‘I just feel dead now because I cannot contribute anything towards my wellbeing and that of my family.’
Discouraged, marginalised and disheartened, the unemployed in South Africa seem to have lost the very hope necessary to look for the next work opportunity. Their sense of self-worth and the courage they need to face the challenges of their condition is constantly undermined by their family’s lack of support or by a social environment that hastily labels them as lazy or incompetent. For this feature on the unemployment crisis, Amandla! conducted interviews with some unemployed people of different ages and genders. All tell the same story of disgruntlement and disillusion. They talk about the lack of dignity that comes from depending on their families and how they often find refuge in self-destructive cycles of abuse or end up blaming others, foreigners or rural migrants, for their problems.
Virtually described as a disease, unemployment erodes family bonds and communal ties. Abongile, 26 years old, says, ‘The way family treats you changes a lot when you are not working … I am deeply troubled by my unemployment because even my younger siblings look at me as a useless brother who is up to no good.’ Another interviewee mentions the fact that his relatives look at him like he is worthless because he doesn’t have anything to contribute when they have family gatherings. Verna, 23 years old, explains: ‘My own family doesn’t treat me the way a daughter should be treated; they treat me like an outsider.’ Family is indeed often the only resort for unemployed people who can’t support themselves, and this strains familial relationships. ‘My brother and my mother are the ones supporting me but it is a nuisance to them as they have to give me some of their earnings” – Abongile admits that because they always scold him for his unemployment, he sometimes wants to refuse their cash, but takes it out of despair. Some stop relying on their families out of shame, and end up depending on their friends: ‘When it comes to food, I don’t get to eat every night because I don’t work. I normally go out to friends and look for something. If I don’t eat I hope by God’s grace I survive till the next day.’
Who is to blame? Khaya says, ‘Foreign nationals come and accept low-paying jobs because they are too desperate and come from poverty-stricken countries so they accept even if they get paid peanuts … That is part of the reason why we are unemployed. I do not say it is okay that they are beaten by South Africans but I think they should be advised not to take jobs which do not pay them the right salary because we suffer from it …’ Another interviewee complains: ‘Imagine if you had to share your plate of food with your neighbour every day – these guys take a job even if they’re going to be paid a loaf of bread …’
It seems like a lot of the unemployed no longer know who to accuse for the job shortages in South Africa. They indecisively point to highly skilled foreigners, poor illegal migrants, the youth, the government or bosses … Having been repeatedly promised the same services by changing candidates and administrations, they no longer know how to alleviate their anger and anxiety. As Verna says, ‘the City doesn’t work for me. The government comes and promises people the world before the elections and does nothing after. Government is not doing anything for the people who are on the floor. Every day is like a weekend here in Manenberg, as the streets a full of unemployed.’
While they describe their lack of skills and education as partial reasons for their unemployment, they demand from government that jobs be created in their communities and closer to their homes. The very necessity of going to town to search for employment is a financial deterrent. Khaya goes on to say: ‘The government has to empower people with skills so we do not necessarily have to go outside the township to look for employment. They should teach us things like plumbing or construction so when there are people in the community who need such services, they can employ each other.’ As one mentions, ‘I think the government should make sure people do not have to go far from the townships to get jobs, as they have no money to look for a job.’ Utterly dispirited, they talk about the process of looking for work as a waste of money, especially if they don’t find anything at the end of the day. ‘I prefer to use the little I have to buy something that I will eat at home.’
Refusing to toil for slave wages, they are aware that working for practically nothing is no solution. What is the use of going to work if you’re not going to solve your problems? As one says, ‘I think it is a waste of my time and energy to work for peanuts because I waste all the money on travelling. People work so they can be something, so what’s the point of working just to eat lunch there and come back?’
Completely discouraged, the youth and the unemployed easily turn to drugs or illegal means to help them deal with the daily discord. As Verna says, ‘They say the youth is the future but it seems like the youth has been put on hold – it is given drugs and alcohol just to keep them busy.’