A Humble Request

I recently received a letter from a fellow Grahamstonian. It doesn’t make for easy or comfortable reading. The solution is even harder to conjure up. In fact, I wonder if there is a solution. I have replicated the letter below verbatim.

Fingo Village
Dear Prof

I Gerald, hereby make a humble request to please assist me to the problem that I am experiencing presently, and I know that you can do that.

Prof, I would like to make an introduction about myself: I hope you are granting me the opportunity.

Prof, I am Gerald. I was born in 1964:06:13 here in Grahamstown. I pass my matric in 1989. After I matriculated, I done a course in hospitality: namely food beverage, but I was unable to study for the second year due to financial difficulties.

Prof, I am writing this letter to ask you to please assist in getting where I want to be, the reason is that I don’t want to become a hard criminal. I want to be a law abiding citizen of our country. I can’t even find a job. I’m sometimes sleeping without food. I don’t even have toiletries to wash myself.

Prof, I’m writing this letter to please help me to make my dream come through of being a businessman by selling food on the street, just to keep myself busy and have something. For now I am nothing and hopeless.

I hope you will feel yourself justified in giving my application your favourable consideration.

May God bless you and your family.

Thank you very much.

Yours faithfully


I have read Gerald’s letter more than once.   I also know that there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of men and women in South Africa  who could write exactly the same letter. Gerald took the time to write to me and he deserves a response. I have wracked my brains in formulating a reply, but for now whatever I say sounds very hollow.

With a job comes a modicum of dignity. With a job comes the opportunity to be a ‘Have’ and not a ‘Have-Not’. But Gerald is going further. He is saying, “I want to be self-employed. I want to look after myself, but I don’t have the skills to run a business. So Rhodes Business School, can you help me?”

The book by Richard Pike, Loane Sharp and Ted Black, entitled ‘The New Divide’ talks directly to Gerald’s letter. The New Divide makes for very sobering reading. There is no doubt that there are many in South Africa who would not agree with the recommendations they make. But each of us would be grossly irresponsible for not heeding what they have written. Their suggestions for what needs to be done and urgently, warrant serious attention.

We all know that unemployment is South Africa’s biggest challenge. Bigger than anything. Unless we do something now, today, it is going to get worse. For any of us to deny that is to be a proverbial ostrich burying our head in the sand. In Chapter 1, entitled The Motorbike Diaries, Pike et al, present the following facts:

  • About 500 small towns in SA have a population of 50,000 or less….These communities account for over 3,3 million people, which is 8% of the entire population (Grahamstown gets a mention on page 11)
  • Sometimes the divide between the haves and have-nots is a mere 2 metres of tarmac
  • 70% of men and 76% of women between 15 and 24 are not ecomomically active
  • Urban dwellers earn 86.9% of all income. Unemployment in rural areas is a real problem
  • 2/3 of SA’s jobless youth don’t have a Matric
  • The number of discouraged job-seekers grew from 1,7 million in 1994 to 3,5 million in 2007
  • The unemployed and destitute are without hope
  • The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is a clear case of the Employed vs the Unemployed
Pike et al, in their ‘Afterword’ stress “what we need is leadership”. They advocate that South Africa needs less legislation, more partnerships and relationships that are “cooperative and constructive”. Their conclusion. “The goal is not so much about bringing the unemployment rate down, but to raise our expectations about what we want this country to be. Making the poor productive is  the way to get us there”.

Gerald wants to be productive.  The question is, How?

As I write this, I can’t help asking myself, “what advice would ‘the Leadership’ of this country, this province (E Cape) and this town (Grahamstown) give to Gerald? Let’s put politics and rhetoric aside. What practical steps do we as leaders need to take to get this unemployment challenge addressed?”

What do the the education authorities, the schools and teachers of this country need to do to to address our Education crisis? What do the tertiary institutions need to do? What do the public sector, private sector and the trade unions need to do to grow the cake?

What are each of us going to do to build these partnerships and be “cooperative and constructive”? One thing I know for sure is that Rhodes Business School cannot help Gerald by itself and we would be fooling ourselves to think otherwise. However, we are willing to be part of a partnership to achieve that. The question is, How? Make no mistake we are trying, but our solutions will take longer than Gerald needs right now.


Pike, R., Sharp, L., Black, T. (2010). The New Divide: Will high wages and a lack of leadership create an unemployed majority?, Johannesburg: TerraNova.

Showing 4 Comments »

  1. Hi Matthew. Many things come to mind. The first is the need for Gerald to understand that he may have contributed to his own problem. In whatever tiny way (perhaps voting for the ANC or abusing the labour law), there is always some personal ownership to be assumed. Secondly, his salvation does not lie in being led or ruled by others – it lies in his eventual acceptance that he needs to promote his own outcomes. If Gerald is prepared to ignore the legislation which impedes his chances of finding employment, this is music to any potential employer.

    Comment by Guest — 2 May 2012 @ 3:52 pm

  2. How did Gerald contribute to his own problem when he CLEARLY states in the letter that he could not continue with schooling due to financial difficulties? And how do you even know he voted for ANC? Pertaining that he did, is it not his perogative to vote for ANY political party he believes in? There is no way he could have abused the labour law because he clearly has not been a labourer a day in his life. furthermore, the problem here is not how he contributed to his own problems, the message is that he is trying to get himself out of the rut he is in, and unlike most people, has taken the initative to even contact someone for help, this amongst other things, is quite admirable AND IS MORE THAN WHAT THE AVERAGE PERSON DOES!.

    Comment by Lebohang Thekiso — 9 May 2012 @ 1:43 pm

  3. Dear Owen, This is the reality in this country, there is poverty, and the question each person must ask himself or herself is: “What am I going to do about this situation.’ Ignore talking about it, stop pointing fingers, for example the government or any other person and act without fear. God has blessed me with an ability and so He has blessed every other person. I have decided to contribute to this country and make a difference in someones life, so I am Lecturing at Rhodes but am farming as well, not making millions but am employing 6 people and I get up at 4h30 in the morning to chop trees for the workers to strip before I go to lectures. No space and time to explain in detail, but by using your ability even to employ one other person you can make a difference. I feel great that I can feed at least 6 other families and with my mentoring they will put their children through school and eventually create able citizens to feed themselves. Keep your focus, not on the massive problem, but on every little bit that you can contribute to somebody else’s and do it. Just do it! Gerald must not give up, God will open the door, He is faithful.

    Comment by Mario — 26 May 2012 @ 4:46 pm

  4. The unemployment rate in this country is really troubling, more so in the rural areas and the answer definitely does not lie in urbanisation as there is just as much unemployment in the big cities. I believe government needs to partner with business in coming up with solutions. I see the role of institutions such as Rhodes Business School as that of ensuring that there is ongoing production of leaders who are equipped with the capacity to fill roles in government and industry that would enable them to make a difference out there. This is a problem not only for the HAVE NOTS, the HAVES also need to wake up and realise that unemployment in any society is a recipe for revolution which may have negative consequences, more so for the HAVES!

    Comment by Tebogo — 15 June 2012 @ 2:35 pm

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