Sacrificing youth to the market

2013-10-21 10:00

Langa was standing near my car as I left an open-something event in Cape Town. Open Design. Open City. Open Air. Open Book.

They blur into obscurity in their nod to commerce as the primary driver of human behaviour, prosperity and cooperation, these “open” events do. This makes them closed to the millions modern commerce excludes by design.

Langa wasn’t waiting for me. He just stopped there because he had nowhere else to go. As he approached, I steeled myself.

I am a product and producer of a society hardened to the unfair burdens it places on certain individuals.

In this society, the everyday prospect of being approached by a stranger asking for money, a job or help is a loathsome nuisance. Their situation is not our fault, we say through gritted teeth.

Langa came to Cape Town from Mthatha to work on a construction project. Unsurprisingly, he was taken advantage of by a company that was dragging its feet about paying him. He tried to report the matter to the police, but they told him that no crime had taken place.

That’s how he wound up penniless, homeless, black and stranded in Cape Town.

“A man’s supposed to be strong, I know that,” he said, his tears now flowing unchecked.

“And I know everybody has their own problems,” he said, “but I don’t know what else to do. When people see someone like me, maybe they think I’m going to rob them or something, so they chase me away?...?like an animal.”

For two days, he’d been looking for work to earn the money to go after the guy who hadn’t paid him. It’s not as if he had no skills.

He was a self-taught carpenter, and had learnt tiling and bricklaying at the King Sabata Dalindyebo Further Education and Training College.

The little money he made he sent to his younger sisters, who he hoped would take care of him when they were successful and he was older and unable to work.

A chill tore through me when he said that, as it can’t be fair that someone in their 20s had resigned himself to that kind of a future.

On the way home in the darkness, creeping through the city’s windswept streets, I felt shame in knowing that, despite my convictions, when it came down to it, there were limits to what I was prepared to do.

I took down his number, gave him money, looked up the procedures of the small claims court for him, and left him to the mercy of the night.

I thought about Langa this week as the DA and Cosatu traded barbs once again over the draft Employment Tax Incentive Bill, which contains a youth wage subsidy. Langa’s just a cold statistic in that fight.

The DA endorses National Treasury’s view that collective bargaining has priced entry-level workers above what the market is willing to pay.

They also say first-time jobseekers can’t earn the work experience to show the market that they can add value because the market doesn’t believe a Grade 12 certificate from our basic education system says anything about what you can do.

The labour federation says the bill will put downward pressure on the wages of workers who don’t qualify for the subsidy and that its net job-creation effect is so tiny that it does almost nothing to address youth employment, let alone unemployment in general.

They also say it’s incorrect to assume that wages are too high and that costs discourage businesses from hiring young workers.

The facts are on Cosatu’s side, but facts are the first casualty in politics.

As these two locked horns over the subsidy, two economists with opposing views on market efficiency found themselves among the recipients of the Nobel prize for economics.

In short, one economist said the market is often irrational, while the other said it’s not. Both were awarded the prize.

It sounds like the end of a wry joke. Yet no one’s laughing, except maybe the market.

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