There is a high unemployment rate in South Africa. Daily we read stories of graduates standing near traffic lights with posters listing their qualifications, pleading for jobs. The first few graduates who turned to this method of job-seeking were lucky. Many of them attracted media interest in their plight. Most importantly, their cries led them to get actual jobs. Unfortunately, the unemployment crisis in the country means that we are becoming immune to such graduates. There are too many who stand at traffic lights, and the enthusiasm in which we helped the first ones who did this is waning.

I have no glib answers to solve the unemployment crisis, and I can only imagine how disheartening it is to follow the rules by going to school and attaining a qualification and then still end up unemployed. This must really injure the spirit of the graduate.

In my neighbourhood there is a Zimbabwean man who is an old-fashioned shoe cobbler. He has been working at the same corner spot for eleven years. We all take our shoes to him for fixing. He is an older gentleman and he is very bright. He manages to match shoes to their owners without writing anything down. He runs a service where you leave your shoes for fixing overnight. The next day the shoes are always immaculately fixed and polished.

Opposite him, in the same street corner is a hanging spot for the neighbourhood’s unemployed youths. Here young men spend their days hanging out and lamenting the state of unemployment. They stand in the corner from morning to dusk, enjoying the comradery of being in the same dark spot. At night they head home and check their smartphones for online job applications. Then they head to the internet cafe to send application documentation. For most of their days these young men wait, at first hopeful, and then hopeless, as they receive rejection letter after rejection letter.

Last year the shoe cobbler, who works under a self-made shelter, allowed the three young men who loiter opposite him to come into his shelter during a thunderstorm. Before this, there had not been much interaction between them. One of the three young man, let us call him David, watched while the old man worked, and he counted the number of shoes by the price per mend, as he has a qualification in financial management and is interested in these things. David worked out that the cobbler made an average of R11000 monthly.

David then asked to be mentored – he wanted to learn how to fix shoes. He wanted to turn his time and energy into income. So for five months he sat alongside the cobbler and learned. He was a keen and quick student, and after five months the cobbler bought him equipment to start his own shoe fixing stall.

David has set up a stall near the gate of the biggest mall. He gets plenty of customers, and he has hired a friend who initially was embarrassed about being associated with a friend who fixes shoes. They are now working together and making some decent money while waiting to be employed.

Working in a stall fixing shoes might have not been the dream they had for themselves. I am sure they want more from life. But the time they are spending being self-employed is teaching them valuable lessons that will serve them throughout their lives. They are learning to time manage, to budget, to meet customer expectations, to problem solve – and they are gaining money in the process. By the time they get work for the qualifications they have studied for, they will have polished their work ethic.

There are several lessons to be learned from immigrants like our cobbler. Immigrants teach us about self-reliance. Many immigrants do not have work permits because they are economic migrants. When they get to this country, the majority of them become self-reliant through self-employment.

These immigrants teach us that time is a resource like money. David and his friends had as much time in the streets as the cobbler – they had the time, and then later they turned the time and energy into money.

Immigrant communities can teach us to identify opportunities where there seem to be none. There is a Zambian woman who runs a laundry and ironing service from to the neighbourhood from her home. She has identified a gap in the market – that there are busy working people who are not well off enough to afford a domestic worker, but have enough disposable income to occasionally have their linen washed and ironed by someone else.

The relationship between citizens and immigrants need not be adversarial; it can be symbiotic, as the relationship between David and the cobbler taught me. All that is required is the willingness to learn. Humans have moved and settled in different places because of things like war and famine from the beginning of time. Rather than trying to fight each other, we need to recognise that immigration is part of how humans live in the world, and that many immigrants have made huge contributions not only to their country, but also the world.


Tell us: this article is a good example of entrepreneurship – of seeing a gap or a need. Do you know other stories of people like this, who see a gap in the market and start a business?

This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.