Students are finding that their historical way of living and their future outlook have drastically changed, due to the impact of covid-19 in affecting household incomes.
It is the beginning of 2020. Lindiwe Skhosana (22) is excited about the year ahead, being a first-year student pursuing a bachelor of arts in international relations at the University of South Africa (Unisa).
On a monthly basis, Skhosana’s single mother provided her with an allowance which allowed her to enjoy small luxuries and privileges. Suddenly, March 2020 struck and South Africa was attacked by the coronavirus, bringing about a drastic change in the livelihood of Skhosana and her family. The sole breadwinner of her home, her mother, lost her job as a sales assistant due to the economic downturn caused by the covid-19 pandemic. This meant a downward spiral in household incomes.
According to StatsSA, the South African economy’s statistic for employed individuals dropped by 2.2 million, to 14.1 million, in the second quarter of 2020. This extraordinary change has been the largest decline, from quarter one to quarter two, since 2008.
“This set me and my family back,’’ Skhosana told Wits Vuvuzela. ‘‘Suddenly we had to cut down on certain luxuries and focus on prioritising our basic needs, such as food, school fees and other necessities.”
She found herself having to search for work, so that she could contribute to the strained household budget. This development resulted in her struggling to juggle school with her newfound work life.
According to Empowering the Workforce of Tomorrow: the role of business in tackling the skills mismatch among the youth, a report generated by a collaboration between the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), successfully navigating her current challenges may give Skhosana the opportunity to acquire skills necessary to transition from student to the world of work.
These are listed as: (1) Foundational skills (literacy and numeracy); (2) Digital skills; (3) Transferable skills (socio-emotional, empowering young people to be adaptive creative thinkers and problem solvers); and (4) Job-specific skills (technically specific).
Changes brought on by the covid-19 pandemic’s effect on job losses may have triggered a cash flow crisis for Skhosana’s household, but her response to the crisis will benefit her in the area of transferable skills. The general migration of the entire education system to a higher degree of digital learning will result in her having acquired all four of the skills set the article claims will be integral when she permanently joins the world of work. This will give her a competitive edge she admits she will need.
“Although my current situation is not ideal, it has made me more adamant and persistent in finding a job,” Skhosana says. “I am appreciating the skills I am acquiring, because I am confident they will be advantageous to me when looking for a job once I have graduated and obtained my degree.”
In addition to seeking part-time employment, students are exploring creative ways to save money. Dino Talotti is founder and CEO of Varsity Vibe, a company that developed SA’s first student discount application and offers instant access to deals for students who are members. Talotti says there has been a 135% increase in the past 14 months, compared with the previous three years, in the number of students signing up for this value proposition.
“In addition, we receive a great deal of mails and messages from students about how we have ‘saved them’ and how they are loving the deals and discounts we offer,” he says. He underlines that a majority of the students coming on board in recent months were either not willing or not able to pay the opt-in subscription fee of R200 to gain premium status. Rather, they chose the option that qualifies one solely by virtue of being a student; ‘‘Freemium’’ membership status.
In an article, the Global Survey-based assessment of lifestyle changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is stated that although one of the crucial consequences of the pandemic is unemployment issues, the majority of survey participants (91%) said these issues did not affect them as much as changes in social interaction. This revealed that even when employment is not directly under threat due to conditions brought on by the covid-19 pandemic, mental stress and anxiety can arise from changes in the way participants are forced to adapt to a new way of interacting with those they live with, as necessitated by lockdown conditions.
The case of Zinhle Nkosi (19), a second-year bachelor of arts in film and television student at University of the Witwatersrand, echoes the findings of the survey. The reason is that although her mother, the family’s primary breadwinner, has not experienced the disadvantage of unemployment issues, her older sister’s job loss brought changes to their home life.
Although this socio–economic change was triggered by the devastating impact of covid-19 on the jobs market, there was relief from a source that usually receives more criticism than praise. In the first quarter of the 2021 academic year, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) may have been a source of stress for learners wanting to pursue studies at higher institutions around South Africa, but for Nkosi it came as a great advantage financially, because it helped the household income.
“I decided to apply for the NSFAS student grant to lessen the burden of my mom’s financial strain,” Nkosi says.
Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande said in a statement on October 28, 2021: “Funding for university and TVET college bursaries for poor and working-class students through the NSFAS increased by 107%, from R20 billion in 2018 to R42 billion in 2021.”
Furthermore Nkosi, with the energy of enthusiasm, explains that the lack of job security prompted her older sister to return to school and pursue her studies; hence the shift from contributing to the household income, to becoming dependant on her mother. Her sister also has a five-year-old daughter she can no longer support by herself. She cannot depend on the child’s father to provide support and care, because he has never taken responsibility as an active father. Their mother is therefore under the strain of having two additional mouths to feed.
