South Africa: The Cost of Looking for a Job

While Stats SA has released a fourth-quarter survey that contains discouraging unemployment figures, a study shows that it costs almost R1 000 a month to search for work.

Zenzelimpilo Mgidi, 31, grew up as an only child. His mother, Nonhlanhla, always wanted the best for him, but in matric Mgidi got expelled. Though the news upset her, she encouraged Mgidi to enrol at a college to get a senior certificate, which he did. Upon completion, Mgidi learned that he should have enrolled for six subjects instead of five.

At the age of 20, in 2009, Mgidi became a father. This pushed him to hunt for a job and assume responsibility. From 2009 to 2017 - the year his mother died - Mgidi worked for several companies before losing his job.

The father of four warmly welcomes motorists to the parking lot of Trios OK Foods on Jan Coetzee Street in Jan Niemand Park, Pretoria. He's been a car guard since 2017 and he's been at this spot for just over a year.

"The job of being a car guard provides me with little to support my family," Mgidi says. Usually he works between 1pm and 8pm. In the morning, he helps his girlfriend prepare the children for school.

"I learned no matter what people throw at me, I'm going to put a smile on my face and work because of the responsibilities I have for my family," Mgidi says. "I took the decision to go and face people's moods as a car guard [instead of doing] things that would get me away from my children or lead me to die simply because I don't have a job."

Between 2018 and 2019, his girlfriend worked with him as a car guard. But she had to stop in November last year as she was about to give birth to their fourth child. They became car guards after looking for work without much luck. Eventually, they lost hope.

Unemployment figures

According to Stats SA's fourth quarterly labour force survey, the official unemployment rate in South Africa remained unchanged at 29.1%, which translates to 6.7 million people. But when using the expanded definition of unemployment, which includes those resigned to being unemployed and no longer seeking work, the number is closer to 10.4 million people, an increase of 0.2% for the quarter. Unemployment figures are highest for black Africans and those designated as coloured by the apartheid government, while women are disadvantaged compared with men.

The Eastern Cape recorded the highest unemployment rates in general. The Northern Cape, followed by North West and Mpumalanga, had the highest rate of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 either unemployed or not enrolled in education or training programmes. Out of the 20.4 million South Africans aged between 15 and 34, about 8.2 million are not employed or receiving an education.

The statistics for the fourth quarter reveal that the number of discouraged jobseekers increased by 62 000 and is now at 2.9 million.

Discouraging factor

Why do people become discouraged when looking for work? A study conducted by the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg tracked just under 2 000 young people enrolled at one of eight youth employability programmes.

"These programmes offered hard and soft skills and work readiness training. We wanted to see if the participants had a positive impact on employability outcomes [after partaking in the programmes]," says Senzelwe Mthembu, a researcher at the centre.

The participants came from families of low-income earners. The study found most of the participants stopped looking for work simply because of the exorbitant cost of doing so. The study estimates it at R938 a month.

"The reason for this is that apartheid-era spatial planning, in which townships were established far away from economic hubs, continues to affect the ability of people to look for work in a cost-effective way ... This means they have to travel long distances to the urban economic hubs to access job opportunities," write researchers Leila Patel and Lauren Graham.

"The remaining third were based in far-flung rural areas, meaning they needed to travel even further than their urban counterparts in search of jobs," according to the study. "In addition to the burden of travel costs, the study found that over half (51%) of young people live in households that are classified as severely food insecure."

Mthembu says: "You can imagine the strain on households and families where the income is low. Where there's constant negotiation between taking care of basic needs and funding for a young person's job search."

Unpaid work

Stats SA's statistics suggest a dark future for South Africa's economy. The number of those economically inactive between the ages of 15 and 64 is 15.6 million. "For the statistician general, there's no news that is bad and there's no news that is good. If we have the taste buds of good and bad, we will never make those numbers available ... But what we can say is that [unemployment] remains [high]," statistician general Risenga Maluleke told Sakina Kamwendo on SAFM's Update at Noon radio show.

When asked if more jobs would be shed, Maluleke said: "I'm like a sangoma who throws bones and only talks on the issue at hand. In this case, my bones were only talking about the fourth quarter, we can't speculate. But we do know that economic factors do play a role in the manner we get jobs or lose jobs."

But some unionists and economists are indeed forecasting retrenchments and spell out the devastating effects of either losing a job or never making it into the labour force in the first place.

Economist Busi Sibeko, who works at the Institute for Economic Justice, says: "Because we live in a capitalist system, one's value is measured by their ability to be productive, which is linked to our ability to generate income. Unemployment is catastrophic for those who are unable to participate in the economy because of those values."

Sibeko says the relationship between the employed and unemployed needs to be rethought. "We should be concerned about how the unemployed are continuously reproducing themselves for the labour market. How we think about the distinction between those in productive work and unproductive work is flawed," says Sibeko.

By this she means how the unemployed "continuously ... show up as labour through other forms of work" by labouring for those earning an income. This could be preparing food, doing laundry, caring for children, housekeeping or generally ensuring that the lives of the formally employed run smoothly outside of their jobs. In other words, they are working for free but still contributing to the labour market by doing the work the employed cannot because of their working hours. "We need to think of work as a continuum that happens beyond just (in)formal employment, or as only happening for profit."

We also need to "think about the work that the unemployed are undertaking in order to be in the 'labour market'", says Sibeko. "And we should be worried that the sheer amount of work being put towards getting a job in the labour market is not yielding the desired outcome. Basically, people are working towards jobs continuously and not getting those jobs."

Economic woes

President Cyril Ramaphosa said in the State of the Nation address: "The government cannot solve our economic challenges alone. Even if we were to marshal every single resource at our disposal and engage on a huge expenditure of public funds, we will not alone be able to guarantee employment to the millions of people who are today out of work."

Ramaphosa added that, after bringing together "labour, business, government and communities" at the Jobs Summit to "find solutions to the unemployment crisis", he and Deputy President David Mabuza continue to meet at the start of each month "to remove blockages and drive interventions that will save and create jobs".

It's a nice sentiment, but his words do little to help Mgidi, his girlfriend and the millions of others who remain without work.

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