For young ru­ral men, poor education, lack of em­ploy­ment and no state sup­port leads to

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Like most mi­grant work­ers, I visit my home vil­lage in De­cem­ber. And so last year I went to Vonqo, ap­prox­i­mately 30km from Du­tywa, Eastern Cape. The road to the vil­lage is un­tarred and poorly main­tained, mak­ing ac­cess dur­ing good weather dif­fi­cult and dur­ing the rainy sea­son al­most im­pos­si­ble.

Vonqo is poor. There is no clinic – peo­ple must travel to neigh­bour­ing vil­lages. Il­lit­er­acy is high. There are few pri­mary schools, and the re­cently built high school is un­able to cater for the vil­lage’s ed­u­ca­tional needs. Un­em­ploy­ment is ex­tremely high. Most house­holds de­pend on state grants or sup­port from fam­ily mem­bers work­ing in the cities.

Al­co­hol use, at harm­ful lev­els, is rife. There is very lit­tle to do; ameni­ties avail­able in other vil­lages, such as recre­ational fa­cil­i­ties, are not avail­able in Vonqo.

Many times dur­ing my visit, I en­coun­tered young men walk­ing about in the vil­lage, seem­ingly with no des­ti­na­tion or pur­pose. On closer in­ter­ac­tion with them, I saw their hope­less­ness and de­spair. They lacked mo­ti­va­tion to in­ter­act with oth­ers, es­pe­cially their peers who, like me, were in the vil­lage to spend hol­i­days with kith and kin. I grew up in the same vil­lage as these men. As a mem­ber of the com­mu­nity and a re­searcher, I wanted to bet­ter un­der­stand their low spir­its and dis­en­gage­ment. I wished to sit down with them, talk and find out how they were feel­ing. But first I watched.

Al­co­hol is used to numb the de­spair and shame of job­less­ness. These men wake up early in the morn­ing and in­stantly go in search of left­over tra­di­tional beer from house­holds which had umgidi (cir­cum­ci­sion cer­e­mony) the pre­vi­ous day. Or they spend their days in tav­erns, drink­ing sorghum beer. They only emerge from these “dugouts” when drunk and sup­pos­edly with some guts to face or tol­er­ate the world.

Among black peo­ple (or my peo­ple), much is ex­pected of young men, cen­tring around se­cur­ing jobs, mar­riage, es­tab­lish­ing a fam­ily and ma­te­rial pro­vi­sion. Those I ob­served in my vil­lage had lit­tle chance of meet­ing these ex­pec­ta­tions, hence were likely to be judged harshly by oth­ers – as fail­ures. What ini­tially oc­curred to me was that their shame and so­cial with­drawal could be re­sult­ing from their feel­ing they were prob­a­bly per­ceived as “failed sons” of the vil­lage. Notwith­stand­ing, a closer anal­y­sis of their be­hav­iour sug­gested the ex­is­tence of brew­ing frus­tra­tion and anger. To­wards whom this anger is directed and how it would man­i­fest are ques­tions that con­cerned me.

Like their fore­fa­thers and fa­thers be­fore them, driven by a de­sire to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies, most of these young men had at some point left the vil­lage to look for em­ploy­ment in the mines. This very act was a pub­lic promise to their fam­i­lies that a bet­ter fu­ture awaited them. Now in their for­ties or younger, il­lit­er­ate, un­skilled and hav­ing given up on find­ing work in the cities, they have re­turned home, pos­si­bly for good, to face dis­en­chanted par­ents whose own hopes for a bet­ter life are per­ma­nently dashed with the re­turn of these empty-handed men. The re­al­ity now is that these young men de­pend on their el­derly and of­ten sickly par­ents for food and other needs.

