I have a story to tell about Daveyton

By Siphelo Ngcwangu

Dr Siphelo Ngcwangu is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Johannesburg. He is a research associate at the Wits University Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL). His research focuses on skills development, education and the economy, youth unemployment and the restructuring of work.

The Covid-19 pandemic came at a time when South Africa was already experiencing chronic and unacceptably high unemployment, especially among the youth. What statistics and analysis have neglected to reveal in any real way, however, is the personal affect of unemployment on those who find themselves permanently excluded from the labour force, and driven to abandon conventional means of seeking any, usually part-time, work, drawing instead on desperate measures to find jobs. The author spoke to a number of these young people and recounts their personal stories as part of a wider project on the area on responses to the youth unemployment crisis.


Over the last 25 years, the state has introduced a range of policy ideas to respond to the youth unemployment crisis in South Africa. These range from tax incentives for youth employment and youth service initiatives aimed at incorporating the youth into government schemes, to private sector programmes of short-term employment opportunities or internships. The success of the measures adopted by the state at a national level has been uneven. In some cases, ideological contestations over the underlying ideas of the programmes stopped them in their tracks. The Youth Wage Subsidy was conceptualised to boost youth employment but it was met with criticism from organised youth formations and progressive social movements as being too accommodative of the interests of big business.

In the 2020 State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged again the crisis of youth unemployment by announcing six initiatives to address the crisis. Amongst other things, these initiatives include ramping up already existing state programmes that target the youth and adding new programmes, such as the 1% allocation of the budget to youth employment programmes as well as establishing a Presidential Youth Service Programme.[1]

Neoliberal changes in the global economy have intensified the level of economic insecurity among young people. There are fewer full-time jobs. Outsourcing makes jobs more precarious and the youth are particularly disadvantaged because they lack work experience. The youth comprise a large proportion of marginalised groups that are forced to contend with competition for scarce resources, insecure living conditions, the presence of people born elsewhere and forms of systemic violence. Young people, particularly in the global South, have developed expert knowledge of how to cope with adversity, as they hustle to survive and adapt to circumstances of rapid change.[2]

When we analyse the youth unemployment challenge in South Africa, we need to understand the local context in which the youth reside which reflects the inherited endurance of apartheid. Some recent South African scholarship on youth unemployment has emphasised issues such as lack of education, skills and the need for an ‘entrepreneurial culture’ amongst the youth,[3] while other research concerns itself with the link between unemployment and disruptions to social cohesion.[4]

The story of youth in post-apartheid South Africa is in many ways the story of South Africa itself. It is marked by contending perspectives. On the one side South Africa is portrayed as a miracle of reconstruction and tolerance. On the other side we have a tragedy of missed opportunities and wrong policies. Young South Africans in turn may be pushing back centuries-old boundaries of race and class, or they may be stuck in servile economic roles scarcely different from the past, with few substantive exit routes.[5]

I have a story to tell about Daveyton. Research I did there in 2019 illuminates the reality of youth unemployment in South Africa. I use a qualitative approach to understanding youth unemployment as opposed to the labour market statistics approach, which has dominated the landscape of recent research in South Africa. There are issues that surveys and desk-bound policy research overlook which are best understood through in-depth qualitative research.[6]

The context of the Covid-19 pandemic has placed additional challenges for society to respond in ways that ensure multiple voices are heard in response to the consequences of the pandemic. We see that Covid-19 has exposed already existing inequalities in South African society and in many ways exacerbated them. People in communities like Daveyton and other black townships are clearly unable to self-isolate as per the rules outlined by the authorities regulating the pandemic. Such areas are characterised by a high concentration of informal settlements, poor housing infrastructure and poverty. Given the nature of the Covid-19 crisis and its effect on poor and marginalised communities, it is vital that authorities engage closely with young people in communities such as Daveyton in order to listen to their voices as interventions are being debated.

The National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) has been criticised for a lack of transparency in its decisions and absence of consultation structures. Even though the country is in an emergency situation due to Covid-19, there is still a preserve the practice of wider consultation and listening to the diversity of voices in the society. At a policy level – both during lockdowns and in their aftermath ‑ the state needs to liaise with organised youth formations in the communities and those in various social groups.

For example, one concern of the youth leaders in Daveyton was the absence of a broader community structure that brings together all the youth formations in the community. There are several initiatives that mobilise young people such as arts and dance groups; sporting clubs, Non-Governmental Groups Organisations (NGOs); computer resource centres; political parties; and religious groups that work with the youth from different perspectives in Daveyton. However, to make effective interventions during and after the Covid-19 crisis, the state needs to work much more closely with such groups.

