Defend Truth


From degree to internship to unemployment – the life of a black graduate


Zipho Majova is a UCT Public Policy Honours graduate.

Black graduates are faced with the bitter choice of either working for free, for the bare minimum, or not working at all.

South Africa has one of the highest unemployment rates globally, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). It is a wide ranging socio-economic challenge that should be considered a national crisis.

Without downplaying the significance of graduation, one cannot ignore the possibility of unemployment that follows the shares and retweets of your graduation pictures on social media. Soon after that, one realises that this harrowing reality is skewed along the lines of race and social background. Evidently, our graduate unemployment rate is immensely divided along racial lines. For that reason, we need to stop calling it graduate unemployment and call it what it is – black graduate unemployment.

Compounding the unemployment crisis is the fact that it is higher than that of its peers in the BRICS coalition. According to Statistics South Africa’s (Stats SA) , Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS), unemployment was sitting at 6.6% for graduates in the fourth quarter of 2017. This is a relatively low statistic, despite the increase from the third quarter’s percentage of 5,5%. Disappointingly, empirical evidence on unemployment of black graduates versus white graduates in South Africa is rather scant. There is much evidence and focus on unemployment by education status, age and sex. According to Stats SA, the share of employed black graduates was sitting at 17.1% in the fourth quarter of 2016. What is more sobering, is that the share of employed white graduates remains unrelentingly high; more than double the statistics of employed black graduates by a staggering 49,6%. From these figures, we can deduce that black graduates suffer the highest unemployment.

As a result we have witnessed a rising trend on social media with the hashtag #HireAGraduate. This hashtag saw graduates from various institutions resorting standing on street corners with their placards, practically begging for employment. Unless you are fortunate enough to be a white graduate, be born into an affluent family with connections, or maybe have just been able to secure placement into a graduate programme soon after graduation, the hashtag Hire A Graduate was more than just a group of graduates asking to be hired. It was symbolic of a deeper issue; a stark indicator of an ongoing systemic and crippling crisis that every black graduate may potentially face, a confirmation that the black and white continuum of society permeates every nature of our existence and that unemployment is no exception. Because once again, black people remain on the periphery.

Job seeking is exclusionary

The dark reality of exclusion in South Africa is so ingrained that it does not only end with accessing institutions, factors of production and the economy. Exclusion trickles down to an activity as simple as job-seeking. We often underestimate the amount of resources required for the process of job-seeking. If we dissect the process, we easily find that due to a lack of resources, the process can be very ostracising for black graduates fresh out of university.

Firstly, looking for a job mostly requires the internet and if we go by the average South African household, WiFi installation is a luxury that most households cannot afford. Not to mention the exorbitant prices of data which automatically limit the amount of time one spends searching on the internet. The hourly rates at internet café can be very expensive as everything is directly proportional; the more time you spend on the internet, the more money you cough out. On top of that, there are travelling costs to and from the internet café. And depending on how dedicated you are, visits to the internet café probably happen more than once a week. Privileged white graduates may be oblivious to these issues but for majority of black graduates, this costly process excludes them from fully participating in the job seeking process.

The challenge of internships

In addition to exclusionary job seeking, there’s the devastation of internships and entry level jobs that often have highly anti-working class and anti-black prerequisites. These requirements have become endemic and they include being required to have your own vehicle or internet access which is not the reality of an average black graduate. Earlier this year, in the State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the Youth Employment Service (YES).

The aim of the initiative is to improve youth unemployment by creating job opportunities that ensure young people are offered paid work experience. Over the next three years, the programme would see to it that more than one million jobs are created for young people. Furthermore, in his speech , the president added that the government would be “working in partnership with business, organised labour and community representatives… through internships, apprenticeships, mentorship and entrepreneurship”.

While the programme has been well received, YES is not an extraordinarily new initiative in comparison to South Africa’s past unco-ordinated and lacklustre economic policies. From the 1996 economic policy known as Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) right down to the current National Development Plan (NDP), there has been a recurring common denominator for job creation strategies. It is evident that our country suffers from ambitious goals while being thin on execution details.

What happens after these internships? Too many young people gain experience and training skills from internships with the hope of permanency, only to go back to unemployment at the end of their internship. Will graduates be paid? While one can never understate the importance of experience, unpaid internships are undeniably exploitative. Unpaid internships are an unequivocal privilege reserved for graduates who come from families that are able and willing to support them financially. And if graduates will be getting paid, will it be sufficient? Will their salaries even attempt to be minimally consistent with the high cost of living? Or will it be a daylight robbery salary of R2500-R3500 pm, disguised as “stipends”.

The desperation of graduates wanting to enter the workplace has reached a point where entry-level jobs barely exist as they are filled with overqualified and underpaid interns. As a result, black graduates are faced with the bitter choice of either working for free, under the bare minimum or not working at all. Whether efforts made by the government and corporate South Africa will be successful in combating youth unemployment remains to be seen. As things stand, unless we engender black graduate friendly employment programs and job creation strategies, graduate unemployment is likely to remain a colossal feature in our socio-economic landscape. DM


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