South Africans describe the pain of unemployment

A lack of social support by the community and public social welfare agencies make the experiences worse.
Image: Moneyweb

Unemployment has both individual and social consequences that require public policy interventions. For the individual, unemployment can cause psychological distress, which can lead to a decline in life satisfaction. It can also lead to mood disorders and substance abuse.

Unemployment can affect one’s social status ascription as well, which manifests through stigmatisation, labelling, unfair judgement, and marginalisation.

Both these consequences can be mitigated through public policy interventions such as social support for the unemployed, but the design of such interventions can be limited by the lack of a detailed understanding of the consequences of being unemployed. Most of the studies on unemployment experiences have been done in developed countries, with relatively few in Africa.

We sought to study the experiences of unemployed individuals in two South African townships. The aim of the study was to provide preliminary data for use in developing an intervention programme for the unemployed in Orange Farm and Boipatong, 45 km and 60 km, respectively, outside the economic hub of Johannesburg.

Both communities are characterised by high levels of poverty and unemployment, the remnants of the spatial inequality of the country’s racial past. Our research was guided by the quest to record the experiences of unemployed South Africans who live in a poor neighbourhood. South Africa has a very high unemployment rate of 29.1%. The national average belies the deepness of unemployment in certain parts of the country. In some communities, it is as high as 60%.

Since 2014, I have been working on community projects in Orange Farm and Boipatong in collaboration with community leaders. Our participants have typically been unemployed for six months or more. We used pseudonyms for the participants, who were aged between 20 and 64 years at the time of the study. The chosen pseudonyms brought a smile to their faces, providing a lot of light-hearted conversations at the beginning of the interviews. They chose pseudonyms that included Ms Rihanna, Ms Sunshine, Mr Star, and Mr Zionist.

The moment they shared their experiences about their daily living as unemployed individuals, however, the feeling of despair was almost tangible. They described unemployment using negative descriptions such as “a huge garbage heap filled with bad things”, “life is over”, “danger and death”, “a man-made grave”, and “a monster”.

One young participant explained that unemployment brought “a black heart full of sorrow and pain; the heart is broken, angry, sore and sad”. The words “pain” and/or “sad” were used by eight of the 12 participants.

The study had its limitations. It was exploratory and conducted in two communities, so we could gain an initial understanding of the experiences of the unemployed. Much of the context, including the respondents’ families and the perception of the broader society, was raised during the interviews. We also did not do follow-up interviews to explore more deeply issues such as the impact of negative self-stereotyping on the expectations of finding a job.

What stood out

We analysed the data looking at the questions that described the experience of being unemployed. A few aspects stood out.

  • Unemployment was an extremely negative experience for all the participants. It was associated with stress, depression, and anxiety. Feelings of anger came out very strongly. Participants’ anger was mainly directed at the government. They pinned their unemployment on government’s failure to reform the economy to address the unfairness of South Africa’s past racial policies. They described nepotism, favouritism, and other forms of corruption by government officials as contributing to unemployment. Seeing their families, especially their children, suffering and not getting any assistance, either from businesses, government, or non-governmental organisations, angered the participants. They described their communities as filthy, painful, sad places that had been forgotten. They also had dilapidated infrastructure. The townships offered no job opportunities. They were far removed from the country’s economic hubs, making it that much more difficult for the unemployed to find work.

  • Most of the participants regarded their township environment and their immediate neighbourhoods as unsupportive, adding to their negative experiences of being unemployed. They reported experiences of stigmatisation and shame because they believed that society perceived them as not honestly trying their best to find work. This finding is well supported by the literature. The participants explained how they were judged harshly by their community members, who described them as “lazy and do not want to work”. Community members were also prejudiced: “When something is stolen, they look at us who are unemployed and believe we steal and cheat.” Participants suffered negative social labelling:

The others still call me a boy, because I cannot provide for my family.

Greater understanding

As these findings show, a lack of social support by the community and public social welfare agencies make the experiences of the unemployed worse. Public policy interventions are required to help connect unemployed people to job networks. There is also a role for public policy to help them deal with the stigma and all the other negative stereotypes associated with unemployment. Psychologists and social scientists can assist people to cope with unemployment as well as improve their psychological wellness, but designing such interventions requires a greater understanding of the experiences of the unemployed.The Conversation

Melinda Du Toit is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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They are all free to escape from poverty – start you own business and be your own boss!!!!

