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Youth Unemployment is Developing into a Crisis!

5 April 2000

In the recent "The Youth Development Journal", Zed Tshabalala wrote an article, "Beyond Statistics: The face of youth unemployment", which provides a moving account of some unemployed youth and how they respond to this.

In it, a 17 year-old woman, Priscilla Moolman, who has been unemployed for more than six months, tells her story and then says,

"I have thought about prostitution, selling my body to earn money so that I can support my child. Then I think of my child and of HIV and decide not to do it. I decide to hold on to my dignity" (my emphasis).

Five other young people interviewed in the same article also state that in spite of being unemployed for long, they have not given up hope that they will, sooner or later, get employed; and they have not resorted to crime and other socially-destructive activities.

These and millions of other unemployed young people in our country, in town and countryside, are going through the most dehumanising, difficult and painful time of their lives, but have remained human against this adversity - they are holding on to their dignity!

Millions of youth in South Africa go through formal education, and hundreds of thousands among them reach an abyss as soon as they pass or even fail matric. Without a skill, with poor and inadequate education and with no work experience at all, they are forced to look for a job in an environment hostile to unskilled and inexperienced people, that is rigid in terms of age and is faced with massive retrenchments!

Frankly, to be young in Africa today means being vulnerable to these vagaries of a hostile capitalist labour market that treats the working class in general, but the youth in particular, with disdain and hatred. Practically, a young person faces a mountain of structural obstacles when seeking a job as a result of which, if they are not consciously and deliberately removed, he stands no chance of ever finding a job!

Many young people, therefore, are rendered unemployable! Formal education chases them off at some point and closes the doors behind them; and tertiary education is just inaccessible either because of its rigid entry requirements or excessive fees.

Even those that go through tertiary education have no guarantee for a job! Thousands of graduates a today loitering with their CVs littered all over in search for ostensibly elusive jobs.

What further compounds the problem is that our formal education does not even relate to the real world of work; academic education is pursued and emphasised as though it were an end in itself, without any links to vocational/technical education. Life skills are not taught in most of our schools, and youth are left to fend for themselves in a world strange, tough and hostile!

Consequently, those that are 16 to 19 years of age, on a transition between school and either tertiary education or work, find themselves highly under-represented in terms of employment and they many remain in this transition for a very long time. No wonder then, being highly ambitious and full of hope at the prospects for a better and brighter future as they leave school, they soon become the most disaffected, cynical and hopeless in the face of real hurdles for which they were not prepared.

Surely, none is ever prepared for unemployment. Even those that may have surrendered to the eventuality of being unemployed for long, still harbour some genuine hope that there will be a job some day!

There is, therefore, no gainsaying that those that are poor, black and young in this country are currently condemned to the cycle of poverty - there are no exit signs anywhere, let alone exit points themselves!

Confronted with these problems, youth inevitably reflect a contradictory attitude of both depression and yet hope at the same time.

Either objectively or subjectively, some youth succumb to the temptations of crime, prostitution, alcohol and substance abuse and other negative and purely infamous activities!

Such a bleak situation as described above spiritually and materially breaks our youth.

Judging by the number of youth involved in these infamous activities described above, anyone who wishes to oversimplify this would easily remark that "it is youth that commit crime!"

Certainly, as stated above, this seems ostensibly so, and judging by the statistics, it is so!

But, again, like the concept of the "lost generation", this is just a negative label attached on people the majority of whom live honest and decent lives, because those that have succumbed to negative behaviour and activities are insignificantly few. The overwhelming majority is willing to work hard and some among these are even taking initiatives to jump out of this adversity.

However, as a caveat to the nation, fewer as those involved in crime, prostitution and substance abuse may be, should this situation of youth unemployment remain unimproved, more and more youth will soon break materially and spiritually!

The challenge for South Africa is to do something to restore and reward the hope of millions of youth by providing them with jobs!

In so doing, we will need to refer to some countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and elsewhere that also, at some point or another and to some varying degrees, faced similar challenges of youth unemployment and had to develop immediate interventionist programmes to address it - in order to avoid social unrest and, most importantly, empower and equip the youth for the present and future!

Given the difficulties faced by the 16-19 year olds, the education system must keep them within itself as long as it can in order to prepare and equip them for the labour market, and so that they can then enter it ready, equipped and at the right time.

Bluntly, this means that we must invest enormous resources, certainly much more than currently available, in the education system to ensure that it is, itself, equipped for this role.

We must transform and strengthen all the spheres of the system, especially the school, further education and training and tertiary sectors.

However, it must be pointed out that youth unemployment is a result, primarily, of aggregate unemployment; that is, the general lack of jobs in the economy. Accordingly, the most urgent and broader strategy for addressing youth unemployment is ensuring that the economy grows as well as aggregate employment.

Therefore, those to whom we should direct our demands for jobs are the private sector that command huge capital and profits that should be invested to job creation.

South African business must translate our economic growth and the positive economic mood into real growth for all and concrete jobs!

Of course, it may be in business` interests to have such high rates of unemployment in the country - it increases the reserve army of labour that is desperate and is ready to sell its labour power at any price and succumb to exploitation of any sort, extent and duration.

This reminds me of Marx`s prediction in Capital Vol.1 that capitalism spread not only by creating new jobs but also by creating new unemployed (by destroying the employment of previous wage earners).

But, it is in our common national interest, as the French government was forced to learn during the youth social unrest of the late 1990s as a result of high youth unemployment, to embark upon special immediate interventions specifically targeted at youth.

In this regard, the Presidential Jobs Summit adopted specific resolutions aimed at addressing youth unemployment, at least in the immediate, while ensuring that aggregate employment is increased. These referred to the Youth Brigades in housing construction, working for water, clean and green cities and HIV/AIDS; community-based public works programmes; skills development and training; learnerships; UMSOBOMVU Fund; and others.

At the same time, the National Youth Commission, at the popular mandate of youth organisations, is pursuing the National Youth Service Programme. Thus far we have heard that the UMSOBOMVU and Job Creation Funds are already there and will start functioning this year, a percentage of the skills levy will target youth training, and there are some community-based public works programmes that have been started by the public works department.

However, this has started on a low tide, but the situation is urgent! Its social consequences are already massive and far-reaching!

An appropriate and adequate social safety net is required, together with other programmes such as those mentioned above, as well as those, inter alia, that offer the youth opportunities for self-employment and small, medium and micro enterprise activity.

As a consequence of the fact that our labour market discriminates against youth, women and disabled persons, these must be deliberately targeted for the latter programmes of self-employment and SMME activity, as well as local economic development.

In short, these ideas expounded above can be summarised into four broad strategies to address youth unemployment:

  • increasing aggregate employment;
  • increasing the share of jobs total going to youth;
  • making special and youth-targeted interventions such the national youth service programme, learnership programme; and
  • developing collective and self-employment programmes such as SMMEs, co-operatives, and others.

We cannot fail our youth, and hence our future, on this score! Rather, we should reinforce the attitude of mind and practice that sees them continuing to hold on to their dignity!

Malusi Gigaba
African National Youth League