By: Molemo Ramphalile*
I grew up in a house located on the corner of a street in a typical township on the East Rand of Johannesburg, South Africa. This meant it was outside our house that one could find that infamous hanging-out spot common to most townships or “ghettoes”, generally known as “the corner”. That my father used to tell me to go to school and study hard to avoid ending up like those guys who stood outside our house should give you an idea of why it’s infamous. However, I never quite knew how to fully make sense of this piece of advice from my father. I suppose I understood the point he was making, that if I don’t excel at school I’d end up being someone who loafs around the whole day while other people get on with their lives, and thus make myself susceptible to the lures of illicit activity. But to me, standing around all day not having to go to school or work seemed fun. And also, I liked the young men who would sometimes stand on the corner outside our house.
They obviously lived around the area; they were older and cooler; they were generally slick and at times philosophical; and ironically, always used to tell me to stay in school and study hard so I didn’t end up like them. So I stayed in school and studied hard, well, hard-ish. Yet, lo and behold, this year, I became exactly like them, I became one of the unemployed, loafing corner guys.
Well, not quite. I mean, even though in my heart I’m a corner guy in the mould of those from my childhood, there are important differences. Firstly, we don’t live in the township anymore. You see, hanging around on the corner in the suburbs, as a young-ish black person, is not necessarily the best of ideas , so most of the time I just stay indoors. Secondly, I don’t smoke. In my younger days, smoking always seemed a prerequisite to being a corner guy; I (consensually, of course) parted with a fair share of coins that contributed towards the smoking habits of many a corner dweller—so I am grateful that I, at least, don’t have to stress about where my next smoke is coming from. Thirdly, I seriously doubt that the younger guys where I live now view me as cool or slick, or indeed worthy of spending much time around; so most of the time I just keep the words of wisdom and philosophical ponderings to myself. Fourthly, I’m a university graduate, a holder of an MA degree in Political Studies. This would obviously warrant an adjustment to the type of advice that I got as a kid regarding the unemployed loafers. I would imagine that nowadays, influenced by the seemingly widespread doubt around the market usefulness of many Humanities degrees, this advice would probably encourage not only going to school and studying hard, but also making sure that what is studied is something that will guarantee a job afterwards. You know, to not study something where people will always ask “but what are you going to do with that degree?” I hate that question!
I love what I studied though; the things that I’ve learnt and the person my studies have helped me become have made most of the difficulties encountered manageable. And although this has been a year of some unsuccessful applications, a couple of unsuccessful interviews, general frustration and severe broke-ness, it’s also a year where I’ve had lots of fun reading, thinking, doing independent research, trying to write, supporting Orlando Pirates Football Club, listening to loads of new music and just finding out more about myself and others.
I suppose I could have written a more politically incisive personal reflection that artfully considers the causes of, and possible solutions to, unemployment (whether graduate, youth or otherwise), but this would betray the deep sense of gratitude I feel—I’m most thankful for the unwavering support and belief of those around me this year. To be honest, and I know this is not very Political Science of me, this is because I mostly view my unemployment as a shrewd plot by the universe to get me to go ahead in earnest with my doctoral studies. Damn universe.
*Molemo Ramphalile is an independent scholar who survives off the spiritual, financial, emotional and intellectual generosity of family, friends and others.