The Municipality of Ekurhuleni, like many other municipalities, has a youth development unit, which should play a facilitating role in this regard, so that there is a better sense of how some of the recently announced interventions of the state will be implemented. In this way, the gaps in policy implementation will be exposed and simultaneously those youth structures will have their voices heard by the authorities. I have been in telephonic communications with some of the activists within Daveyton who already raise concerns about the roll out and application processes regarding the R350 Covid-19 relief initiatives. Their concerns are that many young people are not aware of the application processes, they lack resources to access the online platforms to apply, and in the conditions of a lockdown, some facilities like internet cafes are closed, meaning they are unable to complete their applications timeously.

Youth employment – part of a wider problem

In common with many economies worldwide, South Africa is confronting a youth unemployment challenge. Youth uprisings across the world are reactions to a deepening socio-economic crisis that affects the youth ‑ unemployment, lack of access to basic services which raise demands that are addressed to political authorities. The challenge of youth employment is central to the development discourse in South Africa. Youth unemployment is structural. It flows from the stagnant political economy and questions the nature of state responses to youth unemployment as well as what sort of education interventions could alleviate the crisis.

The largest proportion of new labour market entrants at any given time is the youth. So unemployment hits the youth the hardest. In times of crisis, when jobs are diminishing, young people will also be the largest group within the ranks of the unemployed. Young people are more likely to hold jobs requiring less experience and skill. They are the most recently hired staff members, so when firms retrench, the youngest workers are likely to be the first to go.[7]

The University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation (CERT) held a workshop in 2012 on the unemployment crisis in South Africa. This concluded that youth unemployment should not be singled out as a special problem requiring specific attention but be seen as part of a larger problem of unemployment. Otherwise, changes we make to try to improve the situation of younger people might create problems for other parts of the population. For example, we might create a situation in which employers simply replace older workers with younger ones.[8] The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) expressed similar concerns about the substitution effects of the Youth Wage Subsidy which was proposed by the National Treasury, stressing concerns that firms would have an incentive to let go of existing workers in order to employ subsidised ones.[9]

There are many examples of failures in the numerous state initiatives aimed at addressing the high levels of youth unemployment. The Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has pointed to the ineffectiveness of the Employment Tax Incentives (ETI), arguing that the ETI did not have any substantial, positive and statistically significant impact on youth employment probabilities. There was also no statistically significant effect in the extent of the labour market churning amongst youth. In the first six months after the introduction of the ETI in 2014 the researchers found no evidence that the ETI had any substantial positive and statistically significant effect on aggregate youth employment probabilities.[10] The R5 billion Youth Wage Subsidy introduced from 2010[11] was particularly unsuited to South African conditions, as local employers have shown a bottomless appetite for casualised and externalised labour. Fears that the policy would simply swap older for younger workers and accelerate the job churning were said to be well grounded.[12]

The many obstacles in the way of finding employment are accentuated by historical racialised divisions of labour, leftovers from the job colour bar; by spatial disparities where black workers have great distances to travel to work or look for work; by gender inequalities, where women (mainly) are discouraged from working in certain industries (like mining) or jobs (like auto repairs); and other social cleavages. But while it is true that young people have limited means to explore alternative ways to survive economically (such as entrepreneurship) and they may lack individual resources to resist, the socioeconomic circumstances in which they live also provide a source of power which they draw on to search for employment or work preparation opportunities. Youth find ways to draw on social networks, groups, family ties and other resources to negotiate access to employment or other economic opportunities.

 Ekurhuleni – de-industrialisation and spatial inequality

How do we strengthen the resilience of the poor and alleviate the depredations of poverty? Mondli Hlatshwayo argued in New Agenda no 66 that the progressive and collective responses of marginalised people in working-class communities must be taken into account in formulating policy. The innovative industrial strategies under discussion will provide employment for only a tiny minority and jobs in both the public and private sectors will probably offer less security and lower wages.[13]

In a study of eMbekweni township in Paarl, the late Prof Ben Turok stated, “I believe that there is a problem with regard to the way we understand industrial policy. The problem is how we can extend a growth strategy to encompass the people in these townships. We cannot continue with this kind of dual society under this government … Can’t we mobilise these communities and give them resources to develop an industrial policy for Mbekweni.”[14]

