Maverick Citizen


Buy food or look for work — the awful choice facing young South Africans

The costs involved in looking for a job leave many of South Africa’s unemployed young people demotivated and desperate. Of the 2,200 young people surveyed for Youth Capital’s recently released report on these costs, 84% said they have to choose between looking for work and buying food.

The process of looking for a job involves many costs, ranging from data packages to taxi fares, printing rates to application fees. For a young person like Buhle Jentilemane, living in Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, these are costs she can ill afford. 

Jentilemane has been hunting for work for more than a year. She was laid off from her previous job in February 2021 due to the pressures the Covid-19 pandemic placed on her workplace. 

“[The Covid-19 pandemic] impacted me because before it I was employed, and I even signed a contract of permanence, but I would say I signed on [permanently] in December [2020], then next thing in February the following year I was unemployed,” said Jentilemane. 

At around the same time that Jentilemane lost her job she became a new mother. Supporting her family, including her child, mother and sisters, has been a struggle ever since. Paying for data is one of the most challenging aspects of the job-seeking process for Jentilemane. The expense is made all the more frustrating by the lack of results her online efforts produce. 

“They post a job online, they say apply. It’s just a waste of time,” she said. “I’ve been applying — I don’t know how many CVs — but never got even a rejection email saying, ‘Sorry, you didn’t meet the requirements’… it was just like I didn’t even send a CV.” 

Often, Jentilemane has to choose between spending money on finding a job and purchasing necessities for herself and her family. 

“I end up [not] putting CVs out because you find that now if I’m going to use this money [for job seeking], I’m going to lack something,” she said. “Let’s say I’m going to buy food but I’m not going to have electricity, or I’m going to buy electricity [but] I’m not going to have food if I use this money.  

“I also have a baby now, I run out of milk… [and] need winter clothes, even [for] my little sisters, so it’s kind of tricky.” 

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The cost of job seeking 

The struggle Jentilemane faces in finding employment is shared by many young South Africans. A report released by Youth Capital on 3 May, titled Beyond the cost: What does it really cost young people to look for work? surveyed 2,200 individuals between the ages of 15 and 34 on their job-seeking experience. Of these, 84% reported that they have to choose between looking for work and buying food. 

“Over eight in 10 young people are having to choose between looking for work and buying food, and I think this is an alarming statistic that should leave us all with a pit in our stomach,” said Kristal Duncan-Williams of Youth Capital. 

“Because this is the reality, you know: young people can choose to eat, or they can choose to look for work. And I think we need to address this.” 

Duncan-Williams was speaking at the virtual launch of the Beyond the cost report on Thursday. The discussion around youth unemployment held at the launch was chaired by Hlumela Dyantyi, the campaign manager for the DG Murray Trust. Speakers included Senzelwe Mthembu, a researcher at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, and Duma Gqubule, a financial journalist. 

Gqubule described the scale of the unemployment crisis in South Africa as “humongous”, with 12.5 million people unemployed. This equates to 46% of the population. 

“If you look at people who are 15 to 34 [years of age], 7.4 million people are unemployed. That is 60% of the total number of people who are unemployed,” said Gqubule. 

When it comes to the expenses involved in job seeking, 40% of those surveyed by Youth Capital said they spend between R250 and R499 on transport per month, while 42% said they spend between R250 and R499 on data in the same period. For 47% of respondents, printing and application fees cost up to R249 per month. 

“I think that this report, what it highlights is… the importance of access, of social inclusion, and the need for bridging the gap for the most excluded in society,” said Mthembu. 

Reducing barriers to employment 

Zero-rated platforms such as the job-seeking website SAYouth and data-light platforms such as WhatsApp can significantly reduce the cost of looking for work, according to the Youth Capital report.  

The survey found that six out of 10 respondents had used a zero-rated or data-free platform to apply for a job. Of those who used such platforms, 75% reported that it made applying for a job easier. 

“These platforms exist and… they do reduce barriers for young people. But what we need to do is to really tweak them and refine them,” said Duncan-Williams.  

“The reports we get around zero rating is, sometimes there’s an embedded video, an embedded form, things that require people to click away from that zero-rated site, and the minute they click away from that site, they need data… So, I think when people are designing these sites, when people are uploading information to these sites, it’s important to remember that.” 

Gqubule advocated for a basic income grant that provides people with the means to do more than just fulfil their basic needs. 

“We’ve looked at many pilots, in countries like Kenya… where they got this grant… and they used it for more than meeting basic needs,” he said. “They invested in agricultural equipment, they invested in different things, in education of the children and so forth. So, the key is to hit a sweet spot so that [the grant] isn’t used for basic survival needs.” 

Reducing the work experience requirements for first-time employees would go a long way toward making the job-seeking process easier for young people, according to Clerah Sethole, who runs the Precious Hope Foundation. The 27-year-old, herself a job seeker, said that the informal experience some young people have should be taken into account. 

“Most people find work through people they know, but young people have few connections to employed adults,” Sethole told Maverick Citizen. “We need to find ways of building social connections between young people and the world of work.” 

The inability to find work as a young person takes a mental toll, according to Bonginkosi Mchunu, the founder of the NGO Ohllofus. Job seekers coming out of college often become demotivated after three to six months with no employment prospects. 

“So, you can imagine what that will do to someone, how that will wear their hopes down,” said Mchunu. 

“It is worse for someone who does not have a college degree, because they will always be thinking, ‘Okay, I’m not getting a job because I don’t have a college degree’, where there’s people with college degrees that are still not getting jobs. So, you kind of don’t know what is expected from you; you’re not sure what you can do for yourself in order to get a job.” 

The struggle with unemployment makes Jentilemane feel “useless”, unable to support her family as she thought she would upon acquiring her matric. 

“When you finish matric, especially in the black people’s community, your parents, they feel that… now at least someone’s going to help. It’s not only going to be the one income coming in the house… the next thing you find… you are just an ornament sitting at home… doing nothing,” she said. 

Jentilemane’s passion lies in youth development, but she has long since given up focusing her job-seeking efforts on her preferred field. 

“Since I need money… what I want, what I love, it does not matter any more. As long as the job is paying, I will take any job,” she said. DM/MC


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