The coronavirus pandemic has produced a record retrenchment in the global economy and, along with it, the world-wide labor force. In the United States, one Federal Reserve official has suggested that unemployment may rise as high as 30 percent, as 30 million people have already filed for unemployment benefits since March. With the International Monetary Fund predicting the largest global economic retraction since the Great Depression, the International Labor Organization has estimated that nearly half the world’s workers are at immediate threat of losing their livelihoods. While economists debate how long the global recession will endure, less considered is the impact that long-lasting, mass unemployment could have on people’s daily lives.

Despite elite prosperity powered by robust financial and services sectors, South Africa’s official unemployment rate stands at 29 percent and has been above 20 percent for two decades.

One country’s unemployment crisis provides some insight: South Africa. Despite elite prosperity powered by robust financial and services sectors, South Africa’s official unemployment rate stands at 29 percent and has been above 20 percent for two decades. Its political and social fault lines—particularly its history of white supremacy and colonial dispossession—shape the contours of joblessness: Black citizens experience much higher rates of unemployment and lower levels of household wealth than their white counterparts. Nonetheless, through its sheer pervasiveness, unemployment saturates virtually every aspect of daily life for many South Africans, even those lucky enough to have relatively secure jobs.

While conducting more than a decade of ethnographic research on crime, policing, and vigilantism in Durban’s and Johannesburg’s townships, I witnessed mass unemployment’s impact. Widespread joblessness upends individuals’ life projects, complicates their relationships, shapes the political demands citizens make, impacts the political practices they pursue, and warps the state’s response to people’s needs. Of course, widespread joblessness isn’t the only cause of difficulty across these spheres. But, like a wooden wedge, pervasive unemployment and the economic insecurity it creates puts pressure on a country’s preexisting social fissures, threatening to split them open. Although some of what I describe may resonate with the experience of the poor or unemployed in the United States and elsewhere, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic these pressures may soon be intensified globally. Yet, even as the specter of mass unemployment looms over social systems worldwide, the coming crisis may also allow opportunities to experiment with alternative economic and political arrangements.


Prolonged mass unemployment first impacts individuals’ daily habits. Instead of a fixed work routine, an unscheduled, yet permanent search for income shapes the days for many South Africans. This search often takes the form of hustling—for example, registering a company to be ready to apply for a rumored government tender or leaning on social networks for available piece work or odd jobs. While some speak of hustling as a celebration of one’s individualistic effort and financial success (as in American hip-hop), more often, hustling refers to a consistently frustrated search for money. If I ask a friend I haven’t seen in some time whether he is working, he may respond, “You know, I’m still hustling,” which means that, despite consistent searching, he has little to show for his efforts. The colloquial isiZulu word for hustling, ukuphanda, captures this ambivalence, as it can also mean to scratch in the dirt like a chicken, suggesting that to hustle is to be constantly on the lookout for an opportunity, even as most effort doesn’t result in reward.

This struggle to find employment creates market opportunities to capitalize on workers’ desperation. One form of exploitation is the practice of labor brokerage. For a fee from companies looking to outsource, firms recruit workers to take fixed-term jobs. Although individuals may welcome this work in the short-term, it deepens collective precarity over time by inhibiting workers’ ability to organize for permanent contracts or better working conditions. Labor brokerage is legal, but mass unemployment also creates ample opportunity for illegal exploitation. Workers in some industries report that unscrupulous line managers demand bribes from job seekers to place them in a rare open position. For the particularly desperate, loan-sharks (mashonisa; literally “those who impoverish”) can provide short-term loans at usurious interest rates that only leave borrowers closer to the edge. Some exploitation takes gendered forms. When used by women, the verb ukuphanda (colloquially, to hustle) often refers to exchanging sex for money, gifts, or housing outside of professional sex work. These kinds of exchanges, made necessary by mass joblessness, only deepen an economy of exploitation and reinforce preexisting inequalities.

Predictably, after years of scratching to get by, many give up. Even though South Africa’s official unemployment rate is nearly 30 percent, the unofficial unemployment rate is even worse, estimated at almost 40 percent. But giving up the chance for a formal job fundamentally reorders one’s life. Work forms the basis for many other social practices. For young people, in particular, economic success is a prerequisite to social success—getting married, making one’s own home, and starting a family. Yet amidst mass unemployment, marrying is difficult, as young men are unable to save money for expensive marriage rites. For many young people, the effect is their social futures are knee-capped before they ever began their journeys into adulthood.