Because Nkosi lives at home, her sister’s change from independent working mother to financially dependent daughter and adult student affected the psycho-social dynamic of the home.
Moreover, the findings of the Global Survey-based assessment of lifestyle changes during the COVID-19 pandemic show that the continuous surveillance of the psychological consequences of the pandemic should become routine, because of the ongoing negative impact on the socio-economic status and lives of individuals.
Wits University has a custodian of monitoring, evaluating and providing support on issues arising from stresses caused by the pandemic. It is the Counselling and Careers Development Unit (CCDU). Students can access a variety of tools on the CCDU website, ranging from resources for stress and time management, to contact details for the Wits Student Crisis Line, which is available 24/7/365.
Lindiwe Skhosana and Zinhle Nkosi both expected that the natural progression after three or four years at university would be to enter the job market. This expectation is now being challenged by more than just the job losses they have witnessed. Historically, students on the verge of completing their studies could rely on prospective employers coming to conduct recruitment drives physically at the various student campuses.
As it is no longer possible to host career fairs in the traditional format, the Wits CCDU has partnered with the South African Graduate Employers’ Association (SAGEA) and will be participating in SAGEA’s Virtual Careers Fair. This would be an alternative to face-to-face career fairs we were accustomed to.
Youth unemployment statistics are indicative of the job market’s inability to absorb the graduates exiting South Africa’s tertiary education system; a crisis that predates the covid-19 pandemic. The figures published are as high as 64%, compared to 34% for the general population. It is therefore not surprising to hear growing calls for emerging graduates to set their sights on the entrepreneurial landscape.
“The long-term solution to the nation’s unemployment crisis is to create a nation of entrepreneurs and not a nation of job seekers,” then Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu said in 2014. The secretary-general of the Youth Chamber of Commerce and Industry South Africa (YCCISA), Malrose Ramashala, said it was the role of government to create jobs, but entrepreneurs had a responsibility too.
According to frontiers in psychiatry, students are more vulnerable to stress-related or addictive disorders. Students especially are in a precarious time in their lives, with restricted financial resources, and therefore likely to be living under stressful and dense housing conditions during the course of the pandemic. Students have had to adapt to an unprecedented shift to remote learning, which has contributed to increasing their stress levels.
Wits Vuvuzela had the opportunity to chat with Nombuso Makhanya (19), a second-year student studying a diploma in accountancy at University of Johannesburg (UJ). With uneasiness in her voice, Makhanya says the lifestyle change caused by covid-19 has brought a great amount of stress over her livelihood, as her main worry is limited finances in her household.
“My father is the only active working parent. Luckily, he did not lose his job, but he did experience pay cuts due to covid-19. My mother is unemployed, and I am dependent on him to cater to my needs and wants, more especially school fees,” says Makhanya. “The stress of coming from a more comfortable lifestyle and having to adjust to a tight financial lifestyle… has been really hard on me.”
Stress caused by the covid-19 pandemic has also resulted in students depending on substances such as alcohol as a coping mechanism to decrease stress levels.
Lara Bome, an addictions counsellor who owns her own practice in the Johannesburg region, explains that dependency on substance occurs when an individual’s main aim is to gain relief from anxieties and stressors.
Sinalo Sithole, a third-year film and television student at Wits University, finds comfort in de-stressing during these turbulent times by giving in to the use of marijuana and alcohol.
“Before covid-19, I would occasionally consume alcohol and no marijuana at all, but I found myself consuming these substances at least two to three times a week,” Sithole told Wits Vuvuzela. “I enjoy the feeling and high of the substance as it calms down my stress levels, which are generally caused by the new norm of living. It assists me in helping me cope with the change in livelihood and school stress.”
With the covid-19 pandemic ongoing, there are continued disadvantages it causes in the lives of various families, nationally and globally. As a result, this continues to cause change in the lives of students. It is important to breadwinners who are affected, that communication within the household is of good quality so that a healthy relationship can continue.
Sthe Mnguni, a qualified educational psychologist from northern KwaZulu-Natal, in Newcastle, suggests students and learners look to adults for guidance. They need continuous support in order to adjust to the lifestyle changes that have occurred.
“Parents can introduce lifestyle changes gradually by creating a platform where they can have open and honest conversations,” says Mnguni. “Children should feel safe to communicate their feelings, fears and anxieties or to ask questions.”
The cause of lifestyle change can bring a sense of discomfort to all individuals’ lives. For students to manage with lifestyle changes, it is essential that they develop a routine that will help them find comfort within their change of livelihood.
“Establish a new routine, find ways to connect with people, take hygiene preventative measures to ensure safety,” suggests Mnguni. “A little bit of self-care goes a long way. Students and learners need to find ways to incorporate self-care.”
FEATURED IMAGE: An image depicting a student having some alcohol while studying, as a way to relief stress and anxiety caused by lifestyle changes. Photo: Ofentse Magudulela