Fail to see what has to do with MW.?
Any case -why do they not go and ask Cosatu or Num or ANC or EFF for employment.

you come from a famiy of graduates. so you talk simple language. they do not have the skills and reference you have. so stfu. come back with constructive solutions, b.

You are clueless in your comments, rather put yourself in their poisition and see for yourself how stupid your comment is.

It’s the masses, Government’s electorate not finding jobs!

The ANC is picking the fruit of their ill choices. Good luck to them

I used to employ in excess of 120 people in my previous business..That was then..

I now only employ myself and have room to employ at least 10 people

However had these criminals not stolen our tax money and were good enough to look after small business and allow my children a fair opportunity, i would employ staff

But alas, due to their policy of BEE (reverse Apartheid that has ruined job creation) and of course theft on a grand scale i decided that working alone is Bliss, Heaven on Earth as it were!

I’m also no longer a tax collector for these Communists

I will not employ staff much less share my wisdom, business acumen or experience like i used to but to my kids only

I would much rather equip them, teach them and show them the rules of self employment, where to seek opportunity, how to apply your mind, become street wise, how to become successful by staying humble, the joys of being an entrepreneur and picking the fruits if their hard work!

Rather than employ people in this country who do not appreciate having a job, who strike when told and demand more than they are willing to give i will give to mine willing to give more than they “demand”

Furthermore I shall teach my children how to use resource wisely, discourage them from becoming tax collectors for the State and show them that opportunity in this country is abound!

For as long as we live amongst lazy incompetent uneducated people , if we are willing to work hard and honest, and whilst BEE is around locking the door for my family and my type there is MORE to achieve and gain in SA than any other country in the World:

I teach NOT my kids that the “World is their Oyster”, but indeed that their own country is

As long as we remain third world our generation and the next will show the world a thing or two!

The Government thinks it has taken opportunity away from the so called “Advantaged” to make way for the “Previously disadvantaged” through BEE (Reverse Apartheid) and to punish,

What they don’t realize is that they have created a new mind set amongst people such as ourselves who have become creative, self reliant and most of all solo operators! Viva ANC thank you..Don’t abolish BEE. “

The more laws you make, the more entrepreneurs you create”

When required i outsource work to family and friends only!

All for one and One for all!

“South Africa..our Oyster”

Well said!

When given a lemon, make lemonade!

Small business can go a long way by plugging the unemployment gap

With the ANC destroying the tax base through ridiculous taxes, taking more and more from small business (red tape,Load shedding, unions, BEE, to mention a few) to fund their Socialist Policies, who is really keen to plug the gap when Government is the Problem and not the Solution?

Government and Municipalities ridiculous wage bill is draining money from the fiscal due to bail outs

As a tax payer I’ve had enough of this theft and in part now contribute to unemployment as i will not employ a single soul whilst taxes keep rising and the ANC continue to steer our economy into an abyss

Our country only has one problem- too many people for the available resources. If we had 15-17 million people we could easily have addressed many of these social ills considering as things stand only 3 million people pay 97% of all income tax in a country with 56 million people.

No. Please travel to Singapore, Japan or South Korea. Its got nothing to do with resources, its whats between the ears that matter. Something third worlders dont want to admit.

ANC corruption stole most jobs in SA.

Here is your answer to the issue of unemployment. This explains why we have the highest unemployment figures in the world, and why, in the foreseeable future, it will rise to 99%.

“Despite significant economic progress since ancient times, most people in agrarian societies continued to live at the subsistence minimum until modern times. By the nineteenth century, it was said that these societies fell into a “Malthusian trap.” The Malthusian trap describes a situation that keeps population growth in line with available resources. The increase in income per person was not sustainable in the long run, as economic growth was inevitably consumed by population increases.

Thus, we already see the following pattern: In the societies of hunter-gatherers, economic laws had minimal manifestation but the most prolonged influence (more than 150,000 years). The agricultural revolution created more stable and secure communities, but they were characterized by a lack of capital the lead to low use of more productive factors of production. Low levels of personal economic freedom also inhibited growth and productivity. Industrialization, on the other hand, offered an escape.

