A drive on a weekday morning around the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg will reveal to you the real face of unemployment in South Africa. On the corners of the many avenues in this sprawling township where I grew up, young men and women roam the streets. Some play dice and morabaraba and some are drinking beer, while others plan where they can go to steal in order to have something to eat in the evening.

Stop and ask them why they are not working. Most will tell you they have degrees or diplomas, but can’t find a job. Some have little or no work experience, while others have lost hope and have given up looking. Looking at these people last week, I started to think about my own life a few years back when I used to stand on those street corners hopeless and without a job.

I had a degree and did some short courses afterwards. I indiscriminately knocked on doors of potential employers. I wanted anything that could take me off the streets and enable me to live the life I’d always dreamt of. Everywhere I went the words “No jobs/ Awukho umsebenzi” became a familiar sound. And the only piece jobs I managed to get didn’t last for more than five days. I did everything from till-handling to packing beers at a nearby tavern, to distributing flyers at the traffic lights during peak hours. But I was happy. I had something to do, something to keep me off those avenue corners and out of trouble.

When you’ve been unemployed for some time, you are willing to do anything, even if it means not getting paid, just so you can get experience and be employable. When former president Thabo Mbeki launched the Alexandra Renewal Project in 2001, I started writing stories about the project for its newsletter — for free. Luckily, I was spotted by a Media24 publication. The rest is history.

I remembered this after driving around Alexandra last week and seeing the number of unemployed young people on the streets. The numbers have increased. Actually, they seemed to have doubled, even tripled. It made me wonder when this vicious circle will ever end.

Recent statistics tell us that one in four people is unemployed. And 72% of them are young people below the age of 35, like the ones I met in Alexandra. Does the government care about these unemployed youth? I believe it does, which is why in 2009 President Jacob Zuma announced the R5-billion youth wage subsidy to reverse the catastrophes of youth unemployment by enticing employers with incentives to hire youngsters, teach them skills and equip them with job experience. That sounded like a good plan.

But four years after the announcement by Zuma and the rubber stamp from finance minister Pravin Gordhan, the subsidy plan still hasn’t taken off. Recent developments suggest that this subsidy is supported by both government and business, but is being held up by the ruling party’s ally, Cosatu, which argues that the subsidy will displace existing jobs and only enrich employers. How? Cosatu’s explanation is not clear. The Democratic Alliance, which a recently confronted Cosatu by marching to its offices, estimates that 400 000 jobs that could have gone to the youth are lost. To prove a point, the DA has introduced a similar subsidy — “Work and Skill for 100 000” — in the Western Cape, which it says has placed over 2000 first-time job seekers in six-month jobs, with about 70% securing full-time work.

Zuma said his government is not going to abandon the subsidy but has failed to give timelines. The DA thinks he’s toeing the line, and asked: “Are you allowing Cosatu to hold you to ransom because you want to be re-elected in Mangaung?”

To the youth, this politicking doesn’t address where their next meal will come from. All they care about is jobs and experience so that they can be employable.

I don’t buy Cosatu’s argument of young workers facing exploitation in the work place. The wage subsidy is going to be implemented within the framework of the labour laws which protect every worker. One may then ask why Cosatu is fighting so hard to block what looks like a wonderful policy.

The answer is easy: Cosatu doesn’t represent the unemployed. Cosatu represents those who are already employed. Cosatu doesn’t care if millions don’t have a jobs. If anything, Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi is threatened that if new young workers, most of whom don’t like joining unions, join the job market, they will push out older members who form the core of Cosatu, and will weaken the federation.

It’s clear that Zuma is not going to act now. He is looking for a second term, so this would be a bad time to anger Cosatu. It’s also not clear when the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), on which Cosatu sits, will make recommendations on the matter to cabinet. But unemployed young people cannot wait forever. This is no longer a battle between the DA and Cosatu. The youth formations need to stand up against the government and Cosatu and demand their jobs, without any fear of intimidation.

Countries in the Arab north of Africa underestimated the anger of the unemployed youth. The effects of that mistake are now well documented.

This article was first published in The Witness.


  • Isaac Mangena is a Chapter Nine Communicator slash activist. He has spent much of the past ten years of his life in a newsroom. He is a former TV and Newspaper journalist who focuses on African and international news. He previously worked for Media24 and Agence France-Presse. Isaac holds a BA Psychology degree from the University of the North (now Limpopo). He reads, writes and critique – a lot.


Isaac Mangena

Isaac Mangena is a Chapter Nine Communicator slash activist. He has spent much of the past ten years of his life in a newsroom. He is a former TV and Newspaper journalist who focuses on African and international...

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