Archives For unemployment

A New Chapter

January 31, 2015 — 1 Comment

City YearMtuseni has been out of classes for 15 months now — and formally graduated from college for seven months. He’s had zero job interviews, although he did help some guy set up a community radio station in the Diepsloot township a few months ago. He even did a few live DJ shifts on the mic, but was disappointed to learn afterwards that the web transmission wasn’t working so he was spinning and talking to himself. He’s been very frustrated the past few months and (naively) thought he’d be employed in a great job by now. The realities of 60 percent youth unemployment are beginning to make sense to him now; the situation in South Africa is dire.

But Monday Mtuseni starts as a Service Leader with City Year Johannesburg! I’m thrilled. This was my fallback idea last year in case he couldn’t find a job; he was unaware of the program. It was founded 25 years ago in Boston and is in many cities across the country. It started in South Africa at Nelson Mandela’s request after he saw the program on a visit to Boston. The exposure to different people, experiences and training is what Mtuseni needs to set himself apart in the job market from so many others with a similar education. And it will give my still-brooding adolescent some needed emotional maturity. I checked out the program’s Facebook page and know he will thrive; I’m even a bit jealous — such a new adventure!

However, Mtuseni is somewhat measured in his response. He was wowed and took tons of photos when we toured City Year headquarters in Boston last summer and met with the VP. But now that he’s in, my impression is that he thinks the program is somehow a step back. Indeed, it’s not a job, though he does get a small monthly stipend. For someone who so desperately wants to escape the settlement and have a normal life with utilities and TV and food and safety… he really wants a job. Yesterday. But so do millions of his peers. I’ve been trying to help him see that the City Year experience will open so many doors for him, will make his resume stand out from others. He gets it on some level, but for someone in his situation — and for any 22-year-old — life can’t move fast enough for all the things he wants.

But he signed his contract and got fitted for his City Year uniform — and after a few weeks training will be assisting at a primary school in Soweto. It will be grueling; it’s full-time and he has a very long commute on Joburg’s packed taxis. He’ll be nervous at first, then fall into his usual mix of cocky and grouchy and committed and thrilled. I’m reminded of the old Peace Corps slogan: “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

But the ten months will fly and then he’ll join the elite group of City Year alumni at graduation in November, It’s a big deal. Last year the US ambassador to South Africa was there. I will be there, too. Brimming with pride at how far my shy boy in the little yellow high school uniform has come in these few years! And getting ready for another chapter.

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Weight of the World

November 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

Mtuseni Nov 19, 04It’s hard to pinpoint when I reached that state of parenthood where every picture of my kid fills me with love and emotion. It doesn’t matter whether Mtuseni looks happy or grouchy or sick or bored: when I see a new photo of him my heart melts. But the photo he posted on WhatsApp the other day hit me another way. He just looks sad, and it nicked my heart. I asked him later if everything was okay and he said “I’m well” as he almost always does. But I know that with my taciturn son the still waters run very deep. Mtuseni looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders — and in many ways he does.

He’s been out of college classes now for a year — and it’s been almost five months since he graduated. He’s shocked that he can’t find a radio job. Not even an interview. Hell, not even a Christmas job. What shocks me is that he somehow thought he’d be handed a job ten minutes after graduation. I’ve told him that college grads in the US don’t even find jobs that quickly, but somehow he thought the very-real accomplishment of finishing college would carve a golden path through the mess of South Africa’s 60 percent youth unemployment rate.

Young people want everything right now, if not yesterday. And when you’re living in a shack, in a settlement where people resent you for opportunities you lucked into, that desire for quick change becomes desperation. There’s no more money from mom — just food and a bed — so his expenses all fall on me, which gnaws at his pride. The nearby community center where he could go online and job hunt no longer has Internet, and there are no library computers or wifi spots around. There’s no secure mail, so that application option is out.He seems to be more cut off just as he needs to be reaching out and branching out.

He’s frustrated and said he feels like South Africa is becoming a joke of the world. I don’t see things there getting much better any time soon. Was I naive and misleading to put him through college, telling him he’d have better opportunities? Even if a great job is far off, the experience helped him grow in so many ways that it was clearly worthwhile. And he’s resourceful and driven. He’s been helping set up a new community radio station in Diepsloot township… for free, but it’s experience. And we’re waiting to hear on his upcoming interview with City Year-South Africa. We met with the VP and toured the headquarters this summer in Boston, and Mtuseni was impressed with the people and the organization’s philosophy.

I’m lobbying hard for him to join City Year because it will greatly expand his network, give him more maturity (and a monthly stipend), and will add an impressive credential to his resume. Mtuseni told me that kind of thinking is a middle-class American luxury, and that when you’re living on the edge you just need a job now.

