GDP, recession, JSE, rallying rand … these terms mean very little to unemployed South Africans. This is the real picture of our economy

The green shoots of economic recovery mean nothing if they don’t employ society’s most downtrodden, who have had to endure the ignominy of years of unemployment, despite exemplary qualifications and experience. 

Through the economic downturn after the 2008 global meltdown to the strength of the GDP hitting the highest numbers in 2011 and the JSE breaking records in 2017, the trajectory of unemployment numbers has been upwards. 

This week, the Mail & Guardian spoke to people who asserted their indifference to news of economic growth in South Africa; graduates who have spent up to nine years in the jobless queue, as well as young people who refuse to allow their unemployment to deter them from forging ahead in life. 

Graduate. Ten years, no work

Tshinakaho Nemudivhiso from Lwamondo in Vhembe, Limpopo, graduated with an honours degree in geohydrology from the University of the Free State in 2014. Since then, she has never been employed as a geologist. 

“I have never worked or even got an internship in the field of work I studied for. I never even had an interview, nothing. I apply all the time,” she said.

“I finished my degree when I was 22 and I am turning 30 next month, and there has been nothing. It is so painful; it is so painful. I cry all the time.”

In 2017 Nemudivhiso was accepted into a one-year internship programme at a water body. She saved the money she earned and in 2018 started a chicken-farming business. It is what has been sustaining her for the years she has been unemployed. 

She also runs an online clothing boutique on Facebook, but that has not been doing well lately. “I am trying everything just to have an income,” she said. 

Nemudivhiso told the M&G this week that she cannot plan for her future because she is unemployed. 

The chicken farm was doing well, she said, but was still small and could not sustain her or allow her to live the life she had envisioned. 

“It is painful to see my peers who I went to varsity with progressing. I am not jealous, but it is painful. All my friends are working; they have cars, and I’m not even close to where they are in life. I cannot even have long-term goals, my life is just stuck — there is nothing,” she said. 

Nemudivhiso has, however, not lost hope.  

“I pray for a job. Getting a job is something that I want more than anything. I hope that at least at 35 I will have stability in my life, I do not want to be 40 and still find myself in this situation. Almost eight years of my life after varsity and there has been nothing to show for it.”

Light at the end of the tunnel: Sithembiso Nkosi is based in Katlehong. After being out of work for four years, he now helps to manage Mshiswa Renewable Energy, a 100%-black-owned company. (Andy Mkosi)

GDP growth not equal to employment growth 

The finance and mining industries might form the backbone of South Africa’s better-than-expected 4.6% annualised GDP growth, but the sectors are proving difficult for qualified young people to enter. 

Still, two young people from Katlehong in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng, who the M&G spoke to this week have tried to buck the trend of the 46.3% unemployment rate among youth aged between 15 and 34 by starting their own entertainment business. This follows years of battling to secure formal employment.

This week the finance industry emerged, as per data supplied by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), as the backbone of the country’s economy, growing by an impressive 7.4% in the first quarter of this year. 

The industry, which is the largest in the country, contributed 1.5 percentage points to the 4.6% first-quarter GDP growth, with mining accounting for 1.2 percentage points. 

But the sustained growth of the financial sector has meant little to Tsepo “Shakes” Mokhatla, who has failed to find employment in his field of study more than six years after completing his bachelor of commerce in financial management degree. He received his qualification from Unisa

Mokhatla, who is now 40 years old, said his unemployment status had left him feeling extremely dejected.

“I would be lying if I were to say that I am not hurt by having a quality qualification, but still failing to find employment,” Mokhatla said, proudly pointing to his Unisa degree. 

He added that this week’s Stats SA figures pointing to a flourishing finance sector meant little to him, because all the applications he made to financial institutions had resulted in no employment. 

“The biggest disappointment was when I received a call from a Sandton-based company for an interview. When I was about to get off the taxi for my interview, I received a call from the company, which said it had decided to fill the vacancy internally. 

“So, when I hear that the finance industry is doing well and growing, I always wonder who it is benefiting because I know I have the best accounting and finance skills, but I fail to get employment,” Mokhatla said. 

He added that he was fortunate enough to be skilled with his hands, and received part-time trade jobs, particularly in installing tiles in homes and at construction sites. 

Dejected: Tsepo ‘Shakes’ Mokhatla has been unemployed for more than six years, ever since he completed his financial management degree through Unisa. (Andy Mkosi)

No opportunities, youth prepare to leave 

Khanya Mvaba* from East London in the Eastern Cape is new to the job market and is frustrated. After graduating with a postgraduate degree in education in 2020, Mvaba has been looking for a job since January. Out of desperation, she finally accepted a job as a teacher at a low-fee private school. 

“I’m experiencing the worst form of exploitation. I teach seven classes and I’m even embarrassed to tell you how much I earn. But since you cannot find a job, you accept whatever is being offered — that is how it is,” she said. 

Mvaba said that some of the friends who went to university with her are still at home and not working. 

“I feel like it was a waste of time going to university. I sometimes think after passing my grade 12 I should have just gone and become a cop. University is not child’s play; you go through a lot of depression and anxiety and then the next thing you find yourself no different to someone who does not even have grade 12,” she said. 

“I do not want to lie. It is depressing, depressing. I’m currently suffering from anxiety attacks. When you are at university, you plan your life and also picture what your future is going to look like, and you push yourself, only to end up unemployed [or] finding yourself working for employers who mistreat you,” she told the M&G. 

She said the salary she earned was just enough to pay for her rent, buy food and commute to work. Buying clothing was not an option. She said she could not advise young adults to enrol for university because they may end up joining the queue of unemployed graduates. 

