The unemployed in Africa: redistribution, time, and the meaning of productivity
Date and Start Time 29 June, 2017 at 14:00
Underemployment and unemployment are pervasive phenomena in Africa. The panel's contributions use descriptions of everyday life in unemployment to discuss its social consequences - in particular reconfigurations of distribution economies and the meaning attached to time and productivity.
For a long time, African Studies ignored the unemployed. Workers, often migrant workers, came into the focus of the social sciences since the 1930s, but unemployment did not seem an issue. Whoever lost his or her job could, it seemed, either smoothly reintegrate into the subsistence economy, or find a living in the urban 'informal sector'. Since employment was not the norm, unemployment did not seem a very important topic.
This has changed over the last decades. A number of studies have concentrated on the problems of young people whose hopes of social participation by employment continue do be dashed, and whose life is shaped by 'waithood' and the search for meaning. Networks of redistribution and debt have emerged as precarious alternatives forms of subsistence. Since wages are often redistributed from towns to villages, redistribution transforms the links between urban and rural parts of the society.
The panel invites contributions that combine nuanced perspectives on experiences of unemployment with differentiated analysis of its consequences. Contributions should be grounded in thick empirical descriptions of unemployed life in Africa, and build on them to address the relation between unemployment, the meaning attached to time and economic productivity, and networks of redistribution. Contributions from historians concentrating on earlier phases of unemployment are as welcome as presentations on the contemporary social and cultural dimensions of unemployment.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Rhythms of Unemployment: Structuring waithood in a Namibian village
Social science literature on unemployment has often described how difficult unemployed people find it to structure their day and to escape a feeling of uselessness. The paper analyses the micro work of getting through the day in a context in which employment is an exception, not the norm.
At least since Jahoda's and Lazarsfeld's classic study on Marienthal, boredom, lack of structure and a feeling of uselessness have been described as the main characteristics of unemployment. 'Timepass' and 'waithood' are recent permutations of the general pattern. In this perspective, time spent in unemployment appears as a succession of universally boring days in which the hours blend into each other. My paper does not dispute the general picture, but tries to provide an ethnographic account of how young unemployed people in northern Namibia actually spend their time and try to structure their days. Just as work, unemployment is variously perceived as fulfilling and as alienating, as freedom from constraints and as absence of structure. The necessity to live one's day in a meaningful and bearable manner creates new social forms. These forms sometimes can perpetuate unemployment, but in an environment characterized by widespread lack of employment opportunities, they can also contribute to the emergence of new economic strategies no longer based on one's own participation in the labour market. In describing and analyzing such processes, I try to show that anthropologists' emphasis on waithood can stand in the way of understanding practices of waiting, just as an emphasis on unemployment can hide from our view new patterns of social participation.
Against the clock: Long-distance running and the reclassification of time in Addis Ababa
Increasing numbers of unemployed young men are turning to long distance running as a way to ‘change their lives.’ This paper explores how they experience time, and how they reclassify seemingly ‘dead’ time' to make it meaningful and productive. I go on to discuss how running reshapes the category of ‘youth.’
This paper will discuss how, in spite of the exhausting and precarious nature of the sport, increasing numbers of young men are trying to become long-distance runners in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In a context of widespread youth unemployment, and the dismantling of modernist expectations for employment and education, I explore running as a way of placing one's life within a hopeful narrative. Focusing on the temporal disjunctures resulting from unemployment, and grounded in fifteen months of ethnographic research in Addis Ababa, my paper engages with the works of Mains (2007), Chua (2014) and Weiss (2004) to argue that for young men who would otherwise be considered unemployed, running is a way of reclassifying what would have been considered 'dead' time as productive and meaningful. Rather than merely 'doing time-pass' after training sessions, runners place importance on the productive potential of 'rest'. I also discuss the practice of periodically applying for new passports as a way in which runners actively reset their youth in a context in which 'youth transition' (Chua, 2014) has become increasingly difficult. Given that most young runners move from rural areas to the city, I go on to discuss the ways in which 'working' as a runner alters the ways in which people socialise, and how the logic of competition works to foster a sense of individualism in place of the more communal approach to training and eating experienced in rural training centres.
Coping with excessive expectations and devalued diplomas - The case of Burkinabe university graduates in times of "high unemployment"
This paper draws on ethnographic research to illustrate the vagueness of concepts as employment and unemployment among Burkinabe university graduates. The focus thereby is on their self-perception and practices when coping with a delayed entry to the job market.
Burkina Faso's universities are often said to be factories producing unemployed persons. This paper draws on empirical research to show that the concept of unemployment is vague and even insignificant with regard to the social reality of university graduates. Speaking about unemployment turned out to be methodologically challenging. In fact, the term chômage (unemployment) seemed to be irrelevant; instead, graduates speak about activity and non-activity. Their worst case scenario for the period after graduation is "staying at home", being inactive and not trying to earn one's living independently. Thus, all of my informants are engaged in activities like minor jobs and unpaid internships. Those are not labelled as employment, and neither are jobs which are not equal to one's educational degree. The difficulty of attributing a status to the masses of young graduates leads to a societal image which is unfavorable, and this is where discourses as the one of universities as factories of unemployed originate. By illustrating the self-perception and practices of young graduates it is shown that concepts of employment and unemployment often are indistinguishable. Moreover, this paper aims to demonstrate that graduates try to access their aspired futures by practices which are based on the imagination of them moving through time towards their objectives. Those are closely linked to a stable and well-paid job. Young graduate's life-courses gain their dynamic dimension less from the passage of time or the fact of being blocked, but rather from an emotional orientation that they coin as optimism and hope.
