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To 'sbwl', or to steal?

There's more truth than fiction on The River and Gomora, as both shows explore joblessness and crime, themes that resonate deeply with the country's youth
Fri, Jun 18, 2021

The biggest reality check you get in life always happens during or post university. Whether it's not getting into the university of your choice or not getting into the faculty of your choice, or getting in – but not being able to afford the fees.

The experience is a glimpse of the Umgowo to come in adulthood.

Many of us then go through years of assignments, submissions, all-nighters, exams, heartbreak and all that is said to be the best years of our lives... except, they're not. We end up back at home, unemployed and wondering why we put ourselves through those years. What was the reason?

I once wrote in a 2015 Facebook post that in South Ah, "the cost of education exceeds the value of being educated".

And the stats back it up. According to Stats SA, 74.7% of our youth are unemployed, which makes sense when I think of how many candle emojis I see on Twitter every day, as fellow tweeps publicly try to manifest a job.

Basically, "the kids are not alright" and Umsebenzi Wethu is really just a song we all love because in reality, umsebenzi awukho.

In a country ruled by geriatrics who steal during a pandemic and are basically hogging all the jobs, The River and Gomora – which portray characters like Cobra and Mam Sonto's squad of hijackers – are important as they reflect the gravity of our situation and are a necessary subtle drag to the system.

We understand Cobra (Presley Chweneyagae) as an unemployed 30-something-year-old who lives in his mother's backroom ko kasi. He's the brother, uncle or cousin we all have. You know, that really smart one that could have gone far given the right opportunities and will to work?

Although Cobra is often in and out of work as a miner (we're well aware of how exploitative the mining industry is), he makes up the 201, 000 of discouraged job seekers. Cobra's days are spent at the local tavern drinking and struggling with mental health, as nothing seems to ever work out for him.

Even as a disappointment, his will to provide and make his family proud in a system that fails him exceeds the circumstances leading him to choose crime; from stealing Lindiwe's diamonds and taking part in heists, to recently trying to rob a store in order to pay for Dimpho's tuition.

He is a 'waste man' of sorts, but in a country where for many, gold is positioned in a place where reaching it is almost impossible no matter how hard you dig, crime becomes one of the only options because in the words of Mandoza and Chiskop: "Uzoyithola kanjan' uhlel' ekhoneni?"

Many of us watching the current storyline of The River's Dimpho failing a module and losing her bursary are sitting there like the Leonardo DiCaprio meme where he points at the television because we know this jacket.

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Failing is a normal part of life contributed by a number of circumstances, but these organisations, however, do not give young black students space for that. I remember when my bursar threatened to pull out funding because I wanted to change my major in second year.

Not only do they vilify us and rob us of those milestones, but one has to jump through hoops and perform poverty in order to qualify, which is why some students lie to get help. Cases of life imitating art as we saw Cobra turn to bribery in an attempt to keep Dimpho's bursary.

In this country, you have to be really poor or really rich for anyone to care, which makes Mam' Sonto from Gomora's group of hijackers important in reminding us of the middle class struggle.

Mazet, for example, doesn't come from poverty but needs the hijacking business in order to thrive. She hopes to open a boutique one day.

She also describes stealing cars from the rich as wealth distribution because they are "stealing from someone that can get it the very next day through insurance", reminding us that the true villain in this story is the country and its inequality; a country that leaves millions unemployed and in years of student debt.

Both characters deserve to be in jail period, but as hard as things may be they try, which represents the resilience of our youth.

  • Gomora is on Mzansi Magic, weekdays at at 7.30pm
  • The River is on 1Magic, weekdays at 8pm