Up until the 1970s the region of Ekurhuleni (formerly the East Rand) was based on heavy industry, mining and manufacturing. In the last 30 to 50 years, the structure of the economy of the region has been transformed. There was no move to a healthy, diversified economy. Rather, the growth of services introduced casualised, low-wage employment to the region’s fragmenting rust belt. This had a profound effect on workers’ organisation and confidence. East Rand’s history of militant worker organisations linked to community activism has been dashed and undermined by the changes to the economic base. [15]

Daveyton was established in 1955 as a dormitory township for black workers in the white-owned factories and businesses of Benoni. After the National Party won its second general election in 1953, it systematically implemented its programme of racial social engineering and built up all of the major African townships of Ekurhuleni – Katlehong, Daveyton, Thokoza, Vosloorus, KwaThema, Tsakane, Tembisa – according to a rigidly racialised and ethnicised pattern.[16]

A total of 3,379,104 people lived in the City of Ekurhuleni in 2016, an increase of one million since 2000.[17] Ekurhuleni represents over 6% of the total population of South Africa. In-migration accounts for a large part of the net population growth. The population is primarily concentrated on the periphery of the Gauteng metropolitan area within historical townships. The core urban nodes and centres (formerly the white areas) have a significantly lower proportion of the population. Unemployment is chronic, with Ekurhuleni’s 2019 rate of joblessness exceeding the provincial average by more than 1%, at 30.1%. [18] It is against this backdrop that my research heard the voices of young people in their struggle to find employment. The description of immediate challenges that confront them and the explanation of the prevailing socio-economic realities gives us an insight into their everyday struggles.

The voices of unemployed youth in Daveyton

I interviewed young people to gauge the depth of the unemployment crisis and to hear the frustrations that the youth are confronted with on a daily basis.[19] The types of personal frustrations and anxieties that young people who are out of work face are often easily overlooked in the broader discussion of youth unemployment. In her detailed study of youth struggles in Zandspruit, an informal settlement west of Johannesburg, Hannah Dawson[20] states that the inability of young men to live up to ideals of adulthood and respectability, experienced as exclusion and frustrated aspirations, fuels the collective struggle at the local level. In Daveyton, Mandla, who is a 32-year-old man told me:

 You get hungry very fast when you are just sitting at home. Every now and then your stomach grumbles and feels worse as I feel I don’t have a plan. You go everywhere trying to find work or some form of income [but] it’s the same (kuyafana). I have a backroom but still to say that I’m going to go out searching for work what will I be searching for because I don’t have enough to afford the rent for that backroom. So staying at home with my parents is the best option for me. I’m even afraid to ask for money. I have to wait for my plate to be served and my mom or sister to tell me ‘here is food’. Priority in the home is for the little ones who must have food to eat after school. Even at home they start putting pressure on me to put something on the table but when I come back with nothing it’s not a good thing.[21]

The kinds of psycho-social pressure that young people go through as a result of being out of work affects their life circumstances in ways that transcend the search for employment itself. Sifiso raised similar sentiments. A 29-year-old man, he articulates the frustration of being at home without work and what finding a job would mean for his family and also his young child.

They would be very happy at home if I could find a job and bring something ‘onto the table’ because as things are we are just sitting around in the township doing nothing. Especially because many of us have our own kids now. We are trying to confront the situation by doing things like the security guard training courses but these courses are quite expensive. They cost about R1200. We end up unable to take on such courses because the mere R20 you get somewhere we must contribute at home. That is the problem we are faced with.[22]

Unless family members with income are prepared to keep on contributing, job searches can often be broken off because of the accumulating costs and the lack of resources to continue.[23] The situation must be more difficult for those who have no relatives to support them materially as they search for job opportunities.

Education has a central place in South Africa’s discourse on youth unemployment. It is seen as the panacea to address the unemployment crisis, although policy-makers and politicians place emphasis on the need for maths and science education or subjects, that align to labour market needs at a given time. In reality, it is the rhythms of the labour market as well as employer appetites to absorb labour that determine who is able to access the available jobs and who is not. For those at the lower levels of the labour market vulnerability is high. Employment cycles directly impact on the youth, who either get temporary access to employment or are retrenched when the economy is not performing well. Mduduzi and Clifford have Grade 11 level education and face similar struggles of securing employment. Mduduzi, who is 25 years old, said:

I did not finish school. I stopped at Grade 11. I had a baby and was therefore forced to go and find work to support my child and then recently my friend and I have just been retrenched from [an] engineering company. I have since then been hoping that my friend and I will be employed somewhere else in order to live nicely again. [24]

This is a broader issue regarding what education means in South Africa and its function. It raises questions about how going to school is being framed in the country’s discourse. Should education be seen as a means to getting a job or as a formative experience essential to one’s life experiences and personal development? Those I interviewed prioritised the need to either finish subjects they had failed previously or continue pursuit of employment in the short-term.

