Making change against the odds: Entrepreneurial pursuits among young professionals in South Africa

Lieve de Coninck

Research output: PhD thesisResearch external, graduation external


How do young professionals in South Africa take up entrepreneurship amidst inequality and uncertainty? Global middle classes appear to be on the rise: more and more people live or aspire to the associated consumptive or professional lifestyles. At the same time, entrepreneurialism has become mainstream in international development discourse and -practices, yet income security and financial stability have diminished for most people. Together these trends present a complex historical situation for current generations trying to build their lives. In this study I analyze how pressures for middle-class ways of living, the proliferation of entrepreneurialism, and pervasive insecurity intertwine in the lives of young professionals in South Africa, and how they grapple with the inherent tensions. I present an ethnographic case study of participants in business incubators, startup hubs and entrepreneurial events, based on eleven months of fieldwork in Johannesburg and Cape Town between 2015 and 2019. How to understand their entrepreneurial aspirations and continued engagement despite volatile and uncertain outcomes? I argue that young professionals’ uptake of entrepreneurship is a situated, cultural practice through which they renegotiate the aspirational legacies of apartheid and the promises of the transition amidst deepening inequalities, rather than the effect of hegemonic neoliberalism. Foregrounding entrepreneurship’s positive potential and the incompleteness of reality, I a argue that it offers a practical mode of becoming, of realizing social changes and of changing in itself. In short, this dissertation shows how the appeal of entrepreneurship in the case of Johannesburg’s young professionals makes sense as a way to realize the possibilities for success and the conditions of respectability in post-transition times.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Universiteit van Amsterdam
  • Spronk, R. , Supervisor, External person
  • Verkaaik , O.G.A. , Co-supervisor, External person
Award date6 Feb 2024
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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