Johannesburg’s Ring of Fire

After the uprising in Tunisia, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi declared that Johannesburg is surrounded by a “ring of fire” and that bold measures must be taken by the government to prevent a similar situation as Tunisia Egypt and Yemen (Business Day July, 2011). What is this “ring of fire” you might ask? It is made up of scores of unemployed youths in townships around the city sitting around doing nothing- feeling helpless, hopeless and useless (the three adjectives common to persons with suicidal tendencies). These youths are also feeling angry and the streets of London have shown us today where anger can lead. South Africa is currently not scrambling fast enough to prevent the “walls being breached”. The walls of middle-upper class South Africa that is.

In today’s news headlines it was reported that unemployment rates have decreased again (for the third consecutive month) with a prediction that South Africa will lose another 468,192 jobs in the remaining months of 2011 and in 2012. In the same news flash it was advised that South Africans should not travel to London for safety reasons.

I found it incredibly ironic that these two stories were reported back-to-back with no e-news commentary in between. Is the writing on the wall or what? But just like anywhere else, the employed people of Johannesburg continue to fill up their shiny SUV’s, blowing exhaust fumes all over the ring of fire while the domino effect of social justice demanding uprising continues across continents thick in the midst of a global economic crisis. London’s burning and it has everyones attention. Tunia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Israel- OK- revolution/uprising/riots is in the flesh and blood of Middle East and North Africa. But a 12 Monkey takeover of the streets of London in 2011…we are all left dazed, confused and in shock- how could this happen in one of the most ‘civilized’ cities in Europe?

“Those monstrous looters!” Tottenham and Johannesburg have a very important link: an extraordinarily high rate of unemployment. Coupled with feelings of hopelessness and with no where else to turn, violence is embraced- one explanation for the rampant and uber-violent nature of crime in this country (S.A). General Secretary Vavi said “we have an army of 6-million people who want to work but can’t find jobs.

Most of them are black, women and young without education and skills. They face a lifetime of poverty. This is what I have called a ticking bomb.” Recently my husband was approached to design software by a 20-something black South African man from one of the townships 2.5 hours away from Joburg. He was one of the lucky ones-he chose school over the life of a thug- got high marks and was offered a scholarship to attend university. He’s been in the workforce now and has been consistently employed since he graduated with reputable international companies.

Today, it is his dream to create an online portal to connect the future leaders of S.A with job prospects and potential employers. He told us that it pains him to go home and see his friends living a life of drugs and voilent crime because “they never got a chance for a job and they have no other option but to live a life of crime to survive.” “In the townships,” he said, “no one is waiting at home for you with a hot meal when you get home (especially in child-run households as the adults have all died of HIV-AIDS). No one cares about you. Maybe your relatives will feed you if they think one day you are going to make some money, get a job or are still in school. Otherwise you are on your own.”

The dream of this young man is to be able to help his friends find jobs because he knows how difficult it can be to get out of the vicious cycle of going nowhere fast. He also wants to use the website to encourage his friends and others from township communities to stay in school by connecting them with scholarship opportunities- so they too will have a chance. He is personally funding a part of this dream team from his own pockets-along with help from a close white (and Jewish) friend who believes strongly in his vision.

This special young man is what the literature would call a ‘social entrepreneur’- a term that Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka coined to describe “those individuals who combine the pragmatic goal-oriented methods of business with the aims of a social reformer.” I am studying this unique species and their potential contribution to society in South Africa for my thesis, towards an MA in development studies. A year ago, when I presented my research topic to the review panel I got glaring question mark faces staring back at me- they had never even heard of the term before. Today, social entrepreneurship has become a bit of a buzzword here- along with the trend of social enterprise. I am researching how the government of South Africa is taking on the social economy- after Minister of Economics Ebrahim Patel declared in 2009 that South Africa’s new growth path (ngp) is chucking the inherited neoliberal capitalistic trajectory of the apartheid government and embracing a more social and economically equitable one.

While General Secretary Vavi doesn’t believe that the new growth path is going to fix socio-economic problems, there are many on the top who believe that promoting the trends of social entrepreneurship and enterprise are the solutions to many of societies ills- including unemployment. I wonder in light of the world’s recent uprisings, if service delivery protests, strikes and other potential incitements fueled by societies demand for basic needs will increase and if the ring of fire will erupt like the streets of London. Or have recent incentives taken by the South African government to create jobs like the recently launched ‘jobs fund’ help to quell the flames. Will the walls of Johannesburg be breached by the fiery masses or will South Africans join the people on the streets of Tel Aviv- rallying for social justice in a peaceful non-voilent groundswell? To be sure, something is on it’s way- I pray that South Africa will find the courage to follow Israel’s example this time around.


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