A couple of weeks ago while lazily going through my Twitter feed, I saw Marie Claire magazine trending. Curious, I checked what the furore was about. What was circulating was a screen grab showing an advert for a 6-month internship at the magazine’s online platform. The intern would be required to work eight hours a day, five days a week. All for a stipend of R30 per day.
From Nyanga East, where I grew up, a return trip to Gardens (where Marie Claire and a number of media and advertising companies are situated) using public transport can cost up to R50. And considering Cape Town’s spatial make-up, the further away from the city, the poorer the neighbourhoods, and the more expensive it becomes to get to the city centre.
Not so long ago, Marie Claire’s sister magazine, Cosmopolitan, was also under fire for advertising an unpaid internship where the intern was required to have a driver’s licence, own transport, and to work fulltime plus overtime. The Marie Claire advert prompted a long conversation with a friend about the growing trend of unpaid and low paying worldwide. We came to the conclusion that given
the historical context of South Africa, one of dispossession and disenfranchisement for the black majority, such ‘opportunities’ are part of a larger system of exclusion; of privileging the privileged, and marginalising the marginalised.
THE UNPAID INTERNSHIP NIGHTMARE
The current South African reality is such that the structural, spatial and economic layout of South African society has remained largely unchanged since 1994. Meaning that the face of poverty is still black. So for the majority of black people in this country who don’t have access to personal vehicles, who live far from workplaces, the idea of being paid a stipend as little as R600 a month is a clear tool to exclude them.
My friend and I shared our experiences of how hard it was to try and make a living within the media space. I shared my experiences of how, even though I had the option to extend it, I had to quit my first magazine internship because I couldn’t afford to not get any income for another three months. That being an unpaid intern meant lunch hours with no lunch and trips home dragging because of the unbearable hunger pains.
My second internship paid R2,000 per month, but because I had to take a bus and a train to get to and from work, all my money went to transport. And when I received another internship in Johannesburg my family had to get into debt because I had to relocate and find accommodation, while I was getting paid R1,000 more than the previous internship. I felt like crying every time I had to pay rent, because afterwards I knew that the coming weeks would be bleak.
One is aware that newsrooms are currently running on paper-thin budgets, but surely employers have a social responsibility not to perpetuate inequality in work spaces? Is getting ‘exposure’, ‘mentoring’ and ‘experience’ – as Marie Claire said when justifying the R30 stipend – enough, when the ‘opportunity’ only benefits a privileged few?