Towards an Intersectional Understanding of Unemployment

Zipho Majova’s piece on the graduate unemployment problem, originally published on TheProgressiveCorner and subsequently republished in Daily Maverick, is a necessary intervention in the discourse around unemployment in South Africa. It problematises the exclusionary nature of internships and highlights the failure of past job creation strategies. However, the analysis lacks an intersectional understanding of the problem at hand.

Majova identifies graduate unemployment as primarily affecting black graduates and proposes that we refer to the problem in racialised terms. She points to a purported discrepancy in the rates of employment along racial lines to justify her position.

At first glance, the available data seems to support graduate unemployment as a strictly racial problem. However, the main problem is that, like black people in general, black graduates are not a monolith. It means that there are other, arguably more salient, variables besides race that determine the probability of a graduate being unemployed. Notably, it is the type of Higher Education Institute (HEI) they attend and the type of qualification they attain which are more likely to determine the likelihood of unemployment. The legacy of apartheid of course means that access to certain HEIs is often racialised.

While Majova refers to graduate unemployment throughout her piece, the term “graduate” is never defined. The use of the 17% unemployment statistics seems to indicate that the definition of “graduate” used includes the attainment of any post-secondary qualification. This definition is unfortunately limited due to the fact that the higher education field is varied and diverse. It is far better to distinguish graduates on the basis of the types of qualifications that they possess; those who hold a National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Level 5 or 6 should be termed diplomates and those who hold a NQF level 7 or higher degree should be considered graduates. It is also important to differentiate between Historically Disadvantaged Institutes (HDIs) and Historically Advantaged Institutes (HAIs). In light of our country’s history of “separate development” this is a crucial distinction.

With these breakdowns one is able to obtain a much clearer picture of graduate unemployment and the extent of it. Graduates have an employment rate of over 85% based on 2015 figures, while diplomates have an employment rate of slightly above 70% according to the same figures. The narrow unemployment rate for diplomates, which excludes people not actively looking for jobs, was 17% in 2015 while for graduates it was 6%.

Majova’s concern is not with unemployment in general but rather its seemingly racialised nature. To this end one needs to look at unemployment by race and type of HEI. For this category black graduates from HAIs have an unemployment rate of 6% while black graduates from HDIs have an unemployment rate of 11.4%. This is still lower than white graduate unemployment that sits at about 2%. But race is not the sole determinant of unemployment rates. Instead, there are multiple variables of which race is but one.

Majova’s piece necessitates that we revisit the discussion of class and race. The piece, while centring on black graduates, primarily focuses on the challenges that economically disadvantaged graduates face. It makes reference to the material barriers faced by graduates, how the stipends offered to interns are inadequate, and so on. However, it becomes clear that these barriers are not necessarily black, despite their racialised appearances. The “black” son of an accountant and lawyer who lives in Camps Bay is unlikely to face the challenges that Majova identifies because these are material barriers and are not necessarily matters of racial discrimination.

This is not to say that racism and other discrimination does not affect graduate hiring. It undoubtedly does. But the exact problems that Majova rightly points out are not themselves a result of discrimination. Instead these are matters of access to resources and often function at the intersection of class and race (and gender). As a result, a more appropriate framing of the piece would be to term it “the challenges faced by poor graduates”.

What is left unexplored, but is central in understanding whether or not Majova’s solutions are appropriate, is what exactly causes mass unemployment? This is an important question because we find ourselves in an economy that has been stagnating for over a decade, where economic growth is outpaced by population growth and where corporations do anything to avoid paying living wages. These conditions mean that without structural reform of the economy, a specific black graduate employment scheme is bound to fail as did the other employment programmes Majova identifies. In addition, who would qualify as “black” in such a racially defined graduate programme? Would Indians be considered “black”? Would mixed-race people? I ask these questions in light of the recent debates on blackness inspired by the Shivambu-Momoniat incident.

If we are to understand any problem in this country we need to understand how the various identities of an individual intersect with the structural make-up of the society in which they exist. Failing that, we are bound to repeat the multitude of failures that post-apartheid South Africa has experienced in attempting to solve the deep legacy of race and class oppression.

By Rekang Jankie, originally published in DailyMaverick.

Jankie is the Student and Youth Programme Co-ordinator at the Institute for African Alternatives and is Managing Editor of TheProgressiveCorner