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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

Black South African youth shut out of secure jobs

As much as fifty-seven percent of township youth are unemployed, while others turn to the "informal economy" to eke out a living.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Xolisile Dolo, 24, saw few job opportunities in Crossroads, part of Cape Town’s largest township sprawl. So, inspired by a poster of Nelson Mandela, he created his own.

Dolo folds black plastic dustbin bags into puppets whose adventures discourage his primary school audiences from littering. His sets are made from cardboard boxes. He flicks on a light switch and raises the curtain on his seven-minute show, earning no more than “lunch money,” he says, each time he performs.

But the show has been his ticket to exposure to city officials and to opportunities beyond the impoverished and crime-ridden Cape Flats — a rare thing in a country whose unemployment rate is above 25 percent, the highest of any middle-income country in the world. The youth unemployment rate has been estimated as high as 51 percent — and higher in the townships — leading President Jacob Zuma to propose a youth wage subsidy in 2010 to cover part of employers’ hiring costs in a campaign to create 5 million new jobs by 2015.

The move that was greeted with broad enthusiasm but has yet to be implemented due to resistance from the labor unions, headed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). This deadlock leaves labor unions open to charges that they are hindering job creation, preventing young people like Dolo from joining the formal economy. The unions say it’s more complicated than that.

A powerful force in the anti-apartheid movement, Cosatu claims the youth wage subsidy will be ineffective in reducing overall unemployment because businesses will simply use it to replace older employees with young ones. By any measure, but especially in this country with a history of street protest and a trend of violent crime, the issue of unemployment is a social time bomb. Yet the tripartite alliance government, made up of the African National Congress (ANC), the Communist Party and Cosatu, stands accused of delivering empty promises.

“Most young people I know are just sitting at home.”
~Xolisile Dolo, entrepreneur

“Cosatu, which played such a pivotal role in creating South Africa’s democracy, runs the risk of being left behind if it remains stuck in the 1950s British model of hostile central bargaining between ‘bosses and workers,’” said Helen Zille, Western Cape Premier and head of the opposition party Democratic Alliance, on Wednesday.

“Tragically, Cosatu is working against the interests of the unemployed, keeping them permanently locked out, and stalling the effort to bring jobs, redress and reconciliation to our society.”

At the same time, thousands of positions remain vacant, for lack of suitably skilled workers. Eighteen years after the country's first all-race elections, the country has failed to rectify the apartheid-engineered system of under-educating the black majority to prevent it from entering trades and professions previously reserved for whites.

Stepping into the void are organizations like iThemba Labantu, a township skills training center supported by German Lutheran charities. Dolo occupies a room on the grounds of the center in exchange for running a youth drama group.

'School does not prepare us for work or for starting a business,” Dolo said. “Apart from an education you need skills, like how to communicate. Drama is good for that.''

The young puppeteer has never been formally employed and knows only a handful of people in ''proper'' jobs with weekly or monthly wage slips. Those formal jobs — warehouse packers, supermarket tellers, airport or council employees — are located outside Crossroads. Within the township, employment is largely informal, entrepreneur-based and small-scale. ''We have to make our jobs,'' said Dolo, who has written poetry and performed music since his early teens.

''There is a poster of Nelson Mandela in which he holds his palms open,” Dolo added. “He is saying 'the power is in our hands.' The government cannot create jobs for us.''


Eighteen years after the South Africa's first all-race elections, the country has yet to come of age as a nation that knows where it stands in the tug-of-war between the need for welfare and free-market forces. Black Economic Empowerment policies have failed to create a new class of black employers and those who have emerged have inherited a culture of worker exploitation, critics say. At the same time, the trade union membership base has shrunk as the manufacturing industry has fallen victim to competition from the East. In the absence of a skilled workforce, South Africa does not have the option to target niche or high-end markets.

'The conundrum of an acute skills shortage alongside mass unemployment is the most critical issue facing this country,” said celebrated author and commentator Allister Sparks. “Our dysfunctional schools and poor vocational training are not producing the workers the economy needs. This stunts our growth and, in turn, increases unemployment.''

Young people's attitudes to manual work — even the skilled kind — tend to be negative because of the degrading ''hoers and tillers'' image their parents acquired under apartheid. As a result, many poor youngsters see university studies as the only means of escaping the township. South Africa turns out high numbers of humanities graduates. But the country continues to grapple with creating opportunties for them after they finish school.