/ 23 July 2020

Job seekers hit the pavement in hope and desperation

July 18 2020 Cape Town. Photo By David Harrison
workers on the side of the road in Hout Bay hope they will be picked up for a job. (David Harrison/M&G)


Depressing joblessness data is now embodied as an everyday sight on the streets of South African during the Covid-19 lockdown.

According to the findings from the National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, about 3-million South Africans have joined the unemployment queue during the country’s nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Another 1.5-million workers have lost their incomes as a result of the lockdown.

Coupled with an economy in contraction, negative gross domestic product growth and continued retrenchments across most sectors of the economy, economists, policymakers and the statistician general warn of tougher economic times ahead as people try to get by.

Along Wood Drive in Cape Town’s Parklands suburb, scores of people wait for work. On weekdays, it used to mostly be men waiting for casual, construction work; women would queue up Saturdays waiting for clients. Now, the road is full seven days a week. 

Yvonne Raphael, a domestic worker originally from Zimbabwe, was gainfully employed before the coronavirus hit. She rattles off days of the week and in which suburbs she would have regular work cleaning homes.

Since lockdown regulations have allowed her to return to work safely, none of her former employers have called her. 

“I have been waiting here on this road since June. And I’m still waiting here for some decent work. But what can I do but just hope and pray someone stops here. I sometimes walk and knock on doors asking people for work. Because there’s nothing at home, nothing to eat, and nothing to pay rent with. But still, I wait and I hope,” Raphael said. 

Domestic worker Yvonne Raphael, who has not been called by her former employers since the lockdown eased is waiting for work. (David Harrison/M&G)

More and more people have been queuing here since the lockdown started. When a car stops there is a near scrum. Raphael said there are no questions, no interview — just the luck of whether a passenger door stops close to where you are standing.

“It’s hectic. I know some ladies here who have been standing here for more than a month, and they haven’t been picked up for a job. I feel like going back home to Zimbabwe. But I don’t even have money to get home,” she said.  

Further along the road is gardener Jacob David. He is in good spirits because he has had better luck. The 50-year-old man has been waiting along Wood Drive since early this morning with all his equipment: a brush cutter, rake, sheers, and a small can of petrol to power his tools. 

“A lady just stopped now. And I’m going to meet her at her house now. She gave me directions to her house now. I’ll get R200 for the job.”

David did not work for an employer before lockdown, but had freelanced and made a living on referrals from his clients. Since March, business has dried up, and he’s had to wait alongside the road with other gardeners, builders and handymen offering the same skills.

But he’s not complaining today. He’ll make some money and exchange contact details so that, hopefully, a satisfied client could become a repeat customer. 

Meanwhile, on the other end of the economic spectrum, construction-industry office manager Lisa Witten has been unemployed since 2019. 

Waiting for work: Gardener Jacob David. (David Harrison/M&G)

She was retrenched as local construction companies became the canary in the coal mine showing early signs of economic decline.

“I got retrenched in November. I wasn’t going to start looking for work in December because all the companies would be closed. I put it off till the next year, and then lockdown came in March,” Witten said. 

The recently married mother of a toddler said she had plans to start a home beauty and skincare business. This was scuppered by the coronavirus. 

“The last six months have been difficult. But I’ve remained positive. I got a call for an interview for a similar officer-manager job. I don’t want to tempt anything, so I’ll just wait and see,” Witten said. 

Although South Africa feels the economic ramifications of the global pandemic, with spiralling unemployment figures, some industries are, in fact, hiring. 

Since March, more than 6 000 jobs have been created in the business-process outsourcing and call-centre industries.

“It’s some good news as us as a sector and the broader economy… We’ve seen the fruits of our labour over the raise in the international remit. And hopefully, this is a taste of things to come,” said Business Process Enabling South Africa’s  Clayton Williams. 

The industry body said a growing e-commerce environment, and global shifts to online business processing, give young South Africans with limited qualifications a hope of  finding a job in the current climate.