Young men are unable to save money for expensive marriage rites. For many young people, their social futures are knee-capped before they ever began their journeys into adulthood.

Mass unemployment does not only disrupt individual futures, though. Rather, it reverberates across family and friendship networks, blurring the line between personal and economic relationships. For many South Africans, personal ties are crucial safety nets, as multiple generations in the same household can survive on a grandmother’s pension payment, a mother’s childcare grant, or a lone bread-winner’s salary. Even as family members often see such support as a moral obligation and willingly support unemployed relatives, the economic pain of stretching this income is acutely felt, particularly among black South Africans who, as a group, experience the country’s highest rates of unemployment. Indeed, pressure to share resources is often referred to as the “black tax” because the burdens of unemployment—and the need to redistribute income to networks of relatives—are carried so disproportionately. One consequence for many otherwise middle-class South Africans is deep indebtedness as modest incomes can only be stretched so far.

Mass joblessness, therefore, affects those with work as much as those without it. Yet even as many people see aid to relatives as a crucial means through which to realize collective upward mobility in the face of South Africa’s racial oppression and historical dispossession, predictably, some income-earners develop strategies to avoid social obligations to share. Take, for instance, the widespread practice of participating in a stokvel (rotating credit association). Members contribute to a common pot that is then distributed out to designated members at set intervals. While such clubs can help savers make big purchases, as financial vehicles, they are puzzling because stokvels don’t have the institutional guarantees of a bank. In fact, they are potentially risky, given that members can renege on their commitments with little cost beyond social approbation. Yet, as political ethnographer Adam Ashforth argues, it is precisely these social costs that can make stokvels useful vehicles for shielding spare cash from needy family members. The social importance of the stokvel is universally understood—one can legitimately claim an inability to help a relative because of one’s prior commitment to the club. Perversely, under the pressure of mass unemployment, a practice that seems to be a social good sometimes becomes the opposite, as obligations to neighbors can be played against obligations to family.

Thus, even as some family members share salaries willingly, the economization of intimate relationships can be corrosive, as friends and family may become means, as much as ends. When salaries are stretched, opportunities for intimate discord like jealousy or envy are rife, undermining social trust. Tragically, extreme need can undermine such solidarity, even as personal connections become ever more important to survival or upward mobility.

The fracturing of trust can have dire political effects, especially when being an effective political agent is tied to one’s economic standing. Think, for example, of the importance that scholars place on the bourgeoisie or middle-classes as stewards of democracy. Extreme levels of unemployment reorders politics, though, as the unemployed feel abandoned by a political system that seems to produce little for them, while the interests of those with jobs are distorted by the ultimate precariousness of their labor and social status.

One arena in which these questions play out is in struggles over for whom the state governs. In countries across the world, governments (including Left-leaning ones) often protect the interests of “insiders” who are backed by politically-connected unions or shielded by institutions like labor laws. Protecting insiders, though, can come at the expense of “outsiders”—like workers in the informal sector or those unable to access the labor market in the first place—because they lack such political connections. In South Africa, where organized labor has historically been aligned with the ruling African National Congress, these dynamics are exaggerated by the depth of the country’s unemployment crisis and the size of its informal sector, leaving those without formal representation in the party, like the unemployed, with little influence to shape policy in their favor. The interests of the permanently unemployed, the precariat, and the semi-secure are consequentially pitted against one another, even as those with union representation suffer from the violence of capital. The effect is that union members may end up distrusting their own shop stewards, wondering if they are representing their personal interests or those of their fellow workers, making the political pacts between states and unions all the more unstable.

The economic pain of stretching income is acutely felt, particularly among black South Africans who, as a group, experience the country’s highest rates of unemployment.

Meanwhile, those with little hope for employment face even fewer opportunities for political action. Many of the permanently unemployed withdraw from the political system altogether. Others, including some black South Africans, hold onto a surprising nostalgia for the country’s apartheid era and the alleged stability and prosperity it provided, even as such citizens hated the racism at the heart of the system. Such fantasies that authoritarian rule is a good solution to the complexities of democratic governance are powerful and are sometimes even voiced by prominent political figures. The head of one of the country’s labor unions, for example, recently claimed that democracy failed to provide for ordinary South Africans, speculating that a benign dictatorship would better serve the country’s marginalized citizens.

