Lawrence Poenyane’s day begins with a familiar routine. He retreats to a nearby tree, throws off his backpack, and sits on a dusty brick. There is usually a six hour wait. But if he’s lucky he might find a job painting or gardening.
Across the street groups of men in blue overalls braced like Poenyane in hopes of the dark morning getting a odd job or share, stand at the railing of a church. By noon, their numbers will have increased to the point where waiting will seem pointless, but they will wait anyway.
Although Poenyane and the other men are always hopeful, the roadside wait has thinned somewhat for align them. “We’re on our own,” he says.
On Mahikeng’s busy Nelson Mandela Drive, also known as N18, up to 40 regulars wait for their work every day. The employer can choose who they want, but sometimes the job is passed on to those most in need.
“This isn’t Johannesburg,” says Poenyane, referring to the spirit of collaboration often displayed by employees becomes men despite their desperation.
As long as he can remember he has been unemployed. Before resorting to roadside odd jobs, he worked at a T-shirt printer in Rustenburg. He was fired when the owner cut costs and eventually closed the shop.
It was around this time that he decided to return home. At first, like all migrants, he thought it would work. At least he was home. But it’s been almost a decade since he was released.
“You never really believe that you’ll return home empty-handed or return to the same situation you were trying to escape from, but it happens,” he says.
“Waiting in hunger”
Like Poenyane, Lebogang Sibeko can’t remember exactly how long he was unemployed. But he knows he’s approaching half a decade without a steady job. He was a painter most of his life and remembers a time when painting wasn’t a casual or irregular job.
“You spend all day waiting hungry only to still be hungry to return home. Some of these men standing by the road are fathers. I don’t know what they say to their kids when they come home,” he says.
As he walked to his usual spot on the street, he heard on the radio that the President was in the city to address issues such as unemployment. Sibeko scoffed at the idea of the state or the president creating jobs.
“Some of these politicians come by here every day, they see us. But only when they need voices, they talk to us.”
A few yards from Poenyane, Sibeko and others, 28-year-old Jabu Komokasi prepares to guide motorists to their regular parking spots out of the traffic increases. He leaves his village of Letlhakane at 6am, the same time that Poenyane starts applying for jobs.
“What can I do? The other option is usually crime, and I hate crime.”
Before he started working as a car attendant, Komokasi dreamed of learning a trade and becoming a professional plumber. But life happened, he says. “I didn’t want to do this forever, but then there were no funds to continue with school. So me and a group of friends started doing odd jobs around town, like helping people park.”
That Komokasi is much younger than Poenyane and Sibeko is a reminder that unemployment crises are often generational. Young men and women drop out of school only to compete with their uncles and mothers for the same odd jobs.
The common assumption about many young people, especially young men, trying to earn a living is helping others with their shopping or parking their cars on the streets of Mahikeng is that their plight stems from a desire to commit crimes or they come from broken families.
Although on these assumptions could be some truth – With the dire socioeconomic problems in many small town communities forcing young people into a life of crime, many of these young men are extremely capable and have a genuine desire to do more with their lives.
Orabile Tsietso is one of them. Like Komokasi, he sees himself as a victim of systematic circumstances over which he had no control. “I did a few courses to improve, but there was no job. Because I was desperate, I ended up helping people with their groceries, and later a friend invited me to help him guard cars,” he says.
He wanted to join the army and looked up the job the streets as a temporary way of earning a living, but as his personal situation at home deteriorated and jobs became scarce, it became a regular job. However, the general assumption about him is that he is a drug addict or nyaope user.
“People don’t even think to ask if you have dreams or want something better. They only see Nyaope addicts when they look at us.”
Tsietso and others go out of their way to emphasize that they are aware that their struggles are not individual or personal failures, but the failures of the government to intervene in the youth unemployment crisis that is crippling their generation.
“I don’t think the government is doing enough for young people like me. We study and end up nowhere. At least they should be able to point us in the right direction.”
Boulevard of Shattered Dreams
On Nelson Mandela Drive is inequality and unemployment to be found most visible. Nestled between a business district and suburb, it was once popular with sex workers.
After waiting for hours on the side of the road while the sun gets hotter, a bottle in a brown paper bag is passed around. It’s the reality of their distress, they need to numb the pain.
“I think it makes it easier to get home,” says painter Obakeng Mosweu. While he doesn’t abuse alcohol himself, he understands the struggle to stay sober.
The plight of the many men who line the streets courting for jobs explains the heightened concern in the city each time an important Employers such as Country Bird Holdings, Supreme Chicken’s parent company, are floating the idea of moving its operations out of Mahikeng. This would result in mass job losses and there are fears that the situation as it unfolds every day on Nelson Mandela Drive could become even more desperate.
But even with this knowledge, the local Government has largely failed to respond to the unemployment crisis.
The state’s expanded public works program is often presented as a solution to the unemployment crisis in rural and small towns. But as anyone who’s worked on the program will tell you, it’s plagued with endless problems, particularly nepotism and politics.
“Councillors often hire their own people, and even then I don’t think so that it is sufficient absorb all of us. We need serious work,” says Sibeko.
This article was first published by New Frame.