Escaping the township a deferred dream for many graduates
By Thamsanqa Malinga
The young intern coming for an interview was running late. It was an interview that could change her life and the lives of other family members who probably were relying on her, as a university graduate, to obtain employment.
This is a common expectation with most young graduates coming from the townships – in one way or the other, the responsibility of taking care of siblings gets passed on to you, as the person who now has a chance to play the role of breadwinner and caregiver. I know this situation very well, having been part of the system myself, desperately looking for a job and also experiencing the pressure to take care of family members.
The intern arrived half an hour late and was a nervous wreck. In another company, the interview would probably have been cancelled and her hopes dashed. Fortunately, the colleague dealing with internships was very empathetic and dedicated to the cause of giving young people a chance. The first thing the young lady said, as we were exchanging pleasantries, was “I am sorry. If I do get this, I will make sure I find a place closer to work so that I am not late.” Such is the story of those carrying the legacy of being born in that forgotten peripheral space of ‘non-beings’ that is the township.
The company was based in Midrand and the young woman was coming from Sebokeng, a township in the Vaal area on the outskirts of Johannesburg, roughly 54km away. This is a trip that can take up to two hours when using reliable public transport. I am using the word ‘reliable’ for a specific reason as the public transport system in our country, especially that ferrying people to and from townships, does not subscribe to the notion of reliability.
Coming from that township and earning an intern’s salary, she was faced with the possibility of spending 40% of her income on transport alone as well as almost a third of her morning commuting. Upon joining the organisation, they intern subsequently moved to Soshanguve, a township outside Pretoria, mainly because the distance from Pretoria was less than commuting from the Vaal. Later, she rented a room in Ivory Park, a township outside Midrand.
This is the legacy of townships that were designed as peripheral spaces away from the main economic areas. In order to meet one’s economic obligations which include taking care of family and self, coupled with multiple trips to and from work, township dwellers find themselves becoming modern-day migrants. Either that or you are forced to leave the township at dawn, long before the birds are awake and chirping, and you return long after dusk.
I, like many others, have lived through this experience. While a university student, I secured a job as an assistant in my alma mater in Pretoria. I had to catch a 6am train to Pretoria –Gautrain was not even a pipe dream then. If I missed that train, I would surely be late. The situation necessitated that by 5am in the morning I was already in a taxi bound for Johannesburg. Wake-up time was at least 4am. I had just reached my late teens and was already experiencing the harshness of being born in the township and what my parents and grandparents had been living through long before I was born.
Post university I went through the frustration, anger and depression of not being able to secure a job. The issue of distance was a subject of many interviews. “How are you going to get here” and “will you make work on time” were questions I encountered in almost every second interview. I remember offering to volunteer at a radio station based in the Johannesburg CBD and their dismissive response was “at some point you will tell us you are unable to get to work as you do not have transport money”.
If you ask yourself why young graduates are standing at traffic lights with boards stating their qualifications, consider how their background and status of ‘non-being’ has played a role. Breaking out of the chains of the systematic and structural legacy of townships is a dream that is difficult to realise. More than often, your hopes dry up like a raisin in the sun.
The dream that one clings to eventually fades. When it does, all hope is lost and you succumb to the “kuyafana” state of despondency – “it doesn’t help if I am educated or not, I am still going to end up stuck here, unemployed, hungry and forgotten”.
Slowly we become our environment, something I write about in my book which I have recently launched, “Blame Me on Apartheid”. We abandon all hope and succumb to the self-deprecation of being forgotten non-beings, cast out and left to starve.
This is then made worse by comments about blacks in the townships being lazy, having no ambition and what not. Oh please!
For crying out loud, close to three decades of so-called “freedom and democracy” has not brought about much change in townships, particularly for young people. It is for this reason our grandparents feel nostalgic when reflecting back on apartheid as they see the state of forgetfulness their progeny has come to live under. The destruction that comes with service delivery protests are an outlet of the anger, the neglect, the despondency, and other painful emotions we feel and live with daily.
As I wrote in “Blame Me on Apartheid”, “It takes a lot to break free from the legacy of why the township was created and how for generations it was meant to hold you down, break you, discard you in the trash and have you declared as lazy, a savage, a criminal, xenophobic, lacking entrepreneurial drive and all those other derogatory labels and slurs. In South Africa particularly and Africa in general, the townships remain the vilest form of subjugation, the worst being slavery. They were not meant to make citizens of our great-grandparents and their progeny.”
As Malcom X, an African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist who was a popular figure during the US civil rights movement, once decried, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us … we were not brought here to be made citizens.” In a similar vein, townships continue to be a psychological tool of suppression to this day.
So, before you judge and harshly criticise a black person that is late for an interview or experience the frustration of a black South African that is created by the divide that townships create – geographical, psychological and emotional – think twice. Their challenges are sometimes insurmountable.
* Thamsanqa D Malinga is the author of “Blame Me on Apartheid”.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.