But the escape is not always permanent. Socialist governments often act to undo the benefits of industrialization and capitalism. Historically, socialist regimes have tried to suppress or override the natural operation of personal choice and capital accumulation in economies. Socialism, in general, encroaches on private property rights, controls the economy, and subordinates individual decision-making to the collective. In this regard, it is appropriate to assume that socialism would push society back toward the Malthusian trap.”
– Allen Gindler “Socialism: A Man-Made Malthusian Trap”

I want to join the comment re Japan, Korea etc. Add to this Vietnam and Cambodia . Unemployment is less than 2% . They work because they have to… because they have willing attitude ..because no one does “handouts ” . They export because they have a reliant work force and they are cost effective. Go and see how big factories are operating . Samsung, Honda.. huge factories. They do not blame the past .. they live now and for the future. Lesson to the EFF ? No.. they want handouts

So you are saying talking ab the past is an issue? stfu. you are a beneficiary of the past, are you. give, stop being a taker. admit, dont be a denier. these ppl are hungry bc of the past. have a heart or else do not comment.

Money doesn’t care about your feelings. You need to understand that.

Hey Jesus, Follow your own advice first. Come up with constructive solutions.

The problems the unemployed have are very real. And visceral. The research for the article makes this heart-breakenly clear. We need to be empathetic about that. All of us.

But we must stop wallowing in tearful VICTIM-HOOD blaming everyone else bar themselves. And DO something to FIX this. Like acknowledge that this problem stems from the irresponsible procreation and parenting behaviour of their parents.

Else take your own advice, and SHTFU.

I tend to agree with OhJeaus9 when he feels that the past 25 years dumped many people in poverty, for that is a fact. Can we still blame the previous government? Well, then we should also blame the Anglo-Boer war, the rinderpest and Nongqawuse.

Let’s focus on the fact that our GDP growth is crashing, our debt to GDP is going through the roof, our budget deficit is out of control, all SOE’s and most municipalities are bankrupt and the cadres are looting at a maximal rate, under the current government. Forget about the past man!

OhJeaus9, look around you today! Look at how you, yes you, are using your vote to inflate the unemployment figures. You demand that “we” should have a heart, while you are the one who is partly responsible for the unemployment and poverty! Man up, get some backbone, take some responsibility, abandon that slave mentality and use your vote to create jobs.

Look that unemployed person in the eyes and tell him that you destroyed his job because you voted for the ANC. You prefer the ANC over jobs, now this is what you’ve got.

Poor, but 3,4,5 children they will have. Planning is for some not easy.

oh, arent you so smart, with your white supremacy background. Stop counting our children and go live in London where they will treat you with apartheid disdain and we will see how many children your children will have. your comment is asinine. stfu.

Count your own children. Feed and clothe your own children. Get your people to do the same.

I truly feel sorry for those poor guys next to the road at 6am, hustling for work and I know they traveled to get there and may have to travel back empty handed. But who did they vote for I always wonder? SA is clearly failing and us middle class folk moan like crazy but I still lead a good life. The poorest of the poor are getting hammered yet they are a critical part of the ANC’s support base. I don’t see that changing

I’m shocked by how harsh some of these comments are. We’re all frustrated, sure. But some comments…

1. If you can’t see what unemployment, or the effects of it on people, does to the the economy, or how that’s relevant, go back to grade 10 economics. Those dots are so easy to connect. In fact, they are numbered, like they were in primary school…go for it…you can do it!!

2. Comparing Japan/Korea with South Africa is like comparing water to sand. For a start, in Japan THEY ALL SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE!! We have multiple cultures, languages, histories, etc.
3. To say people have no brains, makes you a bigot!
4. If you think you can start a business with no education and no money, it must be either becuase you did it yourself, or because you’re an idiot.

Apart from the ANC and a general incompetence of politicians, it is bigots and uncaring fools holding SA back.

We need to recognize that when a fellow South African suffers, it affects all of us. It does not matter if the one suffering is black, indian, white or colored. If we can’t get there, we’ll get nowhere.