There is an abundance of scholarship in South Africa that explores the job search strategies of the unemployed youth and various interventions or pathways to find work.[25] While there are nuances of difference across the research findings there is a consensus that black African youth and women, in particular those who reside in black communities, are disproportionately affected by the crisis of unemployment. The ways in which these youth respond to the crisis are not uniform. People I interviewed pointed to how the realities of everyday struggles result in them pursuing strategies to find work that differ from what literature on job searching tends to prescribe. They have found that the formal approach of submitting CVs and waiting for responses does not work as some employers never respond. An alternative is to simply visit the company and stand at the gate awaiting a possible job opportunity or on-the-spot recruitment. Mandla elaborates on some of these issues and his daily experiences.

Many of us are no longer interested in making our CVs because people will tell you that even with your CV written down the people receiving it will just throw it away. This means you would have wasted your money in writing that CV. So rather than write a CV I would rather go to the gate of the company and if I’m lucky, they will take me. There are a few companies that still hire people who just come to the gate looking for work. These days people get jobs via connections because you can apply and wait for ten years then someone just applies and six months later they are hired. You never know if this thing is now about people paying bribes to get these jobs or something.[26]

The experience of Mandla points to the fact that some young people are beginning to abandon or ignore the formal routes of looking for work. They realise that they may not have social networks or contacts to support them in finding a job.

The youth I interviewed rarely looked for a particular kind of job. And they did not limit their search to the myriad of interventions offered by NGOs, consultancies and private sector initiatives. These include service programmes; temporary employment services (from labour brokers); recruitment agencies or online job portals; and other similar interventions that try to match job seekers with particular jobs. The ‘piece jobs’ that are usually part time invariably become the immediate option for these young people. Sifiso said:

When the situation is like this, anything will help. If they say we must go and do some piece job, I will go and do it as long it helps me put something on the table. There’s an old man around here. When he needs extra help he takes us to assist him. You find yourself going up and down in town (Benoni) to the shops not even knowing where you are going. That’s what we do to look for work, otherwise we would have to stay in the township doing nothing.[27]

Sifiso’s experiences bring to light the material and contextual specifics that many youths in black communities confront. These are young people who are in insecure working environments in the context of general instability in their daily lives. Because they are never fully absorbed in employment, young people experience the impact of incomplete transition that involves social exclusion and a sense of alienation.[28]


This article contributes to a growing body of research that seeks to build concrete understanding of the day-to-day struggles of young people in black working class communities and understand the ways young people survive economically in conditions of a worsening capitalist crisis. A number of development initiatives, community groups, resource centres and social movements are organising to address the issue of youth unemployment in the Daveyton communities.[29]

Hearing the voices of young people is vital to understand the nature of local struggles of the youth who are unemployed in black communities. The young people I interviewed in the Daveyton community in Ekurhuleni are far removed from the contestations over which intervention are best suited to address the youth unemployment crisis. Their concrete realities need to be appreciated. Concepts such as employment and unemployment should be understood as complex and cannot be meaningfully assessed if people are just split between the statistical categories to which we have become accustomed. A worsening of the socio-economic crisis that faces young people pre-dated the Covid-19 disaster that has engulfed the country. It cannot (and should not) be separated from the broader structural crisis of the South African economy and high levels of unemployment generally.


[1] State of the Nation Address (SONA). (2020). President Cyril Ramaphosa: 2020 State of the Nation Address: 13 February, Republic of South Africa, available at https://www.gov.za/speeches/president-cyril-ramaphosa-2020-state-nation-address-13-feb-2020-0000, accessed on 25 March 2020.

[2] On the potential of Southern scholarship for youth globally see Cooper, A., Swartz, S. and Mahali, A. (2018). Disentangled, decentred and democratized: Youth Studies for the Global South, Vol 22, Issue 1, pp 29-45.

[3] Brown-Luthango, MM. (2018) “Stuck in Freedom Park ‑ Youth Transitions and Social Inclusion Among Coloured Youths in Tafelsig, Cape Town, Commonwealth Youth and Development, Volume 16, Issue 1: pp 1-16; Mago, S. (2018). “Urban Youth Unemployment in South Africa: Socio-Economic and Political Problems,” Commonwealth Youth and Development, Volume 16, Issue 1: pp 1-19.

