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Where young South Africans live and go to school shapes their economic future

Where young South Africans live and go to school shapes their economic future
School pupils walk home from school in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The author writes that South Africa's colonial and apartheid history has resulted in social disconnectedness, excluding the majority of black and coloured youth from participating fully in society. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Economic connectedness is a strong predictor of upward mobility, more than other types of social capital. Social disconnectedness has been produced by our apartheid history, which excludes the majority of black and coloured youth from participating fully in society and the formal economy.

From an early age, Damien* improvised in smart ways to make money — he was scrappy and entrepreneurial. At the age of 15, he drafted resumés for people for a fee. Raised in inner-city Johannesburg, Damien is the son of Congolese nationals who both had professional jobs and a network of neighbours, friends and acquaintances of a similar socioeconomic status before they settled in South Africa.

Damien’s family worked hard and got by. But when young Damien received a scholarship to attend St John’s College, one of Johannesburg’s most elite independent schools, a new world of social connections opened up, supported by people he would never have otherwise met, because of where he grew up and rampant wealth inequality.

For a young black boy from Yeoville attending an elite (and historically white) school, the experience of straddling unequal and disconnected worlds could have been alienating. On the contrary, the enterprising Damien saw an untapped opportunity to build a metaphorical bridge between these disparate worlds and make some money at the same time.

Capital is more than just money; it’s also who you know

Damien’s insider knowledge of the Yeoville community, coupled with his exposure to affluent families, gave him the resources, or social capital — as sociologists like to say — to pioneer a social enterprise that promoted inner-city tourism in some of Johannesburg’s most misunderstood and neglected areas. He also established a community centre, a safe space where children could learn and play.

Damien’s friendships at school connected him to well-heeled people. Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues use the term economic connectedness to describe the diversity and extent of cross-class social connections or the share of friendships between people in high- and low-income households. Their work in the United States tells us that economic connectedness is a strong predictor of upward mobility, more than other types of social capital.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu insisted that social capital is always, ultimately, underpinned by economic capital, but the work of Chetty and colleagues shows that having access to relationships with material opportunities can directly improve people’s lives.

Embedding social connections in a youth employment strategy

In South Africa, social disconnectedness has been produced by our colonial and apartheid history, a legacy which reproduces lines of historical privilege, deepens spatial and income inequality, and excludes the majority of black and coloured youth from participating fully in society and the formal economy.

Eight out of 10 unemployed young people have never had a job in the formal economy, and find it difficult to access the job market, and over nine million young people between the ages of 15 and 35 are currently locked out of earning or learning opportunities.

Alongside the formal sector, the township economy is largely informal and consists mainly of micro-enterprises. Many of those driving this economy are imbued with an entrepreneurial energy commonly referred to as “hustling”. Young people like Damien have shown there are ways to connect economic and social worlds as they navigate unequal spaces. But these stories are few and far between.

The reality is that the majority of young South Africans struggle to access and use elite suburbs, city centres, shopping malls and recreational spaces. So, we need to think creatively and intentionally about how to support enterprises like Damien’s and help more young people bridge the spatial divide.

Bridging the spatial divide can take the form of initiatives like Open Streets, low-cost housing in central locations or close to transport hubs, free public transport for young jobseekers, and school partnerships across class boundaries and using townships as recreational centres and economic hubs.

But we first need to acknowledge the powerful role that social networks, created through racialised spatial divisions and economic practices, play in creating access to income-generating activities.

Existing youth employment programmes and government social employment programmes, therefore, need to give young people and those of us with resourced networks ways and opportunities to connect. We also need to shine a light on those doing this successfully, like Damien, so that it becomes common practice.

It’s crucial that a national youth employment strategy recognises that individuals on either side of these divides have skills and talents to offer the formal and informal economies, and that South Africa will benefit greatly from seeking and promoting ways to promote economic connectedness. DM

*Not his real name. Damien is one of the young entrepreneurs who shared his experience in the research paper ‘Dancing on the ceiling’ – young Black entrepreneurs leveraging capitals across sub-fields in Johannesburg tourism, which recounts the experiences of four Johannesburg-based young black entrepreneurs, who successfully linked their hobbies and personal interests with income-generating activities.

Adam Cooper is Chief Research Specialist in the Equitable Education and Economies division of the Human Sciences Research Council.  Kristal Duncan-Williams is the Project Lead at Youth Capital. Join Youth Capital’s Youth Month campaign #StandUp and find ways to start sharing your social capital with young people around you.


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