(Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)
Being a young person in South Africa is different for everyone, and there are a lot of factors influencing that such as race and your environment.
Growing up in Alexandra township in Johannesburg is not for the faint-hearted. That place can either make or break you, the influence from your surroundings can either make you want to be a better person or it can lead to feelings of accepting your fate of being imprisoned by the township and losing all hope of improving your lot.
Those who are not affected by that feeling of giving up do try many different ways to make their lives in the township better, including going to school to further their education to better their chances of employment. But going to school does not necessarily guarantee employment because now there is the issue of experience. How can employers ask for five years’ experience from a 25-year-old?
Yes, the government does have programmes that assist with empowering the youth or bettering their chances of employment, but that is never really enough. These programmes do not pay anything more than R4 000 a month and in that very small amount there is black tax to consider. I do not believe or agree with the term black tax because it is not like our families have any other option or any other income when you are the only person working. You can never be so selfish to see your family go to bed hungry when you have a little money you can help with.
In the township, as soon as you graduate it is expected of you to then start working, dress in a certain way, buy a car and move out to the suburbs. When all of that does not happen then one starts feeling like a failure, that this life is not worth living because “izinto azihlangani [things do not come together]”. These issues contribute to the large numbers of youth who commit suicide, do drugs and resort to crime, because of the pressure they are under, even from their families.
There are alternative ways of generating extra income and, to be honest, it is not as if those different things have not been tried out already. Our generation is proactive. We have tried opening businesses and done different courses to broaden our knowledge and chances of being employed. We go to culinary school, we are certified make-up artists, we are influencers, we have our own clothing brands, we teach online at night, we hustle our asses off but at times it is never enough. Being “the youth” in South Africa is an extreme sport.
At times I do not even want to discuss issues like unemployment, mental health or other matters affecting the youth because they are very personal to me and that is my reality.
“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” are some of the toughest words to sing when you’re young, educated and unemployed in South Africa. I almost feel guilty for asking God to bless the continent when I need the blessing for myself. In my head I keep thinking about the fact that I did everything my parents, family and motivational speakers told me to do. Go to school, work really hard so you can go to the best university, graduate and get a job.
So I am at the get-a-job phase. It sounds so simple and easy when people tell you. But the reality is being unemployed and looking for work feels like a bad dream that you can’t seem to wake up from.
That was an entry I made in my journal roughly five months ago after spending more than a year sitting at home, applying for jobs on Linkedin and getting no response.
Unemployment is such a sensitive topic, at least for me. I’ve only experienced it for more than a year and I just wish my parents had told me about what a struggle it is to find a job.
Coming from a person who battles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts it’s hard to not think that there is no value in your life when every day you’re greeted by the words, “we regret to inform you that your application has been unsuccessful”. And you look around and notice that you’re not the only one, with family members telling you how they spent years without a job and all you can think about is how stuck your life is. You can’t help but ponder on the millions of people like you without a job, going for the same positions as you, and your chances at finding employment seem to become almost slim to none.
That’s the state of South Africa for the youth today.
Something common that I found among my friendship circle was how companies recycle interns year in and year out. On the one hand you get excited at the opportunity of employment but on the other you’re well aware that it won’t last. Before you know it you find yourself standing in the unemployment queue again, with limited experience, disappointed and stressed. So nothing changes.
I watched my sister abandon her dream of becoming a dentist after completing her studies, only to return to school to study for a teaching degree because people around her said “there’s opportunities in teaching”. Yet my cousin sat at home for seven years with a teaching degree from Unisa before finally finding employment at a school in her neighbourhood.
Even that in South Africa is a privilege. Having the option to go back to school because parents are willing to continue to struggle to make ends meet just to put you through school again is a privilege.
One student I had a conversation with at varsity told me about how he had to apply for NSFAS funding to not only pay for school but to also help financially at home. He graduated two years after we spoke, struggled to get a paying job and years later he is still heavily in debt.
I am not speaking for all the unemployed South Africans or black women. I am well aware that holding a university qualification in this country is a privilege on its own. But one thing my experience has taught me is that I have to make peace with the fact that at some point in my life I will be unemployed at least once, if not more than that. And it will cost me my peace, my sanity and sometimes my hope that things will get better.
How I am supposed to commemorate June 16 when every year students are running away from police shooting at them, when all they want, when all we want, is for fees to fall.
I don’t know about others but I won’t be celebrating this June 16.
What’s the point when the degree I have seems to remain just a piece of paper that symbolises an investment with no return.
Growing up in a small city like Kimberley, with little to no opportunities, forced me to realise after matric that I had to look for those opportunities in another city while daily reminding myself that my circumstances do not define the future.
I thought moving to a bigger city would open up more opportunities. Instead I became one of the statistics of those who are unemployed with tertiary qualifications. Job hunting in this country is like survival of the fittest. You either get in because of a plug or maybe you hit the jackpot and someone has finally thought of giving you a chance to gain experience.
Once you’ve celebrated that achievement of starting your first job you are now among the overworked and underpaid group where you find yourself drowning in debt after just paying for basic needs to get to the same job every day. Still, we work hard and study more courses just so we can take on new jobs to not sit without a job once the one you’re doing becomes redundant or you are let go because of budget constraints — this I have experienced.
Many of my peers have started their own businesses while still working their 9 to 5 jobs just to get by because of the lack of funding from both private funders and government. Every year a portion of the State of the Nation address is dedicated to youth for funding and job opportunities that will be made available. All these promises but nothing to show. Young people are still waiting for funders for their business ideas while others are working at a call centre with a bachelor degree in town management or accounting.
Touching on the issue of mental health, after the pressure young people put on themselves to succeed, one little failure can bring you down and trap you in a state of depression because of the expectations from your parents and siblings to not mess up because you are the star child in whom they have invested everything in.
After being in the big city for more than five years, there’s no doubt about going back home. Instead, I consider moving abroad with the hope to find more opportunities.