“You live on hope and faith, especially hope,” says Bafana Kunyane, 32. In 2011, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in geology with honours from the University of the Western Cape. But he was not able to get a job in geology. “I felt like I was rejected,” he says. “It’s like it has taken a standstill. I hope some day my CV will be shortlisted. And I just want that mere opportunity to prove myself.”
In 2016, Kunyane went for an interview for a position at a mine and was offered an internship. This was after years and years of not getting anything besides a post at an adult education centre. He accepted the internship, but left after two years, as he felt he was being exploited because the job title is about learning, but “we were actually doing the job”.
Kunyane is now teaching at the adult education centre again, despite not having been paid for two months. “At this point in time, even if a job can arise in geology, I am happy where I am.”
Nothing is coming up rosy
“I thought maybe after tertiary, everything was all going to be rosy,” says Jeniffer Morake, 29, who studied at Boston Media House College. She graduated in 2011 with a diploma in strategic media, majoring in advertising. “I was looking. I was applying and I was using my qualification to apply for different posts related to media. But nothing was available,” she says.
In 2012, Morake started working for a community newspaper, but she soon resigned because of poor working conditions. “It was just bad … You go home and then feel like you are being abused.”
Morake says her email outbox was full of CVs, but she didn’t even receive any responses. She was able to find small jobs, but not ones in her field of study. Eventually, she decided to diversify her career possibilities and she is now enrolled in an eight-week learnership with the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, where she has been promised work at a bank when she completes it.
Colette Seema, 27, says she has given up on ever working in her field of study. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Molecular and Life Sciences at the University of Limpopo. She worked as a lab assistant while she was studying, but since graduating has not been able to find work or even an internship. Seema has a young child and an urgent need to be self-sufficient. She is willing to take work as a cleaner, as long as she is earning an income.
What is a degree to an impoverished family?
Seema is the first and only university graduate in her family. She says her family doesn’t put her under pressure to find work in her field, but she feels bad.
“They took their every cent to put me through school so that I can graduate and hopefully help out at home, because at home, we are really struggling.”
She thought going to university would make her life better. “And then the next thing, you are stuck.”
Kunyane’s experience echoes that of Seema. “Because even the family thinks this person has graduated and is the one to take us out of poverty,” he says.
The qualified unemployed
Every day, Kunyane seeks work. He makes phone calls. He sends emails. Mostly he gets no response at all. He wonders if there is something wrong with his CV, but he knows that going to programmes that offer to fix people’s CVs is not useful.
Like many graduates, Kunyane is in a difficult catch-22 situation. He has the qualification, but no experience. “Where are you going to get experience if you don’t get an opportunity?” It is not only experience that limits graduates, he says, but also skills such as being able to drive, having a car and age limits.
Statistics South Africa’s results for the first quarter of 2019 showed an unemployment rate of 31% among graduates up to the age of 24. The graduate unemployment rate is still lower than the rate among those with other educational levels. This means that education is still the key to these young people’s prospects improving in the South African labour market.
Thamsanqa Maqubela from the South African Council for Graduates Cooperative says its database comprises about 30 000 unemployed graduates, which breaks down to 3 580 graduates from universities, 7 890 from universities of technology and 20 008 from TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) colleges in South Africa.
He adds: “The nature of work and education are quite far apart. Students are academically taught to operate in an environment that actually requires pragmatic training.”
Hustling to survive
In addition to her interest in the media, Morake has done work in the beauty sector as a make-up artist. A friend advised her to pursue beauty therapy as a profession while she continues to search for a “real” job.
In late 2012, she visited a television production company hoping to intern and learn more about the make-up industry, but was told there are no jobs or even internship opportunities. Eventually, an opportunity came her way to freelance for a community television programme as a make-up artist. In 2014, the show offered her a permanent position.
But just two years later, Morake was retrenched because the company was experiencing financial difficulties. This started a downward spiral for her. “There were times where you wake and feel like, ‘Oh, another day. What I am going to do?’” she says with a sigh.
In 2017, she tried to work as a self-employed make-up artist. But more and more people learned to do their own make-up in her area, which meant fewer house calls for Morake. “I felt like, I need to go back and look for another job. I started applying for other jobs such as call centre and other things just to get a job. I would really now just apply for anything.”
Emotional strain and holding on
It hasn’t been easy, says Morake. “I was almost becoming depressed. I was anxious and I had to take medication. Because it was too much, I was getting anxiety attacks.”
Morake feels emotionally exhausted because she fears the future. “I just don’t know what the future holds for me. I am not getting younger. Every year is my birthday, and every year I ask myself what have I acquired this year?”
For a time, the self-doubt overwhelmed Morake and she stopped looking for work altogether. She began to avoid socialising. She didn’t want to respond to well-wishers who would ask her what she was doing now. “It just felt so humiliating.” She was obliged to ask her family to help her with personal items, such as sanitary towels, because she had no money at all.
Seema speaks about the heartbreaking reality of seeking work and being in situations where potential employers don’t call back. The difficulties in finding employment have also made her question herself.
“I regret going to school because if I didn’t, maybe one of my siblings would have. And maybe they would have had a different chance in life.”
When Seema was in her final year at university, her brother was forced to drop out in his second year of IT studies as her parents could not afford to pay both children’s tuition fees.
At present, Seema is trying to save money to open a food stall in a container. “In the streets, you don’t need experience to sell pap and chicken. I can do that, at least to provide for my baby.”