Attitudes hold SA workers hostage

Many informal subcontractors have found work extending houses in areas like Sharpeville. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Many informal subcontractors have found work extending houses in areas like Sharpeville. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

It is just after 10am and Sipho “Speecho” Mngomezulu is slurring his words. He holds a pair of scissors in his right hand and carefully shreds his “weed” into small pieces.

“Sister, this is the good stuff, eo shapa daar [it hits you there],” he says and slowly places his fist on his heart. He coughs and signals his friend to pass him the bottle of beer shared by the four men.

“You see sister, there are no jobs for us here.
At least, nna le majita, re a phanda, [the gents and I, we hustle]. We take care of each other,” he says switching between model C English and Sesotho. He says that he has no responsibilities in life because he has no children and his mother takes care of him – which she should “because he never asked to be born”.

Mngomezulu is 32 and says he completed matric in 2000. He is slim and clean-shaven but smells of beer, cigarettes and marijuana. He tells the Mail & Guardian he worked as a freelance photographer after he completed high school, at General Smuts High School in Vereeniging, and that he used to take wedding and birthday photographs in the township for extra money. When asked why he hadn’t pursued his career in photography, he shakes his head and says: “Ah sister, where will I get the money to go around taking pictures? Tlameile ba mpatale pele [They must pay me first].”

About 51% of South Africans between the ages of 15 to 24, and around 31% between 25 and 34, are unemployed.

Home renovations
Stats SA’s latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey report shows that employment in the informal sector grew by 28 000 jobs, and was attributed to the construction, manufacturing and transport sectors. This is evident in Sharpeville, in southern Gauteng, where it seems that many houses are being built or renovated.

When Mngomezulu is asked the reason he does not offer his services as an unskilled labourer, he slowly shakes his head.

“Sister, me? Build houses? For what, R500 a week? You, you are playing,” he says.

But James Ngale, a 30-year-old Mozambican who has lived in Sharpeville since 2007, tells the M&G he first worked as an unskilled labourer in the informal construction sector where he was paid R20 a day to mix cement.

He would then spend R15 and save R5. Ngale says he knew that, during that period, South Africans who were unskilled would get paid R60 for the same job but says he never complained because “who would give me R20?”

Vulnerable workers
Neil Coleman, strategies co-ordinator in labour federation Cosatu’s secretariat, said unscrupulous employers would always exploit the position of vulnerable workers.

“The most vulnerable [women in rural areas and foreigners] don’t have the ability to fight for their rights. This usually happens in construction, tourism and security,” Coleman told the M&G.

Ngale is standing outside a house that he and his workers are “extending”, adding rooms, a bigger kitchen and an inside bathroom. There are five men, all from Mozambique, plastering the walls and shaping windowsill edges.

Ngale says that when he started as an unskilled worker he would have to do a number of piece jobs to get by. “You have to start somewhere. Today, I’m a subcontractor.”

He would spend his daily wage on food, but he has since become a skilled labourer who employs others, and can negotiate the terms of the contract.

“These South African boys think we’re stupid because we used to work for R100 a day or less, but when there’s no jobs that’s what you do. I also went to school,” he says.

Ngale completed high school in Maputo in 2001 and moved to South Africa in 2004 for better opportunities. He says he laid bricks in Maputo for 30 meticais a day (just over R3).

Foreign hires
A study released in August by the nongovernmental organisation Migration for Work Research Consortium shows that a higher percentage of international migrants is hired in the informal sector than nonmigrants. Using Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for 2012, researcher Christine Fauvelle-Aymar found that 32.65% of foreigners are hired compared with 16.57% of South Africans.

“International [sub-Saharan] migrants are more likely to be employed in the informal sector where they must deal with poor working conditions and occupy positions that nationals are not willing to take,” says Fauvelle-Aymar.

She adds that the jobs are characterised by low earnings and there is a perception that migrants are more productive, that “they are willing to work harder for lower wages”.


There is a common perception that many unemployed young South Africans lack a sense of drive and ambition. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Independent labour economist Muzi Maziya agrees that perceptions about the lack of productivity of locals make them less desirable to employ.

“The perception that they have social grants to fall back on; the perception about their rights at work – they can go on strike and have access to the CCMA [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] – makes them less desirable to employ in the informal sector.”

International migrants
Maziya says that this is an international trend and not specific to South Africa. He says countries with easier migration policies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, attract a lot of international migrants who work in low-skilled and low-paying sectors where locals would rather not work.

“That’s a worldwide phenomenon around migration. Ideally, if the economy is growing, local labour moves to higher levels. But in a nongrowing economy, the issue of displacement of local labour occurs, which leads to antipathy towards migrants,” he says.

Although perceptions about “lazy” and “unproductive” locals compared with “hardworking” foreigners are a phenomenon all over the world, this had never been proven and was, at best, anecdotal.

Contractor David Govuzela, a burly man with streaks of grey hair, is standing outside his gate in Sharpeville, shouting into his cellphone.

He has been building houses in the Vaal Triangle since the 1980s, and hires unskilled and skilled labour for his projects, first as labourers and after training, as subcontractors.

“What do you mean you can’t make it? And you’re only telling me now.”

He shakes his head and switches off the phone. He says he was supposed to be completing a project but his labourer didn’t show up.

“It’s a Monday. When you hire these local boys they never show up on a Monday and, when they do, they’re drunk,” he says.

‘Ambition’
Govuzela prefers to work with foreigners because they have “ambition”. He points to the four houses that are being renovated on his street.

“You see, all these houses here … it is foreigners working there.”

Still angry, he says: “These boys [South Africans] are busy smoking nyaope and drinking at taverns as we speak.”

Govuzela says he pays foreigners and locals the same rate, but still chooses to work with foreigners because they show up for work on time, every day, including weekends, and work long hours.

He pays the unskilled labourers R80 a day (or R1 600 a month) and skilled labourers between R160 to R200 a day (between R3 200 and R4 000).

Asked whether he thinks R1 600 a month is enough to pay a labourer, he explains that he is offering “piecework”.

Govuzela mostly builds and renovates houses in the township and says, although his clients cannot afford to pay him a lot, they pay him enough to run his business and offer some kind of employment to people who would otherwise be unemployed.

Across the street, a group of about 10 men are huddled in a circle playing amadice. Most are wearing spoti, neon pants and All-Star sneakers. One cigarette is being passed around. Everyone is sipping from three bottles of Black Label – known as zamalek – that are also being passed around. It is just after 10am on a Monday.

“This is what they do the whole day,” says Govuzela. “They don’t have ambition, nothing drives them.”

But Maziya told the M&G that even though it may seem the youth lacks ambition, one of the main issues facing the unemployed in South African townships was the limited access to work or to people who work.

“It is important to have that link. Knowing someone or people who work matters to how a person sees the world,” he says.

The government should not only push for infrastructure projects and development in the townships, but also encourage entrepreneurs in the informal sector to compete by product differentiation and innovation instead of profiting from paying low wages, he says.

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