Maverick Citizen


Buying food or looking for work — stark choice facing young job-seekers in SA

Buying food or looking for work — stark choice facing young job-seekers in SA
Unemployed graduates apply for internships at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

Eight in 10 young job-seekers in SA have to choose between buying food and looking for work, Youth Capital’s latest Beyond the Cost survey has found.

‘When I got my degree, I expected my life to change. I expected to get an internship or a learnership where I could gain experience and showcase what I learnt at varsity. I have not had a chance to put my communications degree to work.”

This was said by Loveness Hulwane, a 25-year-old aspiring journalist who, since securing her communications degree, has been confronted with challenge after challenge when looking for work.

Hulwane’s struggles are a reality for countless young people in South Africa. According to Statistics SA, 44.3% of 15- to 35-year-olds in the country were unemployed in the fourth quarter of 2023.

Youth Capital’s latest Beyond the Cost report found that the burden of unemployment is exacerbated by the cost of looking for work.

In 2023, Youth Capital surveyed 10,000 job-seekers and found that young people spent an average of R1,469 a month looking for work, while 83% of the respondents had to choose between buying food and looking for work.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lost decades — horrendous unemployment keeps South Africa jobless rate above 20% since 2000

“There are many instances — I can’t even remember all of them — where I sacrificed spending money on food in order to find work. The thing is, you can’t complain about being hungry when you need a job, but, unfortunately, you also can’t survive on an empty stomach,” Hulwane told Daily Maverick.

“It is a very difficult choice to make, choosing between work and food. Looking for work is very expensive and it’s a huge struggle because without work, there is no money, but without money, there is no work.”

Youth Capital project lead Kristal Duncan-Williams told Daily Maverick, “I think the reason we have failed to address youth unemployment to date is that we have actually failed to talk about the complexities and the nuances of it.

young job-seekers sa

Kgomotso Lekwadu cleans bins in Pretoria on 5 June 2023. The young entrepreneur has found a means of getting an income by charging R100 per household to clean their bins every week. (Photo: Gallo Images / Frennie Shivambu)

“I always come back to that stat that eight out of 10 young people have to choose between looking for work or putting food on their table. You don’t need to be a statistician to understand the impact of that, right?

“Young people are not getting into work because of so many factors. When we try to come up with one magic solution, a silver bullet answer, and we fail to understand all those nuances and complexities, we’re doomed to fail with whatever programme we come up with.”

Cost of transport

The report found that there had been efforts to address issues around the cost of data and the visibility of job opportunities, but the legacy of apartheid spatial planning and the cost of transport continued to pose challenges.

“Transport costs are highly unequal, being rooted in the unequal spatial development of South African cities. As a result, many young people, the majority of [whom] live far from economic centres, are forced to pause job-seeking because they can’t afford the high costs of transport and data,” the report found.

The online survey, which ran from May to November 2023, showed that young job-seekers spend R700 a month on transport alone.

The high cost of transport also adversely affects young people’s ability to hold on to opportunities, with many having to let go of jobs because they can’t afford to commute to and from work.

This was the experience of Kehlohonolo Kgosane, a 22-year-old from Bopelong township in Vanderbiljpark.

“I got a learnership from Dove, but the classes for the learnership were in Johannesburg. The transportation costs from my side were too much. When I calculated my transportation costs, they were more than half of the stipend and it was going to be hard for me to maintain that. So I had to leave the job because of that,” Kgosane told Daily Maverick.

Since then, Kgosane has been making ends meet by working as a tutor in his township but has his hopes pinned on becoming a chartered accountant.

Duncan-Williams said that revamping South Africa’s public transport industry was pivotal to reducing the cost of job-seeking for young people.

“In terms of transport, nothing’s really been done to tackle that. And so that’s becoming the biggest portion of the cost. There are initiatives and programmes that completely remove the cost [of transport for] young people, but ultimately, public transport that is affordable should be something that we as a South African society have rights and access to, a system that could be affordable for us, but that is also free for young workers,” Duncan-Williams said.

young job-seekers sa

Unemployed young people fix potholes in Finetown to earn a living in Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

In some provinces, there are efforts to lessen transportation costs for young job-seekers. The Western Cape government recently launched the Getting YOU to Work initiative in Cape Town, in partnership with Golden Arrow Bus Services. It allows unemployed job-seekers to access 12 free trips to and from job interviews.

Duncan-Williams said initiatives like Getting YOU to Work were essential to alleviate the cost of travel, but the temporary nature of such programmes greatly inhibited their impact.

“There have been a few ad hoc initiatives, like the Golden Arrows-City of Cape Town one, and JobJack has tried various partnerships. There are little pockets of these things happening, but nothing to scale and nothing long-term. There really hasn’t been a major shift in behaviour that speaks to the recommendations we have made.”

‘Needing a job to get a job’

Work experience is another factor that hinders the ability of young job-seekers to find employment. According to the Beyond the Cost report, a 2018 study showed that being able to demonstrate work experience, whether it was formal or informal, was the most important factor in finding a job, after race and gender.

However, Youth Capital’s survey found that “eight in 10 unemployed young people have never had a job, and so are perpetually stuck in a loop of needing a job, to get a job”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Giving jobless young people an in into the labour market via short-term public employment

Civil engineering graduate Matshidiso Kholuwe told Daily Maverick that the requirement of experience was one of the biggest hurdles in her quest to find a job.

Kholuwe obtained her diploma in 2019, a Bachelor of Technology degree in 2021 and a Professional Electronics Engineer certification in 2022. She had little opportunity to gain enough experience to be considered for an entry-level job.

“I am a graduate — where am I going to get experience? There is no way around this. Every post that I encounter encourages over three years’ experience and also register with the Engineering Council of South Africa (Ecsa). Ecsa costs over R2,000 — where am I going to find that money?”


Youth Capital found that the expenses associated with job-seeking largely explained the consistent increase in the number of discouraged work-seekers. In 2008, around one million unemployed people of all ages were so discouraged they had stopped looking for work; 15 years later, this figure had climbed to 3.2 million, the study found.

Youth Capital advocated measures that could be implemented by civil society, the government and the private sector to lessen the cost of looking for jobs.

It recommended that cash transfers, like the Social Relief of Distress grant, continue to support job-seekers: “We strongly recommend that the SRD is extended into long-term financial support, with an inflationary increase.”

Other recommendations include:

  • Leveraging public employment programmes like the Presidential Employment Stimulus, the Social Employment Fund and the Basic Education Employment Initiative for work experience and economic development.
  • The prioritisation of infrastructure development plans and policies. Moreover, urban development strategies and policies must address the spatial inequality legacy of apartheid.
  • The re-evaluation of existing tax incentives to allow easier access for small and medium businesses, whether formal or informal. Trading regulations also need to be relaxed to ensure that potential vendors can easily access trading bays in municipalities.
  • The encouragement and incentivisation of employers to innovate their hiring and retention of young employees and job-seekers. Additionally, public employment programmes must be viewed as a social instrument to unlock the economic potential and impact of young people. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • ST ST says:

    Truly heartbreaking. Shame on you ANC! 30 years on we should be celebrating the success of a generation that benefited from freedom. Instead unemployment is rising and having an education if you can get one seems to be no cure. Ofcourse your kids will never know this hardship comfortably funded by so much pain and despair of their counterparts. A generation lost. One of the ANC deadliest sins!

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