What counts as work and who counts as worker in post-apartheid South Africa

By Hannah Dawson

With close to fifty percent of young people (aged 15-34) in South Africa without work, unemployed youth are frequently portrayed in the media as the source of social chaos and moral decay. This moral panic finds expression in the governments emphasis on job creation, economic participation and entrepreneurialism and the recently released Draft Youth Policy for 2014-2019 that emphasises the need to get youth into work to ‘strengthen a culture of patriotic citizenship’ and enable youth to become ‘responsible adults’. Drawing upon my masters research that explored young people’s, particualry young men, role in poltiical protests in Zandspruit informal settlment (on the outskirts of Johannaesburg, South Africa) in 2011 and my current PhD research, this blog post is an attempt to explores how the unemployed young men I spent time with position themselves within the govenrment’s rhetoric that ties waged work intimately to social citizenship and personhood. I highlight two disconnects between the official discourse of ‘getting youth into jobs’ and the social and economic reality of young men in Zandspruit.

What took me to Zandspruit originally was not an interest in people’s economic lives but a string of local political protests representing wide-ranging discontent with local government representation and a lack of basic services. In an attempt to understand the central role of young people in this unrest, my study revealed that the underlying reason for participation amongst youth was the discrepancy between the ‘better life’ promised during the transition to democracy and the recognition that this promise has not been realised in their lives (Dawson, 2014).

The absence of work was dominant in young people’s experience of constrained agency and frustrated aspirations. Many of the young men I got to know had worked sporadically, moving in and out of temporary jobs to which they were not committed or that did not pay adequately or, in some instances, from which they had been fired. Others relied on haggling with residents, criminal activity and cultivating relationships with kin, peers, neighbors and patrons to ‘get by’. Moreover, many young people who complained about not having a job refused to engage in work that was locally available or accept wages below a certain threshold and insecure forms of employment. Some young men expressed a preference for unemployment over the work available to them.

A common refrain was that the government must create jobs for young people but what type of work or the amount they should get paid was never directly expressed.

You cant live without working. Without money. You cant survive without money. You cant survive. You have to have money to have a family

So if the government doesn’t provide [jobs] and make sure that people get enough employment, and youth also. Nothing is going to work out. That’s why people end up in jail. And getting years, for nothing. Even government, they’re not serious.

For these young men, however, any job was not better than no job. This puzzled me at first but raised a set of questions that I’ll be exploring in my PhD fieldwork from June. How did these young men make a living in the absence of work?; How do they define work?; On what basis do they differentiate between types of jobs? And further, what dynamics shape these young men’s economic decisions, expectations and incorporation in the labour market?

Young men’s rejection of work locally available suggests a disconnect between the idealisation of work in the official discourse and the reality of work that is increasingly low-paid and informal (Barchiesi, 2012). Young men expressed that they, as Julie Archambault (2015) notes in her work with young people in Mozambique, wanted to ‘live’ and not just ‘survive’. These sentiments were often expressed via remarks about foreign immigrants (who make up 20% of the population in Zandspruit) who are prepared to accept wages so meager that they bring down the pay scale for everyone.

The reason being that these people [foreign immigrants] don’t actually mind getting paid less…There is a difference. They accept anything. They are desperate. Even if they give you roughly R60 a day. But as a South African I cannot accept R60. I would say No. R100 is fine. They accept anything they can get because they have suffered. That’s the reason. A lot of them are employed and us, are unemployed.

The refusal of these young men to work in low-paid precarious is not new with urban youth from the 1930s rejecting the idea of regular, disciplined work and preferring to make a living through illicit means without a schedule or a boss. The government’s discourse around ‘getting youth into work’ also expresses a prejudice that ‘real work’ only happens in the formal economy rendering other forms of making a invisible and problematic. In places like Zandspruit, unemployment is often not a viable option in the face of economic difficulty. Instead, so-called unemployed youth are actively carving out new economic opportunities outside of formal employment. Examples in Zandspruit include youth engaging in informal businesses, working for local NGOs or community organisations, illegal and illicit activities including crime, operating as brokers in local patron-client networks and cultivating social relationships and networks of support.

Despite many young men calling themselves ‘unemployed’ in Zandspruit they were not ‘idle’ but moved in and out of various temporary jobs and engaged in a plurality of economic and social strategies to ‘get by’. Their claims on the state to provide jobs suggest a continued attachment to the symbolic value and recognition of waged work and yet a rejection of low-paid and insecure forms of employment. However, we know very little about the type of work young people in South Africa want, or how young people themselves define, categorise and value their economic activities in terms of the employment/unemployment division. It is clear these questions cannot be understood primarily through an economic lens of material necessity but require a deeper appreciation of the multifaceted political, social and cultural contexts that shape young people’s aspirations and expectations.

To conclude I want to suggest that one way of making sense of youth’s claim on the state to provide work while refusing to work in certain jobs is to see young people as appropriating the state’s discourse of job creation to signify economic marginalisation while valuing their time, social relationships and freedom over the wages on offer – in effect subverting the disciplining function of work that Barchiesi (2012) describes.


Archambault, J. S. (2015). Rhythms of Uncertainty and the Pleasures of Anticipation. In Ethnographies of Uncertainty in Africa. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Barchiesi, F. (2012). Liberation of, through, or from work? Postcolonial Africa and the problem with “job creation” in the global crisis. Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements, 4(2).
Dawson, H. (2014). Youth Politics: Waiting and Envy in a South African Informal Settlement. Journal of Southern African Studies, 40(4), 861–882.
Mains, D. (2012). Hope is cut: youth, unemployment, and the future in urban Ethiopia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


About ariell

A GCRF-ESRC postdoctoral fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Researching changing patterns of work, social relations, and value in rural and suburban Mongolia.
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