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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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vintage+Chevy+BelAirEven though he returned almost three weeks ago, I’m still parsing the experience of Mtuseni’s visit. There is a lot to digest and try to understand — along with continuing fallout that currently has us at loggerheads like never before. I do believe my 20-year-old is finally turning 15, emotionally if not chronologically. Am I ready for the battles and pushback ahead? I don’t know. I’m not looking forward to it, that’s for sure. But if this is the necessary psycho-dynamic that must play out for him to become a man — and which he missed having no father around for most of his teenage years — then I guess I’ll strap on my whitewater gear and ride these churning rapids. As I’ve said before, I hate carnival rides!

In the meantime, the New York Times posted an interesting Room for Debate feature this weekend offering different perspectives on the future of South Africa and its economy. I found it surprising that none of the primary contributors addressed the issues of poor education and lack of Internet access — two issues I have described frequently here myself. I added my comments to the discussion. Check out the feature for some perspective on the challenges facing the country.

Source: New York Times

Click to access discussion. — Source: New York Times

I saw this CNN Heroes story recently about a retired school guidance counselor who is using her retirement savings to run a mobile computer learning lab in Florida. She understands the long-term risks kids face from being on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, so she outfitted Estella’s Brilliant Bus with computers connected via satellite to the Internet.

On the bus, kids of all ages get instruction in core academics, SAT and GED prep and Internet skills. Even adults benefit from software training and job search preparation. Running this program… at age 76? Estella truly is a hero.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

One thing that struck me was her comment that the kids she serves don’t have access to computers at home, which leads them to fall behind more affluent peers in terms of computer experience. Her program builds upon the limited computer time these kids receive at school.

By comparison, Mtuseni’s little brother and sister have no access to computers at home or at school. The St. Ansgars K-12 public school they attend — which Mtuseni calls a farm school — has no computers, no library, and no heat. Mtuseni graduated from St. A’s, and his lack of computer savvy or familiarity with software and the Web has shocked me. He’s gotten better over the last few years, but an American fourth grader can probably run circles around him on a computer.

I hope that mobile computer lab programs like this exist in South Africa. I will have to look into it more… and am considering helping to bridge the digital divide in South Africa as a potential new career path for myself — once Mtuseni is finished with college and settled into a job.

I’ve been known to rail against the saturation of technology in the US these days — with TV commercials showing family members in separate rooms blissfully staring into their devices and having no direct interaction. Society will pay over time for this growing personal disconnect, if it isn’t already. But on the flip side, Musa and Bongeka and all the kids in Mtuseni’s settlement — and so many others — are missing out on knowledge and skills that can help them to rise out of poverty. As always, the key is balance — and access to digital technology across the world is way out of whack.

I think of how Rosa Parks and a bus opened doors for African Americans decades ago. Now Estella and her Brilliant Bus are helping new generations forge pathways to opportunity. I only hope that I can make a similar impact for South African kids someday.

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During a chat with Mtuseni the other day, I mentioned a friend — an established professional — who was having a hard time finding a job. And Mtuseni’s response was, “Well, y’all have 3 to 5 jobs per person out there, so how can it be hard?” Clearly his economic stats are a little off, so I quickly explained to him the long recession here and got a perfunctory “okay” back.


In my mind, the US job market isn’t important as far as Mtuseni is concerned; it’s the serious lack of jobs in South Africa. Especially for young people, where unemployment is about 50 percent. Mtuseni understands this better than I do; he sees the reality of it all around him. Yet it doesn’t seem to be lighting a fire under him in terms of doing extra work to be able to compete for scarce jobs with millions of other college grads. His lack of urgency and learned-helplessness excuses have been an ongoing source of conflict between us that is reaching a boiling point — and we had a major battle about it this week.

I have not invested thousands of dollars — and hours — to have this kid finish college only to sit aimlessly watching the sun cross the sky day after day like the people in his settlement. Mtuseni criticizes their lack of ambition and drive, yet has his own internal braking system when it comes to going the extra mile. Maybe it’s an ingrained sense of pessimism, or lack of self-confidence, or fear of success. The psychology of this kid is getting more complex, and is tough to navigate and resolve from afar. I’ve got to get him here this summer so we can have some long, face-to-face talks… but the nightmare of obtaining a US visitor visa for him is a story for another day.

And buried inside this larger challenge is Mtuseni’s comment about jobs here. I’ve come to realize that the lack of regular access to newspapers, TV, and the Internet means that much of Mtuseni’s ‘news’ comes through the grapevine. He’s submitted blog posts to me that I’ve rejected outright because they are based on completely false information. He is sometimes so misinformed that it’s shocking — and truly sad for a kid who really is so thoughtful and bright.

So the comment about “3 to 5 jobs per person” really stuck with me. What is his perception of life in the United States? What do he and his peers imagine it’s like here? Do they think we all drive Bentleys like the Kardashians? I remember telling Mtuseni once about poverty in the Mississippi Delta. He was surprised, and I think on some level he refused to believe me.

That little “factoid” he tossed out opened my eyes to a vision of the United States that perhaps many people in developing countries share. And I suppose that, compared to the reality of shack settlements and millions of unemployed youth, it does seem that Americans can pick and choose jobs freely. But what Mtuseni needs to understand is that the lack of jobs in South Africa is exactly why he needs to be networking and doing interview prep and writing a good CV. Kids in the US do it, and by his accounts there are “3 to 5” jobs just waiting for each of them. The competition he’ll face next year for a job will be like jackals fighting over roadkill.

I keep running into a brick wall trying to get him to see this, and act on it. It’s frustrating, infuriating and exhausting. And I fear that all of our shared hard work will be for naught. So I’ll put on my crash helmet and take another run at smashing that wall. But truth be told, I’m beginning to wonder how many more runs I have in me…

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