Nelson Mandela Foundation

In South Africa, not all graduates enjoy the same labour market access and some are more vulnerable than others. In this regard, a consistent finding is that the Apartheid racial pecking order prevails in current-day hiring practices, wherein white graduates enjoy greater labour market access compared to their Black counterparts. This is compounded by factors such as the type of institution attended, with the research of Moleke (2005) and the Cape Higher Education Consortium (2013) demonstrating how graduates from historically Black institutions (HBIs) take longer to transition to the labour market and experience higher unemployment than their counterparts who graduated from historically white institutions (HWIs). That Black graduates, especially those emerging from HBIs, experience a prolonged transition period into work upon graduating is concerning, considering the finding by Nonyana & Njuho (2018) that one’s probability of remaining unemployed increases the longer one is unemployed, hence worsening one’s prospects of being chronically unemployed.

Even when young graduates do find employment, the extent to which this employment is meaningful or appropriate is also influenced by one’s race. Meyer &  Mncayi (2021) cite that Black and coloured graduates were more likely to be underemployed in the labour market compared to their white and Asian/Indian counterparts, concluding that race continues to be a significant factor explaining negative labour market outcomes and difficult transitions from school to the workplace. In addition to diminishing the capacity for productive output, underemployment perpetuates poverty amongst the race groups it particularly afflicts by limiting prospects of higher income. Baldry (2016) rightly concludes that the legacies of Apartheid continue to disadvantage Black graduates and graduates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, even after they earn a higher education qualification. Tivaringe (2019) demonstrated that possession of a university degree is associated with a lower likelihood (22%) of being unemployed but that this likelihood was correlated with specific demographic parameters - consistent with findings by Kraak (2010) and Baldry (2016), such as race, socioeconomic background and gender.

Apart from race being a dominant variable determining labour market outcomes, social capital also influences the prospects of securing employment. Whilst a lack of education, skills and work experience are often cited as bases for the gap that exists between work and employment for many young people, academic research has also highlighted social capital as a critical determinant of graduates’ prospects of entry into the labour market (Kraak 2010; Rogan et al. 2015, Graham et al., 2019). Social networks that include people who are already active in the workforce act as a bridge into the labour market and, therefore, also present a significant barrier to those lacking such networks from gaining access to work opportunities. According to Seekings (2012)[1], wealthier graduates typically get absorbed into the labour market quite quickly by utilising their family’s social networks. A study by the Cape Higher Education Consortium (2013), which investigated graduates’ pathways from university to work, cited that the majority of graduates found employment through their families and friends, or through being approached by hiring firms. The study also reported that 54% of social capital beneficiaries were white, whereas only 18% were Black. A study by the Human Sciences Research Council (2010) likewise noted that the majority of Black graduates entering and emerging from tertiary education institutions are first-generation, granting them little access to the social networks enjoyed by beneficiaries of generational privilege. Researchers have additionally remarked that employers themselves rely on their own social networks to find suitable candidates for available posts (Burger & Von Fintel, 2013; Abel et al., 2017), precluding equitable access to employment opportunities to those in possession of the relevant degrees, but lacking inherited social capital. The racial concentration of social capital was highlighted by the Commission for Employment Equity’s 2020-21 which found that white people account for 64.6% of senior management posts, despite making up only 9% of the country’s economically active population, demonstrating the extent to which the persistence of white monopoly capital, because of actively exploiting social connections to fill posts, perpetuates the preclusion of the majority of marginalised graduates from workforce participation.

Apart from race and social capital shaping labour market access, graduates who are fortunate enough to secure work also find themselves caught in the underemployment trap – engaged in endless cycles of part-time roles, internships and learnerships that do not fully utilise their skills nor guarantee prospects for future employment. This fails to equip young professionals with the requisite skills and experience to move up the workplace hierarchy. Such opportunities effectively reduce graduates to a pool of cheap labour and afford temporary access to work but not job security.  As many of these positions are inadequately paid or completely unpaid, access to such opportunities is also restricted to the few possessing the financial means to support themselves while they work for experiential gain. 

More needs to be done to facilitate meaningful access to employment for young people, especially those who in the absence of intervention will continue to face challenges of unemployment and underemployment. As the Nelson Mandela Foundation, we have been intentional in the implementation of our internship programme for young graduates over several years, aiming to connect talented graduates to the world of work in an equitable and meaningful way to enhance the skills and experience of young people. We are exploring further ways of deepening our work to create more enablers for young people.

[1] Seekings J (2012) Young people’s entry into the labour market in South Africa. Paper presented at Towards Carnegie III: Strategies to Overcome Poverty and Inequality Conference, University of Cape Town, 3–7 September 2012