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Imprisoned in open space: The frustration of unemployment

The remote mountain pasture of the Kat River Valley in the Eastern Cape is a stunning vista of dark green trees shading ravines where water flows to valleys covered in yellow mustard flowers. An unbroken carpet of grass cascades down the hills below the mountain, waving as the wind passes through the valley. Cattle graze on the mountain from early morning until dusk.

Thandiswa Boya lived in her family’s rondavel on this mountainside in the former Ciskei homeland for seven years. Arriving from Khayelitsha, 800km away, she was responsible for the care of her family’s cows from the age of 17 until she turned 24. She was three hours by foot from the nearest hamlet, Seymour, where she could – on occasion – visit people or a local shop. But her main responsibility was to look after the family “savings account”, eight cows.

In this economically desolate region, Thandiswa led the herd out to pasture and brought them in at night, day in, day out. Left alone, surrounded by neighbours who were hostile or indifferent, with little food and nothing to do, she was imprisoned in open space. Years later, her bitterness over this abandonment is deep and abiding. Her life has been indelibly marked by the interruption she was forced to endure in her education. She returned to Khayelitsha from her seven-year exile a damaged soul, her sacrifice unrecognised by her father, who had been the one who had insisted she waste those precious years up on the mountainside.

When we met, Thandiswa was 28 and the mother of two sons born to her from fathers who had not been part of her life since her children arrived. She was living near – yet a world away from – Cape Town’s city centre.

Thousands of Khayelitsha’s shack dwellers are migrants from the Eastern Cape, where Thandiswa spent seven years cattle-minding. They have come in search of work, better education, or better healthcare services, all of which are in greater supply in the Western Cape. Ramshackle dwellings stretch as far as the eye can see in many places; makeshift houses cluster around the edges of formal settlements with durable buildings.

Thandiswa’s house is in one of the older, formal neighborhoods of the township. Pale plaster, the colour of milk, the house is bleached by the southern sun. There is no shade in the yard, nothing green anywhere near. The house is surrounded by sand.

She beckons us inside, closing the iron gate across the front door. The seven adults and three toddlers who live in Thandiswa’s home share four beds. By local standards they are a large family, but they remain middle-income and their home reflects it. It is a house, not a shack: it has multiple rooms, running cold water, electricity, and an indoor toilet. For thousands of Khayelitsha residents who must make do with far less, Thandiswa’s home would be a dream come true.

When we first met, Thandiswa was mired in what seemed to be a paralysing depression and without a job or any means of supporting her family. Despite many efforts to find paid work, she is now largely dependent on the earnings of her father and government support for parents with children. Her days are endlessly monotonous, and the future will be – she is sure – just like the present: terminally boring.

Thandiswa has taken steps to change her trajectory, but these moments of activity punctuate long months of stasis. She is desperate to take control of her life, but does not really know how, and her diary takes a turn toward the self-critical when nothing works out:

“Life is hard if you complain and do not make effort to improve yourself. I think I am very lazy; I become angry at myself sometimes. Sometimes I do go out there to look for a job, e.g., I once photocopied my CVs (about six times), and I visited different shops and places.

“Some promised to call me and they never did so, some simply said they are not employing people any more. This whole process is exhausting, sometimes I just give up, and simpl[y] get into a taxi and I go home.”

When we got to know her better, we realised Thandiswa was often fearful when it came to looking for job information, let alone actually applying for employment. Too many times she had tried to find ways to better her education or land a job, only to be disappointed.

Her diary testifies to how frustrating the experience of looking for a job can be in a country where official unemployment is more than 25%, but whose townships suffer far more (in most, 60% are without work):

“What does hurt and has in the past, is when a job did not [require] any educational background, yet I still did not get it. I wonder, ‘Is my face smeared with shit?’”

Leaving these interviews, as soon as she was outside, Thandiswa would quickly find a hidden spot where she could break down and sob.

This is an edited extract from After Freedom: The Rise of the Post-Apartheid Generation in Democratic South Africa, published by Beacon

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