By Zama Madondo
In smaller towns (like the one that I come from), Johannesburg is dubbed ‘The City of Gold’ and it’s seen as the place where people have so much money, that they throw it at you like confetti upon arrival. You’re raised to believe that your matric distinction will get you into a good university where you will graduate and move to Johannesburg.
Upon arriving in Johannesburg, the doors of potential employers will open for you and you will finally ‘make it’. Older siblings who visit home from Joburg do little to debunk the perception of Joburg being an economic gold mine, with their lavish displays of financial generosity. As a naive youth who is about to step into independence, all of these perceptions and experiences serve as irrefutable evidence that it won’t be long before you’re effortlessly climbing the corporate ladder, hanging out with a smiling, good looking group of racially diverse friends, enjoying sundowners in the comfort of your apartment. After that, you and your friends will explore the ‘world class’ city of Joburg in your brand new cars; just like in the ads on TV.
Then you arrive in Johannesburg only to find that your extravagant older siblings are still working entry level jobs (even though they left home a few years ago), they’re barely keeping their heads above financial water and that they’re huddled in a cramped two bedroom apartment with at least two other people. If not that, they’re living in the cottage of some old white lady’s leafy suburban home. At first you don’t lose hope because you feel that things might turn out differently for you with your impressive academic credentials and a noble desire to change the world. Until you learn that employers don’t give a shit about your academic record (a relevant degree will do, but it’s not mandatory) and that to your employer, it’s more important that you have at least two years work experience and a car, for an unpaid internship which will probably drag on for at least three months. Out of desperation, you take the internship offer and hope that you’ll get hired. It sucks until you learn that the girl who graduated top of your class in university is still sitting at home, along with the hundred thousand other graduates who are unemployed in the country at any given time.
Of course your employer is aware of such statistics and will mercilessly exploit you in the name of experience. After the fourth month, you will finally become a permanent employee at an advertising agency (as one of five employees of colour in an agency of nearly two hundred employees), where you will be given a big title and work for two or more years earning an entry level salary. You’ll count yourself lucky because according to Statistics South Africa, you’re part of the 43% of South Africans aged 15 to 64, who are actually working. However, unlike your white colleague Sarah, you can’t leave work late because your parents didn’t get you a car after matric, you don’t live with your parents and nor do they pay for your petrol or expenses, so you’re not going to get that promotion. As a result, you spend most of your working hours thinking of how you’ll make it to the end of the month, because you’ve just paid for the room that you stay in, managed the basic groceries and now you’re practically broke again.
All the while, your parents are thinking that you’re living it up in Johannesburg and your younger siblings are asking you for money. In reality you’re crying in your boss’ office asking for an increase, as he tells you that he can only give you a 10% inflationary increase, even after you tell him that you’re hungry and living on porridge. He tells you that he feels for you, but the company just has no money and you believe it until the company spends half a million rand on a three day conference for less than a hundred people, the CEO casually mentions the morning ride he took on his six figure bike, and the rich client’s son who’s only been interning there for two minutes; gets paid double your salary for spending all day on Facebook.
Although you’re barely breaking even, you still find that you’re rich compared to some of your friends or people in your age group, mainly because they’re so broke. That’s until you meet up for lunch with your well off friends from school and around them, you’re practically poor. As a result, you constantly feel that you’re as rich as you are poor. Although you’re not scraping the breadline, you still can’t afford the life that’s being advertised on TV. That’s when you realise that ‘making it’ in Johannesburg is not going to be as easy as it was sold. It may be the City of Gold, but to get to the gold you’re going to have to dig a lot deeper.
Zama Madondo is a student of Gender and Diversity Studies at the Rhine-Waal University in Kleve, Germany.