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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’ombre du chômage dans les townships Sud-Africains

by Rosa Moussaoui

The Shadow of Unemployment in South African Townships

Translated Monday 14 November 2011, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Bill Scoble

Report from our special correspondent in Soweto, the former black ghetto of Johannesburg.

One South African out of four is unemployed. Among the youth of up to twenty-four years of age, the official unemployment rate has risen to over 50%, 
casting a shadow over the most dynamic economy on the African continent.

In the shadow of slag heaps marking the old gold mines, misery continues its work in Soweto. The largest township in Johannesburg, symbol of the struggle against apartheid, Soweto has clearly become home to the new black middle class. But at its periphery survives a generation scarred by unemployment and economic segregation. In Naledi, a disinherited quarter within the old black city, there are long straight lines of "match boxes", those houses without souls, along streets without names, that sometimes dissolve into a chaos of shelters of wood and sheet metal. No public space. The blocks are broken only by vacant lots or by grassy spaces eaten by dust and debris.

Here lives Lebogang Mathe, a young woman of twenty-eight years. Short hair, thin face, she sits cross-legged, surrounded by three friends on the big bed that clutters the only room serving as her place of residence. Her whole life is in these eight square meters, where she must sleep, cook, groom, and receive friends. Not enough room here to raise her two children, who are entrusted to their grandmother. Without exception, this single mother has known only unemployment and odd jobs. Only the help of her older sisters permits her to keep her head above water. "It’s very difficult for a young person living in Soweto to find a job worthy of the name," she asserts. "There are many job insertion programs, but they lead only to precarious, temporary, poorly paid jobs. I have just received training as a makeup artist, training that lasted two days. After this training, we were released into the wild, and they advise us to mount our own business. But without money this is impossible. We collect testimonials and training certificates. We no longer know what to do with them. They accumulate as waste paper under our beds."

At her side, Thabang Mokoena, one of her neighbors, and a year older, sheds another light on this tale. "Much has changed since the fall of apartheid. The poorest people have gained access to welfare, to pensions, health care, free electricity. But only if they submit a dossier, which many do not," she explains. Things have changed, "but unemployment has risen," leading, for an entire generation, to a "loss of hope," she adds. Especially among young women, for whom social assistance is conditional on the birth of a child. "That’s why so many teenagers have children. But with a child, they have so many expenses that they end up in inextricable situations."

Unemployment and poverty here are breaking the social and family ties. At thirty-one years of age, Nomthandazo Mthethwa has had bitter experience. A few months ago, she kicked out her companion, who was unable to meet the needs of home and children. A few days after the breakup, he ended his days. "Many young people without work, with no future, no hope, commit suicide here. Unemployment, inactivity also lead to alcohol abuse, drugs, crime, "says she. None of these young women have accurate memories of apartheid. They only remember the sweet taste of the meager meal of pap (boiled grain) and the blurred images of brutal police raids in search of militants and communists of the African National Congress (ANC). "We were almost born free," they smile.

The unemployed, waiting for a small job on a road in Cape Town

The fate of this post-apartheid generation, crushed by unemployment, is a major concern for the South African government. This question, like the sharing of the fruits of economic growth, was at the heart of heated debates in the Polokwane conference, which brought Jacob Zuma to the head of the ANC. It continues today to be the subject of heated discussions within the tripartite alliance in power, uniting the ANC, the South African Communist Party and trade union federation Cosatu.

Rebuilding an industry to create jobs

The economic success story of this great emerging country stumbled in 2008, with the first recession since the advent of democracy. Earlier, ten years of continuous economic growth had failed to stem the massive unemployment. In total, according to official statistics, which do not take into account the discouraged unemployed who have given up looking for employment, one South African in four is unemployed. Among the youth of up to age twenty-four, the official unemployment rate rises to over 50%. "Capitalism is undergoing a serious and deep crisis. We have entered a period that is both exciting and difficult. Unemployment is a global phenomenon, but here it takes on proportions of major concern," outlines Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist Party and Minister of Higher Education. "Here, 60% of the unemployed are less than thirty years of age. The fight against this scourge is thus an emergency. Among the priorities identified at the conference in Polokwane include the implementation of an industrial policy. This is critical. We can not let market forces alone decide the necessary investments. The State must have a strategy. We can no longer be content to export raw materials to be processed elsewhere. We need to rebuild a manufacturing industry. "

Zuma wants to create 5 million jobs by 2020

The redefinition of industrial policy is, indeed, among the axes of the plan The Path of New Growth, announced in October 2010, which aims to create 5 million jobs by 2020. On February 10, in his speech on the state of the nation, President Jacob Zuma announced the creation of a fund of 9 billion rand (907 million euros) over three years to help create jobs. He promised, at the same time, 2 billion euros in tax relief for small enterprises and industry, as well as the creation of a public mining company.

"The fight against unemployment has been a major challenge for us since 1994," says Essop Pahad, a leading figure of the ANC, former minister, director of political and cultural magazine The Thinker. "The problem is that we have built a capitalist mode of development based on productivity gains, not on the development of the human factor. We have real difficulty applying our policy decisions and directing the money- aid- to the most promising projects of employment," he laments.

An explosive sense of social injustice

Among those excluded from the labor market, deprived of the fruits of growth, the feeling of injustice is explosive, giving rise to anarchistic protests in some communities. Wearing a hat of red cloth, Mosala Ramailane a young Sowetan of age twenty-seven, unemployed, does not hide the bitterness aroused in him by the spectacle of a society plagued with abysmal inequality. "The government should do more against corruption, against those who turn to their own benefit the money that should be used for social solidarity," he says in fury. They are very few, high-ranking politicians, their relatives and friends who benefit from the growth and development. This creates great frustration. People end up losing all hope for a better life."

Activist of the Young Communist League, Batil Lepamo also thinks that "large sums devoted to the fight against youth unemployment benefit only a minority". She cites the example of the National Youth Development Agency (National Agency for Youth Development), an institution recently established to guide young people in their job search and support their projects. "The agency has offices throughout the country. This is a potentially very useful. But in reality, it benefits only the youth involved in the ANC, not the majority. There is nepotism in the functioning of this institution," she laments.

Social frustration, anger over corruption have not yet converted expectations vis-à-vis the ANC into widespread disillusionment. It is precisely this dangerous reef that must be avoided, in politics, according to Zolani Mbelekane, thirty-four years of age, an auto worker, affiliated to the union of metallurgy (NUMSA). "The majority of Black youth are looking for a job. They do not have the necessary skills to find decent work. The education system remains unjust, with schools for the rich and schools for the poor. These educational inequalities affect the labor market. We talk about economic growth. But for the majority of South Africans, this growth has brought nothing. It did not create jobs. It’s always misery and pain," he warns.

Night falls on Soweto. As if the city is under curfew, the streets suddenly empty. The few cars that still circulate in the dark encounter the imposing police vehicles of the anti-criminal units. The only meeting place, the Maponya Mall, a huge shopping mall, surrounded by its high gates, attracts young wage earners in search of distractions. An army of security guards filters those entering this temple of a new genre, with its extravagant glass architecture housing shops, restaurants and cafés. For the unemployed youth of Soweto, this place is loaded with inaccessible dreams of consumer products, like a distant mirage.

Read also:
Interview with Joyce Moloi-Moropa, MP, leader of the Communist Party and member of the executive of the ANC: "The majority of South Africans excluded from growth"

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