South Africa has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. A standard 63% of its young people aged 15 to 24 are unemployed. A large part of these young people have never worked in the formal economy.
The media frequently portray young people excluded from paid work as inactive, aimless and alienated from mainstream society. This image fuels fears of crime, violence and social unrest in which unemployed people are presented as “”time bombâWhich constitutes a threat to the stability of a country.
But this is a very misleading characterization. Most analyzes of unemployed youth fail to capture the reality that unemployment in the sense of “doing nothing” is not a feasible option for most young people.
I conducted research in the informal settlement of Zandspruit, north of Johannesburg, in 2015 and 2016, on the lives, livelihoods and struggles of most of the young men who were either unemployed or marginalized. It included life and work history interviews with 37 young people, a survey of 100 young people and a mapping exercise of the local economy, including semi-structured interviews with 40 local business owners.
My study showed that many unemployed young people are engaged in various economic activities. Many of them are not necessarily registered as a form of self-employment or informal employment, but they consume a large part of the lives of young people.
Unemployment coping strategies
I discovered that livelihoods included running car wash businesses, repairing cars for people like informal mechanics, and renting back rooms or cabins. Other activities included wiring illegal power connections for a fee and gambling on the streets. They have also secured sponsorship from NGOs and local politicians to support local initiatives and community organizations that have helped local youth access educational and economic opportunities.
These livelihood strategies seldom constituted a business or a formal enterprise. Many young people in Zandspruit combined short stays in the formal economy with forms of âpushingâ and self-employment.
In many cases, informal livelihoods have been adopted due to the loss of a job or the inability to find one. There was also evidence of young men rejecting jobs in some of the low-wage sectors, in favor of self-employment in the informal economy.
This not only reflects a desire for greater social autonomy and social power, which low-wage employment denied them. It also shows the importance of investing in very localized relationships at a time of generalized precariousness.
These informal livelihoods are rooted in networks and social relationships that are essential for young people to survive unemployment.
Take the example of a car wash company. Although often analyzed as a business or a stand-alone enterprise, my research has highlighted how it also functions as a connection point for a dense web of social relationships that underpin and connect various informal businesses. These include the taxi industry (drivers and washers), informal mechanics, a chesanyama (barbecue attached) and local drug trafficking.
A car wash also provides a space where young men (most of whom also make a living informally) can come together to socialize and hang out. These social relationships are essential for young men to gain influence in a particular niche of the local economy. They also serve as an essential source of male sociability and self-help which a young man described as “common life. “
The relationship between the young men who congregate at the car wash is meant to pass the time and to “get by” for a living is based on an understanding of “flexible reciprocity,” whereby those who currently have it. money, or are employed in one form or another, help those without. These support networks offered an informal form of âinsuranceâ, as one of my interviewees said, but also social relationships that offered alternative ways to earn an income. As Sandile, 27, explains:
There is a great common life. You are not going to starve when you have friends.
The social entrenchment of informal work is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, these interdependent relationships are an essential source of support and solidarity. On the other hand, relationships are rooted in complex power dynamics that can reproduce forms of social differentiation and inequality.
They also demand that informal entrepreneurs invest so much in personal relationships, costs and protection that many have little money to invest in improving their businesses.
What to do about unemployment in South Africa
Given the failure of the formal economy to generate enough jobs, policymakers and governments often present self-employment in the informal economy as the solution to youth unemployment.
For example, the provincial government of Gauteng, the economic center of the country, identified the “predominantly informal”township economyâAs the key to fighting unemployment and promoting entrepreneurship.
Cantons are historically black urban residential areas. They are mainly characterized by underdevelopment and high levels of poverty.
The renewed interest in the âcantonal economyâ is significant given the extent of unemployment, poverty and the detrimental legacy of the marginalization of cantons under apartheid. Cantons were seen as working dormitories for white businesses in cities and suburbs, and were not intended to have their own viable economies.
But the government’s interest in the economies of the cantons as job generators, entrepreneurship and “socially inclusive wealthâIs terribly out of step with the reality of most businesses in the canton. They are too small to provide an escape from poverty.
While the idea of ââentrepreneurship is gaining traction among young people, research suggests that only a small number see it as a viable livelihood and something to strive for.
The majority have a strong preference for stable formal sector jobs, which they associate with economic stability and social mobility.
The growing precariousness of jobs in the formal economy underscores the urgency of strengthened social protection and income support For the young.
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