Mvaba has already applied for a job to teach English in Dubai. She needs two years of  work experience and then she is off in December next year. 

“I am doing this because I see that there are no prospects of surviving in South Africa; I am not doing this because I want to leave my family behind and my life. I am doing so because there is nothing for me to do in South Africa.”

Cody Malusele from Elim in Limpopo has also set her sights on finding employment in a foreign country. She is looking at options to teach in China

“If you are studying in South Africa, you are just wasting your money because you are unlikely to find a job,” she said.

Malusele, 28, started job hunting in 2015 after graduating with a media studies degree from the University of Venda the previous year. To date, she has yet to find employment.  In 2018, she was accepted into a one-year internship programme at her alma mater.

She has now resorted to helping school children with their homework and assisting Unisa students with their assignments. She charges R10 per session for the learners who she helps with English and Tshivenda. For the university students, she charges R200 for an assignment that is worth 50 marks. For a 100-mark assignment, she charges R400. 

At the most, she told the M&G, she makes R400 a month, which she uses to buy toiletries and data. She is unable to support her two children, leaving their care to their father.  

“I still have to ask for money from my parents. I feel like a burden to people, even to the father of my children. My kids are growing up and I feel like I have failed them. 

“My only hope right now is to go to another country and find a job, because in South Africa things are going south. People are stealing public funds and nothing is happening to them — it is like a norm,” said Malusele. 

Appreciate those closest 

Others, such as Sithembiso Nkosi in Ekurhuleni, have tried to join the small-and-medium-enterprise sector and have been forced back into the job-hunting market, which has not been kind for years. 

In 2014 the unemployment rate passed the 25% mark, and it has been on a consistent upwards trend since. Two years later, the unemployment percentage increased by two percentage points. The biggest jump happened in the past year: today the unemployment rate is 32.6. Since 2008, each year more people have been in the unemployment queue. This has meant fewer younger people entering or, in Nkosi’s case, re-entering the job market. 

Nkosi spent three years from May 2014 to September 2017 managing the busy Eastgate Mall branch of Capitec Bank. After leaving Capitec to try to pursue bigger challenges, Nkosi, 35, failed to get back into the job market, saying this had led him to suffer bouts of depression. 

“You learn to appreciate family and good friends during such trying times,” Nkosi said. 

He recently partnered with his cousin, Sizwe Mzolo, to manage Mshiswa Renewable Energy, a 100% black-owned company that supplies renewable energy to low-to-middle-income families and businesses.

Nkosi said he hoped Mshiswa, which has also started supplying solar-powered computer centres to township schools in light of the country’s debilitating rolling blackouts, would benefit from the green shoots of economic recovery that were announced by Stats SA this week. 

“Trading has been a challenge with the weak economy and the Covid-19 situation. But I have hope that Mshiswa’s competitive edge will finally ease the four-year pain of unemployment,” Nkosi enthused. 

(John McCann/M&G)

No easy time, even for the employed

However, even for those people who are grateful to be employed, the standard of life has deteriorated, with the constant rise in food and petrol prices. According to the household affordability index by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity group, the average cost of the household food basket increased by R1 086 over the past two years, from R3 051.11 in May 2019 to R4 137.11 in May 2021.

In May last year, a loaf of brown bread cost R12, a kilogram of maize cost R8.30 and a litre of cooking oil cost R26.57. This is compared to May 2019, when a loaf of brown bread cost R9.63, a kilogram of maize cost R6.50 and a litre of cooking oil cost R16.15.

The gainfully employed people who the M&G spoke to said that they were not making ends meet because the cost of living was too high or their salaries remained stagnant.   

“I cannot just wake up and say ‘let me take my kids out to a restaurant’; something as simple as taking kids out to a restaurant has become hard because there is no money. We are living from month to month — it is just one of those things; it’s just tough,” said Asive Mvundla* from Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape.  

“Things are expensive — fuel, for instance — and having to go to work daily or dropping the kids at school daily is just costly. As I’m talking to you my bank balance is triple zero.”

Veronica Dlamini* from Soweto said she feared that South Africa was headed in the same direction as Zimbabwe. 

“The cost of living in South Africa is so expensive that certain groceries have become luxury items. Now you only look at the basic food and not everything else you would like to buy.” 

Dlamini said she could not imagine how unemployed people survived, given how tough it was for people with jobs.  

“We get paid today and a week down the line you do not have money, but you have to survive for the next 15 or 20 days of the month. So can you imagine what it is like for  those people who are not working at all?” she said. 

Hope for a better future

But others are still holding out hope for a better future for themselves and their communities. Thabang “Mafufa” Molebatsi and Kamo “Skanju” Mogajane, both 29, decided they would not allow the dire youth unemployment statistics to deter them. They have started an entertainment company, Izinja Intertainment, after failing to secure work after matriculation. 

Molebatsi had started studying towards a marketing degree, but had to drop out after his father passed away in 2014. 

The duo sell trendy clothing items in Katlehong, as well as recording new music, which they upload on their social media pages.

“We know that youth unemployment is a huge problem — the statistics have said so. But we want to not only make a difference in our lives, but to build a legacy that will impact our community,” the duo said. 

When the M&G spoke to them this week, the pair were awaiting their new winter stock after being sold out.

*Names have been changed.

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Khaya Koko
Khaya Koko is a journalist with a penchant for reading through legal documents braving the ravages of cold court benches to expose the crooked. He writes about social justice and human-interest stories. Most importantly, he is a card-carrying member of the Mighty Orlando Pirates.
Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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