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.
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