Because it’s tough being young and carrying the weight of a hard world on your shoulders.

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It’s always bothered me that my sister does not vote; she doesn’t even know who’s running for office half the time. This is surprising, since our parents vote regularly and were heavily involved in town government when we were growing up. Her husband doesn’t vote either.

This lack of civic involvement upsets me more because of the example it sets for their kids. When they grow up, will they not vote either? I always said that my kids — if I ever had any — would vote and participate in the democratic process.

So I was glad to see Mtuseni’s WhatsApp status messages this morning, as the South African elections come up this Wednesday. (Subtlety has never been his strong point.)



He’s been staying at his pastor’s house to shorten the commute to his radio internship, but is going home Tuesday night so he can vote the next day in his first election. He’s also been tweeting about the election on his station’s handle: @motc_kasiefm971

We discussed the election this weekend, and while I won’t say what party he’s voting for, I am glad it’s not the African National Congress. This is a shift from a few years ago when we discussed politics there. I think college and being exposed to other ideas and situations — perhaps even his trip to the US last year — has led him to modify his perspective. Yes, Mandela and the ANC helped bring about the fall of apartheid, but after twenty years in power Mtuseni is living in a shack with no water or electricity and will take his newly minted college diploma into a job market with 50 percent youth unemployment. If I was one of the millions of poor living in South Africa, I wouldn’t be voting for the ANC merely for its historic legacy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the ANC will lose its solid majority in parliament this time around, so perhaps little will change for Mtuseni and so many like him. But mainly I’m just glad that my long-distance son is voting! #Proud

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Flying Blind

March 5, 2014 — 1 Comment

In January I wrote that Mtuseni was applying for a radio internship with the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The SABC owns radio and TV outlets throughout South Africa, with many in Johannesburg. It’s a high profile gig, looks good on a resume, and would give Mtuseni the 100 intern hours he needs to graduate in June.

Talking to him the other day, we agreed he likely didn’t make the cut. Nor did any of his friends from school. Of course, we can only assume this because SABC doesn’t notify applicants who aren’t accepted. But given that interns were expected to sign a contract covering March 1 to November 1 — and it’s already March — it’s safe to say that ship has already sailed. But who really knows? The SABC site offered few details about the program or the application process. In this day and age, how hard is it to send a mass e-mail or text telling people their application wasn’t accepted and to try again next year? Especially when kids are desperate for experience in a country with 50 percent youth unemployment? But that would be too logical, too considerate, too professional.

Mtuseni is disappointed and starting to feel “desperate.” The graduation deadline is only months away, and he hasn’t made much headway on the intern front. He’s applying for the Y-Academy at YFM — the big youth market station in Joburg. It’s a six-month program and another high profile gig. The application process is complex — with online registration, tough questions, and sample voiceover recordings. Mtuseni got 90 percent of it done last fall, then choked and bailed at the last minute. (And got an earful from half a world away, believe me.) All he needs to do is record his scripts at the school studio and submit a new application.

So I looked at the application section on the YFM site … and in big letters it says “Registration ends soon!” What does that mean?! Tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Why on earth can the station not provide a specific date? “Registration ends March 15 … or April 1 … or April 30” is a lot more helpful than “soon.” And the site doesn’t state when the Academy begins, so you can’t even guess at an application deadline. It is absolutely, positively maddening.

But this is par for the course in South Africa. I’ve lived it for the last five years. Trying to get anything done for Mtuseni always takes me multiple attempts. Tracking a package I sent him last month, I got three completely different answers from three different reps at the SA post office. It took me six weeks to get a repair quote for his broken laptop (and when he brought it on his trip to the US last summer, it was clear they had botched the repair.)

Years ago, Mtuseni couldn’t fathom why I would get so frustrated trying to execute a simple task down there. But he was in school and isolated from having to deal with a broad swath of people and services in the country. But now he’s got more at stake — he wants to graduate on time and get a job — and he understands what I’ve been griping about. The terms he used the other day to describe the poor service and lack of communication in SA ranged from “pathetic” to “bullshit.” (He’s taking after his long-distance dad with that language! Maybe not a good thing…)

Mtuseni also can see the larger ramifications of these issues. He knows that if people in South Africa were more focused on details and responsiveness and communication — things would operate more efficiently and effectively overall, and the country might be in a better position economically. He knows it won’t magically eradicate the country’s poverty, but he understands that a lot of productive time is wasted by people going in endless circles of South African inefficiency and dysfunction.

But Mtuseni also has the fatalistic resignation of,”What are you gonna do?” So he seeks out and applies for internships without accurate information or clear communication, flying blind as he tries to rise above his poor circumstances and build a better life.

And until he gets that internship — and a job — I’ll keep eating Rolaids like Mentos.



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