he explains. In the meantime, his family supports him. His mother cares for his four siblings still in school and therefore can’t provide him with much support. His younger brother works and helps him when he can.

“I don’t have a dream job any more. It’s all about survival now. It’s not about having a dream job because that’s impossible. I wish South Africa would take the youth seriously … trust us and groom us. We are not lazy. We take the opportunities so give them to us,” he says. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Charles Parr says:

    My take on this is that the corporate world needs to man up, so to speak, and create internships that will provide the necessary learning experience so that the youngsters that have taken the time and trouble to get an education and training can at least have something on their CV. We all accept that government does not have the ability or will to create jobs (talking about it is only an election ploy) but I still do think that government at all levels has a role to play if the right people are engaged. For instance, if one takes the youngster in the WC that has studied public administration, his CV should be on Allan Winde’s desk every day until something is done to find him a suitable position where he can learn. It’s not going to get there by magic because it will be blocked by the hundred hands that it passes through on the way to him but if a senior businessman sat down with Winde and put it in front of him and said ‘this is your problem, now sort it out’ I guarantee that some action will happen very quickly.

    There is not one of us in this country that can allow this problem to remain or get worse. It must be hugely depressing and fatiguing to get zero response day after day.

    I can hear people squeal about the cost but I don’t believe that the financial cost need to excessive but the social cost of this unemployment will be. Quite frankly, if corporate South Africa can’t put their back to the wheel now then they don’t deserve our patronage.

    • Coen Gous says:

      Charles, I support your views. It is unbelievable that the youth of today has been denied to build on their ambitions, despite huge financial and other hardships. To see a father or a mother whom made huge personal sacrifices to provide a better life for their siblings is more than heart-breaking. How cruel is the world, how cruel those that were to suppose to lead us left us disillusioned, empty and broke, because of their own greed and selfishness

      • Charles Parr says:

        Thanks Coen, it’s something that I feel very strongly about and can’t understand the sheer inertia from those that are in a position to do something about it. It’s not that business is not doing enough to meet AA and BEE targets but when one is set a target and meets it then it’s job done. At some stage in the future we’re going to have a huge skills gap. Perhaps someone needs to prevail on Clem Sunter to assist young achievers to produce a new High Road, Low Road scenario for the country. It certainly got our attention the last time but unfortunately we changed in the wrong direction.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Very sad. did the interviewers think to ask these kids : who will they vote for in the next election?

    • Coen Gous says:

      And amazing how accurate Clem was…but I guess the wrong people attended his seminars, or his articles and books on the subject

      • Coen Gous says:

        Sorry Johan, but my comment was actually meant for Charles

        But replying to your old comment: The youth of today has learned from their elders. But their way of interpreting it is simply not to vote at all. By and large they don’t even bother to register. And can you blame them? Is there indeed any party that do not have skeletons in the closet. Is there any party anyone can trust. I am close to 70, and even at this age I can not say for certain who I will vote for next time. To me it appears that most voters simply keep on voting for the same party they previously vote for. South Africa has, unfortunately reached the stage where there are a severe lack of credibly political leadership, hence the huge number of parties. But the youth of today can sense that, and simply do not trust anyone or any party

  • C. M. says:

    We will live in a strange global economy these days. I saw a similar story happening when I was living in France and Canada. Students and parents spend thousands of dollars on degrees and the best they can do is entry level minimum wage jobs that don’t pay the rent in big cities. Every country has got to start figuring out some kind of solution for youth unemployment and underemployment.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Unfortunately this situation is as appalling as it was predictable. It is also an international problem where the Catch 22 of qualifications and experience do not marry. Employers (public and private) only recruit the very best and they want more for less. Organisations are cost driven, they are not there to provide training grounds.
    It is hard, and frankly depressing, to envisage a solution in a marketplace which will be increasingly computerised and eventually robotic. My advice would be remain absolutely mobile, tramp the streets, tout your personality (people buy people not CVs), start at the bottom and show absolute determination and enthusiasm. Employers want every ounce of bang for their buck – philanthropy is not in their lexicon.
    We have all been there – never, ever give up!

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