Artwork by Lex Trickett

Side Hustle Culture: how poverty is forcing urban youth culture into precarious (and sometimes dangerous) informal employment

It was in a Social Media Marketing seminar at the University of Cape Town, a few years ago, that I first heard the phrase “side hustle”. The lecturer was encouraging us to “think beyond ourselves as just students but rather as content and knowledge producers who can get compensated for that labour”. Since then, the term has gain popularity and been used by many; from tech giants to recruiters to entrepreneurs.

Although the term carries with it a certain sense of romance when spoken about in mainstream media, side hustles are unfortunately how a large group of people in the country have had to survive for many years, due to an unstable labour market and low levels employability—the students who have to braid hair for extra cash in their dorm rooms or wait tables on the weekends, not as a way “to gain useful skills” but rather as a practical solution to lack of money for food and supplies.

Within the different platforms where side hustles are spoken about, conversations are often modeled on the gig economy (read Silicon Valley) and very removed from the reality of a country with low literacy skills, high levels of inequality and very high levels of poverty where infrastructure and resources such as data costs can be prohibitive. In May of 2018, The Business Insider published what they called The 12 best side-hustles in South Africa right now. These included a logo designer, pet walker, CV writer, LinkedIn profile writer, online English teacher, Photoshop expert, part-time travel consultant, proof reader, translator, Live Chat & phone support assistant and quality assurance tester—one does not need a degree to figure out why these options are highly impractical within our context in South Africa.

In Johannesburg, ‘hustling’ takes on a different meaning and speaks of a general culture of doing all that is in one’s power to survive. A hustler is ambitious and firmly determined on achieving what they set out to achieve. Due to limited opportunities, this determination can set youth in very precarious and often dangerous situations. Take the Blesser/ Blesee phenomenon as a form of hustling or “side-husting”.

The term entered the public imaginary through social media (mainly Twitter and websites such as Blesserclub) in 2016 to describe transactional (often intergenerational) relationships between women and men. Men will often buy women expensive gifts, clothing, food, trips abroad etc. in exchange for sex. As it is spoken about today, the blesser/blessee relationship lacks nuance or complications regarding gender fluidity or differences in sexual preference (hence the strict definitions of “women” exchanging sex with “men”).

The idea of financial and material exchange as a motivating force underlying sexual relationships is not a new one and has taken various forms and names throughout the years. Perhaps the main difference now is the extent to which social media has amplified voice and visibility around these issues.

Beyond the idea of expensive gifts and a lavish lifestyle, blessers have become a viable income stream and mode of survival for students and youth in general. A small study at Motheo Tvet College in Bloemfontein (sample size, 150 female students through interviews) revealed that “as a result of the poor socio-economic background of students, most of the students prefer to date employed partners because they would assist with financial support and basic necessities like transport fare, rent and school fees.

A further study conducted in 2018 through the University of South Africa found  “despite the fact that the phenomenon existed for decades, it evolved over time and now the ‘blesser – blessee’ phenomenon is more multifaceted and includes different levels of involvement”. This is often presented in very neat categories of blesser levels—one being the lowest (airtime and data) and four the highest (trips abroad). The study also states that it identified two primary reasons for young people to become involved in the blesser – blessee phenomenon. Firstly, poverty was identified as a primary motivating factor. Within the South African context, this is mainly among previously disadvantaged communities. The second primary motivating factor identified was an aspiration for a middle-class lifestyle, especially among students (19‐22 years old).”

The power imbalances found within these relationships put young women at risk of gender-based violence, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. We are still struggling to talk openly and honestly (let alone find solutions) about these issues as a society.

Hustler mentality and side hustles also have hidden consequences, particularly the toll they take on emotional and mental well-being. The resultant overwork might exacerbate levels of anxiety and depression and contribute to a general inability to care for one’s own mental health due to high pressures to keep moving and shifting and finding new ways of survival in a space where you are constantly that: walala wasala.

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