Crackers : The Bigot you refer do did not say they have no brains , he said
“its what between their ears that matters”!
Not using ones brain is not the same as having no brain & thus your Bigot Theory just went out of the window !
The Japanese , Singaporeans and Koreans study continuously and are thus educated : This is also known as utilising ones Brain , a trait not encouraged or practised in Africa .

man. you are a boss. this is a great comment. let ppl know.

Some of comments here are not helpful.

1. The birthrate in south Africa as in most places in the world is declining. We are now at 2.46 births per woman vs 6 in 1960s.
2. A recent study at one of the SA universities shows that the majority of business owners in townships (informal, spaza shop, all tiny businesses) are owned by people with a tertiary education/ degree
3. I think we need more articles like this to make us aware of how those without a degree and regular income feel. How do we change a psyche of a nation from anarchist behaviour to one that pulls together.
4. Perhaps those of us with good incomes should make the point of 1x a month hiring an unemployed person for 1 x man day of work. The 3 million that pay the taxes can help 3 million more directly (I agree government policies are not helping)

No. It is the have not’s that have too many children. The lower one is on the income scale the more children is produced. Then there is a culture that have many children because they will look after you when you are old. Now the elders must look after their many children and grand children.

When birth rates out maneuver growth rates, we have a serious problem.

The decline in the birth rate you alluded to Chris is irrelevant when:

The birth rate is 1,6% pa and
The Economy is growing at a measly 0,7%

Our Country is in Trouble and our leaders have no solution because they refuse to address the ever increasing wage bill , which soon will be touching 40%

The Unions run the show: A classic case of the “tail wagging the dog”

South Africa is overpopulated. Yes Japan has more people, but they are in general a lot smarter and more disciplined. A lower population growth rate (compared to what?) means nothing. There is already too many, not counting all the foreigners. Either increase the average IQ or lower the population size over time.

…and yet they still vote ANC. I wonder why that is.

white ppl voted NP for years. get lost, b!

I voted CP. The NP was too far left. If we had a KKK I would vote for them, the parties we now have are mamparras.

@ OhJesus!

My motto in life is “F#ck the poor!”. That’s why I like the ANC connected elite so much.

Sad indeed / snot en trane.

This is (mostly) a CONSEQUENCE of poor economic policy decisions, made by the current regime, which enjoys the majority support.
Dryly put…

This is the eventual ‘punishment’ for protesting against ‘WMC’, and supporting an anti-business party, which led to many businesses divesting away from SA.

These people on the side of the roads are not South African! Who here still has a South African domestic worker or gardner? Need plumbing or paving? It’s going to be someone fr outside the country.

South African blacks went an got welding, carpentry and other certificates but when they realised they are paid peanuts for this they give up trying to work. Come to think of it bookkeepers and teachers are also from across the border.

So the problem is two fold, South Africans need to take the small jobs at their low pay and build from there, but Africa, north of the border and within the border (we have a considerable number of Lesotho nationals working domestic and mining) need to fix things!

The pain of freedom, or, democracy comes at a price.

Transportation without poverty alleviation makes transformation meaningless. Scrap BEE and rather have a wealth spread mechanism that truly tackles poverty alleviation or eradication.

Many of the comments here do not want to deal with a human tragedy on a massive scale – hence the harsh remarks.

Short term we need poverty alleviation. Longer term we need small families and a strongly growing economy – as Singapore’s success has shown.

The population growth rate has come down here – however, there are millions of sets of parents that have children they cannot afford. The parents of every child on a school feeding scheme are guilty of this.

The women’s organizations and the feminists are very quit about this.

MW censoring my comments… It’s rather annoying.

Comment approved – but not posted.


It all begins with a little “X”. The box in which you put it determine your future. South Africans at large have experimented with it over the last 25 years and look what was the result. About 3 years ago the citizens of the USA have embarked on a similar experiment with a complete different outcome. The difference between SA and USA with regard to % labour participation in the economy is chalk and cheese. Unless more people place their “X” in the right box more water will be caused by crocodile tears than rain from the heavens.

There you hit the nail..

Keep voting to the liberators and all the liberal progressives, as the utopias in Africa did and are suffering much the same.

End of comments.




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