Universalizing social protection policies and the moral imperative of work: Support and resistance from southern Africa
This paper examines moral and social attachment to labour among the long-term unemployed in South Africa and Namibia, along with state and civil society perceptions of work and distribution, and the way this attachment influences proposals for more universalist social protection policies.
More universal forms of social protection - for instance, unconditional cash transfers or universal basic income grants - are getting increasing attention from both scholars and activists on the African continent. Yet despite promises, activism and positive feasibility studies, no country has actually implemented universal basic income grants outside of small-scale pilots. Why? This paper makes the argument that the key impediment to basic income grants is a failure of imagination. This is not simply a failure of political and economic imagination by policy makers, but rather a far broader failure to imagine a society where welfare and the distribution of resources is no longer tied to wage labour - a critical dimension missing from recent work on the topic (Ferguson 2015). The launching point of this argument is qualitative research with welfare grant recipients in South Africa, a country which supports a third of its population with social grants and which seriously considered but ultimately rejected implementing a basic income grant in favor of work-linked welfare policies. In-depth interviews with welfare recipients in South Africa, complimented by broader qualitative research with policy makers, activists and citizens in both South Africa and neighboring Namibia, show that people across class, race and political divides are resistant to basic income grant ideas because of the perceived threat of these ideas to deeply held attachments to wage labour as a key social, moral, redistributional and meaning making category.
I am unemployed but I have a job: People with disability in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Analyzing narratives of people with disability in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, this presentation addresses what the gap between their virtual unemployment and their concept of a “job” actually means.
In many African countries, it is quite hopeless for the people with physical disability (PWDs) to be employed in the formal sector—in Tanzania, less than 3% of PWDs manage their livelihood by a form of employment, according to an estimate given by the national survey in 2008. Given that Tanzania lacks a universal welfare system, most PWDs earn their livelihood in an informal way. However, such economic activities have been almost invisible in literature on urban employment behind the larger fraction of unemployed urban population, the youth, except a few (Toda 2014, Whyte and Muyinda 2007).
In this presentation, I analyze narratives of PWDs in Dar es Salaam, the busiest city in Tanzania, who are engaged in sorts of "informal" economic activities, such as begging, street vending, singing as a musician, and carpentering that they call their "job", so that we can shed light on their attitudes towards the "job". The narratives that I have collected in fieldwork are concerned with their feelings about their "job", their intimate persons with whom the PWDs sometimes share a small amount of cash, food or something else, and unemployment. It is interesting to note that, overall, they are interested in the outcome—if it meets the obligation of their family and relatives—and their narratives sound as if they do have a humble "job" which they are proud of. In conclusion, I will address what the gap between the virtual unemployment and their concept of a "job" actually means.
Making a living out of a dumpsite in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe; The Ngozi Mine community.
On the Northern fringes of the city of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe exists an economy that is supported by the city dumpsite. In the vicinity of this dumpsite, a thriving community has sprouted and continues to expand.
On the Northern fringes of the city of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe exists an economy that is supported by the city dumpsite. In the vicinity of this dumpsite, a thriving community has sprouted and continues to expand. Its main source of living is the refuse collected for dumping from various points by the City council of Bulawayo. Although many people regard the dumpsite, popularly known in the city as 'Ngozi Mine', a filthy and unhealthy area where fleas feed and reproduce, a place that breeds diseases; the community that is directly supported by this dumpsite tell a different story. To this community resident within this 'industrial site', Ngozi Mine is their source of livelihood and a place of 'opportunity'. As an illustration to the 'potential' side of this dumpsite, families have moved in to reside around this dumpsite; homes have been built and courtships, and new marriages have also occurred. This community also has leadership structures, hence the chief and Headman are responsible for organising the community. Early in the morning, men and women can be seen going to work, some carrying big bags for packaging whatever they could scavenge for resale and recycling. This paper looks at the social life of the 'Ngozi Mine' community in order to understand how the community is organised and what role the dumpsite plays in the everyday struggle for survival in the city.
Keywords: Bulawayo, Community, City Council, Dumpsite, Livelihoods, Ngozi Mine, Zimbabwe.
"We don't need them anymore". Creating belonging and performing work among 'Game-boys' in Tamale, Ghana
This paper introduces the lifeworlds of young, online scammers in Northern Ghana, who try to gain a position of respect and recognition in society. The paper demonstrates that youth reject the notion of unemployment and instead discursively create a work identity via informal means.
This paper introduces the world of young, online scammers - 'Game-boys' - in Tamale (Northern Ghana). Widespread youth unemployment, a rejection of 'hand-to-mouth' jobs and the possibilities of new technology, offered these boys-from-the-1990s new ideas about their productive potential. From disadvantaged backgrounds, these young men have little faith that their suboptimal education will lead them to a better life. Accordingly, they choose to use their skills differently: through online scamming practices they aim to gain a position of respect and recognition among peers.
With bravado and a sense of teenage enthusiasm, Tamale youth have organised themselves in 'gangs' and have crowned themselves with nicknames such as 'CEO of Scammers Unlimited'. In a sense, these young men 'perform' work. By putting in hours and allowing themselves 'holidays', they discursively create a working identity while declaring scamming as an alternative trajectory to make it in life. Many try, many fail. The successful few, though, make their mark in town; a context where role models are particularly hard to come by. This results in new social hierarchies: 'big boys' reward their loyal followers, distribute food and favours, and create new modes of belonging. Those who fail to bring in money - unemployed youth with few prospects - stay connected through the collective experience of being part of the group, the shared language of success and the performance of work. This paper demonstrates that youth reject the notion of unemployment and instead discursively create a work identity via informal means.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.