I imag­ine that, from time-to-time, they ask their par­ents to spare R100 or so for them from their mea­gre monthly so­cial grants money. The me­dia have pub­lished dis­turb­ing ac­counts of young men like these in the Eastern Cape, who force­fully take so­cial grants money from their par­ents or el­derly rel­a­tives, some com­plet­ing this heinous deed with phys­i­cal or sex­ual as­sault on them. Could this be ev­i­dence of the frus­tra­tion and anger I sus­pected?

While I yearned for an op­por­tu­nity to sit down with these men and ques­tion them, I was un­com­fort­able to do so lest I opened wounds they prob­a­bly have in their hearts, which they were try­ing so hard to hide. I asked my­self what I had to of­fer them, sub­se­quent to their hav­ing shared their chal­lenges and frus­tra­tions.

Faced with this dilemma, I shifted my think­ing and won­dered whether the state was aware of this stra­tum of the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion – un­e­d­u­cated, un­skilled and job­less young men with fee­ble liveli­hoods, sit­ting on the mar­gins of the so­ci­ety. Shouldn’t there be pro­grammes in place that could aid these men by in­clud­ing them in the econ­omy of the coun­try? Other thoughts and ques­tions flooded my mind. What will be­come of them? Will they ac­cept the sta­tus of be­ing failed sons of the vil­lage? Do they have the con­scious­ness to rise and hold gov­ern­ment ac­count­able for their sit­u­a­tion, or would they just ac­cept that their re­la­tion­ship with the state will re­main nonex­is­tent?

I pon­dered whether their frus­tra­tion and rage would even­tu­ally ex­plode, re­sult­ing in their hurt­ing them­selves and those around them. Or would they di­rect their anger at the state and, if so, how? And when the state would cease be­ing in­dif­fer­ent about their ex­is­tence and work on im­prov­ing its re­la­tion­ship with them?

It oc­curred to me that perhaps these men had cried out for help at some point in their lives, only to be ig­nored by the state, as the peo­ple of Vuwani in Lim­popo ex­pe­ri­enced. I couldn’t but con­clude that the state con­tin­ues to fail these young men in mul­ti­ple ways as it has done in other stages of their lives. First, they have very few years of for­mal school­ing, if any. Sec­ond, some have been un­em­ployed for ex­tended pe­ri­ods with lit­tle prospect of ever find­ing work in the main­stream econ­omy, while most have never been em­ployed. Last, most come from poor fam­i­lies with no money to travel to the cities and sus­tain them while they search for work. These fac­tors work against them and fur­ther di­min­ish their chances of ever get­ting paid, se­cure jobs. An al­ter­na­tive ar­gu­ment could be made, how­ever, that these young men need to demon­strate agency through mak­ing claims and de­mands for em­ploy­ment from the state. How­ever, such an ar­gu­ment fails to take into ac­count how their his­tor­i­cal and cur­rent cir­cum­stances con­tinue to fore­close op­por­tu­ni­ties for them to par­tic­i­pate in the econ­omy of the coun­try. For men like these, un­der­served com­mu­ni­ties like Vonqo are cre­at­ing a toxic mix of de­spair, shame and hope­less­ness cou­pled with seething anger and un­lim­ited free time with noth­ing to oc­cupy them ex­cept al­co­hol. A crit­i­cal ques­tion, thus, is whose re­spon­si­bil­ity it is to ad­dress this prob­lem: Is it the men, the com­mu­nity lead­ers or the state? In an­swer­ing this ques­tion, we need to ask: Who has the agency, man­date and the re­sources to do so? I be­lieve that all of these ac­tors have re­sources, but the state has more. There­fore, it is those at the very top with the most re­sources who have to ad­dress the prob­lems faced by young black ru­ral men. But is there the po­lit­i­cal will? I think men who ex­pe­ri­ence such un­ceas­ing shame are a time bomb. Sik­weyiya is a re­searcher at the SA Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil

TALK TO US Should these young men be sup­ported by the state, or find a way to help them­selves?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word AL­CO­HOL and tell us what you think. In­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50

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