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Dear Jobless Graduate: Is it really your fault?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

If someone has a tertiary education but lacks the life-orientation skills to navigate 21st century existence – whose fault is that? I’d like to offer a different view to that of the learned Professor Jonathan Jansen. 

Education is slowly taking centrestage. It may currently serve as nothing more than a tool for political point-scoring, but it is undeniable that it is moving away from the shadows and becoming increasingly urgent and politically fraught. 

In the midst of the furore over the Limpopo and Eastern Cape education crises, the vice-chancellor of the University of Free State, Jonathan Jansen, penned a column addressed to jobless graduates. The column was probably prompted by Adcorp’s December Employment Index, which said there are over 600,000 qualified graduates sitting at home, unable to find work.

The problem, according to the survey, is that most university students seem to be pursuing jobs which don’t actually equip them to compete successfully in South Africa’s wildly competitive labour market. The same survey says there is a massive shortage of students with business skills. People are just not getting degrees that will get them in-demand jobs.

Speaking to City Press, labour market analyst Loane Sharp said: “The most sought-after skills are finance, accounting, management, law, and medicine. In particular, management skills account for nearly half of the 829,000 vacancies in corporate South Africa.”

In his column, Jansen decided to point his response to this alarming news to the jobless graduates. “The reason you fail to get a job has little to do with your degree. It has everything to do with the other things employers look for in a candidate,” Jansen wrote.

The reason why so many candidates are not getting jobs is because they put together sloppy and very badly written curriculum vitae, according to Jansen. Their CVs are also too thin – a result of the students failing to join the right youth associations, and spending their holiday working at Spar instead of “volunteering at an Aids hospice or starting up your own youth literacy project or reading club in the township would have shortlisted you for the job”.

Jansen notes the hang-dog look of most job seekers. He chastises these unemployed job seekers for showing up in inappropriate dress for job interviews, and for not using “upbeat” language. 

While all these are, in of themselves, valid points, I was rather taken aback by Jansen’s failure to address the root causes of this type of job seeker: such a person is a product of structural poverty.

Structural poverty is about how a society is set up: the distribution of assets and opportunities, the continuation of unequal social relations and the institutionalisation of marginalisation. Structural poverty traps its prisoners and will never release them if interventions continue to ignore the real root cause of such poverty. 

One cannot expect such people to simply “try harder” and to lift themselves out of poverty if the structural nature of their poverty is not changed. 

In a paper titled The Causes of Poverty: Cultural vs Structural, Gregory Jordan wrote: “Supporters of the ‘structural’ school of thought argue that most poverty can be traced back to structural factors inherent to either the economy and/or to several interrelated institutional environments that serve to favour certain groups over others, generally based on gender, class, or race. Of the various institutional environments that tend to sustain a multitude of economic barriers to different groups, it is discrimination based on race and gender that create the most insidious obstructions. 

“The disproportionately high rate of poverty among women may be viewed as the consequence of a patriarchal society that continues to resist their inclusion in a part of society that has been historically dominated by men, and as a consequence, welfare programmes have been designed in ways that stigmatise public support for women as opposed to marital support; both arrangements tend to reinforce patriarchy (Abramovitz, 1996).”

Harvard University Professor William Julius Wilson once outlined the difference views on poverty as such: “For many years, social scientists and other observers have debated the role of social structure versus culture in determining the social outcomes of African Americans… Conservatives tend to emphasise cultural factors, such as attitude, worldview, (and) styles of behaviour, whereas liberals pay more attention to structural conditions, with attention devoted to racialist structural factors, such as discrimination and segregation.”

“Indeed, many liberals are reluctant to discuss or research the role that culture plays in the negative outcomes found in inner cities, possibly fearing criticism that they are blaming the victim,” Wilson said.

Wilson then goes on to outlines how cultural norms in poor and unsafe neighbourhoods, such as avoiding eye contact, mistrusting neighbours, and demanding respect — could be construed as anti-social behaviour in corporate settings.

Another example of structural poverty at play is the lopsided nature of our education system. Ever since the end of apartheid, education reforms have been piecemeal and half-hearted. In 1976, the Soweto Students’ Representative Council declared that it would reject the education system that was designed “to reduce us, mentally and physically, into ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

That system is still in place today for the large majority of the country’s schoolchildren.

This is a system that provides children with a bare minimum. It teaches students how to count to 10, but not how to apply that knowledge to solve complex problems. That kind of thinking actually penetrates to the very top levels of our education system. We have more than half a million students sitting at home with no jobs – how many of them were taught to create jobs, instead of working for someone else?

It doesn’t surprise me at all that so many people can leave high school, and even university, lacking basic job-searching skills. Nobody bothered to teach these people how to write CVs, what to wear at job interviews, how to speak, how to conduct research – there is an excellent chance that many of these students have never had the opportunity to observe a corporate work environment before. They simply don’t know.

Jansen’s decision to lay the blame at the feet of the jobless graduates, as if opportunities abound for these well-equipped students and they are simply too lazy (they are not, and they are not) to grasp them is callous, patronising and curmudgeonly. This view is the sort of thing one would expect from a Sunday morning talk-show Republican, not a man who once displayed a controversial amount of compassion and understanding when he dealt with troubled students. 

I have a good job today because of an army of people who invested time and energy in my education – and that includes the sort of skills that don’t appear on a CV but are the difference between a job and sitting at home (or on the street, even). I am who I am today because someone cared. How can I possibly blame those who were not as lucky as I am? DM

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