Informal Social Networks in and around SA Workspaces: A Microcosm of Segregation

2016-07-01 19:59

Recently an article by a fellow contributor Bulelani Mfaco about graduate unemployment sparked my interest as to what dynamics play out once a graduand (from secondary or tertiary level) finds themselves beyond the relative comfort of education's walls. The revived interest in graduate unemployment has sprouted from pictures of graduates with diplomas and degrees resorting to street corner notifications in order to be noticed. Whether one has a qualification or not, access to certain social circles and communities plays a large part as to how quickly and easy one is secured employment. Unspoken norms like vetting and social connections in the workplace are factors which people are widely aware, yet never raise in public, lest their own privileges and access are compromised. Social Networks, for purposes of clarification in this article, are deemed as the nodes and the connections flowing therefrom between individuals and communities.

It should come as no surprise to most astute South Africans that job reservation, stemming from exclusionary social networks have been an entrenched feature for most of our history. The socially exclusive circles are usually based on family or kin ties (underlined by race), where the resource bases of some groups far exceeds that of others. Mounds of quantitative research into informal social networks as job search strategies for prospective job seekers has been produced over the last decade, with strong conclusions as to community membership an [English] language propensity decisively influencing whether one gets a job quicker and easier than the next person.

Firms themselves also share the blame when it comes to utilizing social networks. Some researchers have posited that up to 41.1% of South Africa's companies rely on their existing pools of employed to vet or recommend their own friends or family. Such a statistic, if true is quite bold to say the least. Speculations around moral character as one of the preferred precursors by firms looking for prospective employees may well play a part in such exclusionary candidate sifting. Whether one is qualified or not, such close knit ties may preclude a large percentage of competent and high achieving graduates from employment simply because they're deemed untrustworthy. This may in itself, speak of the deep racial and class divisions which play themselves out perniciously in everyday life, halting greater socio-economic progress the country is capable of.

There are many instances of human resource departments fleecing would be job seekers from their hard earned cash to secure employment. Although such tacit job reservation may not take place in higher levels of management, the bulk of this activity takes place at levels which most South Africans look to attain work, and could be a major factor in stunting transparent recruitment and thus economic flow for our country.

Again, it should come as no surprise such operations in the workplace are prevalent, as patronage and nepotism have become normalized in government and public service sectors. It should then follow logic that those who cannot gain access to the state trough would be tempted to impose their own influence in their immediate circles. The majority of South Africans, with little to no social capital (trust and solidarity in their communities) find it increasingly difficult to access the job market on their own, as their isolated resource bases are outperformed by those with greater resources and connections. This is of course where political patronage plays its part. As one Institute for Security Studies researcher was quoted as saying following the recent Tswane riots "Politics becomes the route to everything, and this is very a dangerous place to be".

What has been happening since 1994, and the perceived segregationist policies therefrom, is a cocooning of certain job sectors enjoyed by some groups, leading to exclusory social interactions and vetting processes. Whether or not we want to realize it, the "who you know over what you know" operational guideline is becoming more and more detrimental to South Africa's socio-economic fabric, as some groups have had greater head starts than others. Compounding the issue is the rapacious handling of state organs as patronage webs rather than generators of [desperately needed] economic transformation. If fraternity networks and others based on kinship (race, community and other) ties are reactions to BBEEE and other progressive/transformationist law, then the outlook for the socio-economy of South Africa's workplace looks rather grim. Fostering greater social cohesion and access to opportunity may be the only way forward if we are to avoid degenerating into segregationist social cabals.

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