If some hope for despotism, still others see violence as the only option in a political system unable or unwilling to provide for them. Particularly for the country’s unemployed youth, violent protest is one way to demand that state institutions provide the services they have so manifestly failed to deliver. At other times, violence is turned against scapegoats for the country’s economic malaise—immigrants. Most spectacularly, since 2008, periodic waves of popular violence have crested against migrants to South Africa. While such purges generate international headlines, even in their absence, violence is a daily reality for immigrant shopkeepers. When the state is called to address such crimes, its agents in the police frequently act as partisans of the nation, turning a blind eye to the victimization of migrants.

Such violence, of course, is not only economic. Often, though, violent protests and xenophobic purges are spurred by self-serving politicians who mobilize supporters by dispensing patronage, a major benefit of holding office. Such rivalries have made party politics violent, as local-level politics consists of high-stakes and increasingly murderous competition over access to state spoils. As with much of the economy, the state itself has become informalized, serving as a locus of personalized redistribution as much as a potential source of welfare and governance.


I have painted a bleak picture. But, as with many crises, life under mass employment creates opportunities to rethink personal and political arrangements. Indeed, many South Africans respond to the frozen formal economy with remarkable economic and political creativity—and often at great personal risk.

Deadly violence against the poor was the state’s initial means for enforcing its coronavirus lockdown.

For example, even as hustling (ukuphanda) may not result in an immediate benefit, it has huge national impact. Hustling, after all, sustains South Africa’s massive informal economy, which accounts for an estimated one third of the country’s jobs. During my fieldwork, for example, I conducted participatory mapping exercises on several streets to determine how many homes had an informal income. Typically, around half of the households would have earnings from some form of home-based or unlicensed business, showing a remarkable, if likely necessary, entrepreneurialism. Such businesses, even though small, could be a source of enormous pride for their proprietors. The challenge is that these businesses—selling homemade food or running an unlicensed daycare, for instance—are typically low-margin or low-wage. Such margins, therefore, makes them risky endeavors as they provide little cushion if the business runs into trouble, as many have during the country’s coronavirus lockdown. Nonetheless, they show people’s remarkable adaptability in the face of long-term economic crisis and collectively add up to a major driver of the country’s employment, even as its formal economy has failed.

Creativity in the face of mass unemployment also extends to the political sphere. In some areas, activists have tried to build on the country’s labor movement tradition to organize workers in the informal economy. Other activists have led movements to represent the demands of unemployed people as a class in itself. Such activism is often connected to adjacent movements born in South Africa’s large informal settlements that cluster at city edges. While such places might seem the epitome of poverty amidst plenty, they are also spaces where people make their own freedom, as such settlements offer a tenuous foothold in cities for people trying to access opportunity, however elusive it might be. Perhaps it is no surprise, therefore, that informal settlements are also sites of some of the country’s most radical political experiments, where squatter-led movements press the ruling African National Congress to fulfill its promise of a better life for all and organize residents to provide for themselves in the state’s absence.

These activities, though, come with a high cost. Scholars have argued that South African democracy is increasingly characterized by its violence, some of which is directed at supporters of the country’s social movements. Despite strong constitutional rights to expression, for instance, activists have reported police harassment, including specious arrests and torture. Other activists have claimed members of their organizations have been murdered by police, security firms, or political rivals. The stakes involved in challenging political arrangements that confront the poor, therefore, are high, as are the risks. With remarkable courage, though, many still confront power.

As with many crises, life under mass employment creates opportunities to rethink personal and political arrangements.

To return to the present health crisis, because violence is integral to the state’s governing practices, force has been a sadly predictable feature of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Deadly violence against the poor was the state’s initial means for enforcing its coronavirus lockdown, a lockdown that itself disproportionately affects those in the informal economy who can no longer go out to hustle for work. Yet, even amidst a state response to the crisis that limits individuals’ movement, several hundred organizations have formed a coalition to provide a bottom-up response to the pandemic, including providing for the basic needs of citizens overlooked by the state. While the possibility for a different future for unemployed South Africans when the pandemic passes remains uncertain, civic solidarity extending across the social strains produced by mass unemployment may point to one path forward. Elsewhere, as mass unemployment threatens wide swathes of the globe, such solidarity will be necessary for many to survive the social and political fractures that may be broken open by the crisis that lies ahead.