[4] Dawson, H. (2014). “Youth Politics: Waiting and Envy in a South African Informal Settlement,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 40, Issue 4; pp 861-882.

[5] Everatt, D. (2007). “Where’s our Share? Youth and the Democracy Dividend in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Africa Insight, Vol.37, Issue 3 pp 404-420.

[6] The material for this article was gathered as part of a research project supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Centres of Excellence for Human Development focusing on Youth Development Policies and Practices in a South African Metropolitan Municipality.

[7] Reddy, N. (2014). “The Youth Wage Subsidy in South Africa: Employment, Skills and ‘Churning’.” In Vally S and Motala E. (Eds.), Education Economy and Society, (Pretoria: Unidsa Press,) pp. 190-212, p.193.

[8] Centre for Education Rights and Transformation (CERT). (2012). Youth Unemployment, Understanding Causes and Finding Solutions: Reflections on Education, Skills and Livelihoods, booklet, pp 1-36.

[9] Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). (2012). “The Youth Wage Subsidy in South Africa: Response of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (To the National Treasury and the Democratic Alliance), available at http://mediadon.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Youth-Wage-Subsidy-SA.pdf, accessed on 18 May 2020.

[10] Ranchhod, V. and Finn, A. (2015). Estimating the Effects of South Africa’s Youth Employment Tax Incentive – An Update. SALDRU Working Paper Number 152. (Cape Town: SALDRU, University of Cape Town).

[11] “The youth wage subsidy was first introduced by the President in the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2010, to table proposals to subsidize the cost of hiring workers … [it] had been allocated R5 billion over three years…” available at https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/16719/, accessed on 17 May 2020.

[12] Reddy, N. (2014), op cit.

 [13] Hlatshwayo, M. (2017). “Community Responses to Declining Industries,” New Agenda: Journal of Social and Economic Policy, Third Quarter, Issue 66: pp 22-27.

[14] Turok,B. (1999). Beyond the miracle: Development and Economy in South Africa A Reader. (Cape Town: Fair Share, Observatory,) p. 22.

[15] Barchiesie F. and Kenny B. (2002). “From Workshop to Wasteland: De-industrialization and Fragmentation of the Black Working Class on the East Rand (South Africa), 1990–1999,” Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, (IRSH), 47 , pp. 35–63, p.40.

[16] Bonner P. and Nieftagodien N. (2012). Ekurhuleni: The Making of an Urban Region, (Johannesburg: Wits University Press,), p. 93.

[17] Statistics South Africa. (2017). Ekurhuleni Community Survey 2016 Data.

[18] City of Ekurhuleni. (2020). Integrated Development Plan 2020/2021 review, available at https://www.ekurhuleni.gov.za/about-the-city/annual-reports/2018-19/4059-a-f-63-2019-annexure-a/file.html, accessed on 20 March 2020.

[19] The interviewee names used below are not their true names. Pseudonyms have been used to protect their identities.

[20] Dawson. (2014). op cit, p.869.

[21] Author interview, Mandla, 08 May 2019.

[22] Author interview, Sifiso, 14 May 2019.

[23] Cross, C. and Ngandu, S. (2014). “Youth unemployment dynamics in the labour market of the periphery,” in Meyiwa,T., Nkondo M., Chitiga-Mabugu M., Sithole M. and Nyamnjoh F, (Eds.), State of Nation 2014: South Africa 1994-2014: A twenty-year review, (Cape Town: HSRC Press,) pp 198-222, p.207.

[24] Author interview, Mduduzi, 03 May 2019.

[25] See Altman, M. and Marock, C. (2008). Identifying appropriate interventions to support the transition from schooling to the workplace. Human Sciences Research Council and Centre for Poverty Employment and Growth; pp 1-37; Smith, JM. (2011). Connecting Young South Africans to Opportunity: A Literature Review, DG Murray Trust, Investing in South Africa’s Potential; De Lannoy, A., Graham, L., Patel, L., and Leibbrandt, M. (2018). “What Drives Youth Unemployment and What Interventions Help? A Systematic Overview of the Evidence,” High-level Overview Report. REDI 3X3, available at www.redi3x3.org, accessed on 18 March 2020.

[26] See author interview with Mandla.

[27] See author interview with Sifiso.

[28] Brown-Luthango, MM. (2018) op cit, p.6.

[29] This is the subject of a paper that is part of the wider NRF project which discusses forms of responses to the youth unemployment crises by varying organisations working in Daveyton.


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