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SA youth: Jobless, restless, ready for a revolution

Maverick Life

South Africa, Maverick Life, Politics

SA youth: Jobless, restless, ready for a revolution

Go to a township like Diepsloot or Khayelitsha and you will find the street filled with the jobless. These are the “lokshin” youth, promised so much by the ANC – good jobs, shared wealth and a better life – but who 18 years later, don’t have these. And they are restless and angry. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Lerato Ngobeni left school 10 years ago, but hasn’t worked a day. In a country where a third of the people between the ages of 25 and 34 are unemployed the odds are stacked against her.

“I didn’t finish matric,” says Ngobeni. “The elders, they wanted me to be a traditional healer, and so I went there to Limpopo to try to be a traditional healer. I went to my grandmother’s house, and I sat there and did whatever they sent me to do.” She finished her apprenticeship, but didn’t finish her schooling because her mother was an unemployed single parent. “As a traditional healer I learnt to dance, to do medicine and to throw bones, but I don’t want to use that medicine. I want a real job. I want to learn computers or anything else.”

Ngobeni believes there are two gateways to the world of work. The first is to present herself with confidence. The second is all about having the right connections. “I studied geography, history, English and Sepedi, but all I want to know is English. I want to know it perfect, perfect. Almost wherever you go you get this language. It is not Afrikaans or Sepedi, but English only. If I know English perfect, perfect, then I can do well,” she says.

“I think if you want a job you must know someone in government, you can’t get a job easy if you don’t know anyone. It is wrong and unfair, because if you don’t know anybody you can’t get a job. Why? The government must give us the job.”

Ngobeni came to live in Soshanguve, outside Pretoria; after it became apparent her options in Limpopo were limited. But in Soshanguve, unemployment is also rife and Ngobeni says most youth spend their days walking the streets or just sitting. “There are so many young people in Soshanguve who don’t have jobs. We are many, many and we are angry – all of us. Maybe 90% is not working and 10% is not working. We don’t know what we can do now. Me too I am angry. I am just staying alone at home not working. Why? I try and I try. But I still can’t get a job.”

Getting a job in South Africa isn’t the easiest thing to do. Statistics SA set the “official” record for unemployment at 25% for 2011, which means there’s only one in four chance of being unemployed.

SA unemployment numbers for 2011

SA Total 15–24 years 25–34 years 35– 44 years 45–54 years 55–64 years TOTAL a.
Male 45.9% 26.3% 14.0% 12.8% 6.9% 22.2%
Female 54.1% 34.8% 20.2% 11.9% 4.6% 28.2%
TOTAL a. 49.7% 30.1% 16.9% 12.4% 5.9% 25.0

a. Due to rounding, numbers do not necessarily add up to totals. Data supplied by the SAIRR & StatsSA

But things get markedly more difficult the younger you are and being black increases the odds that you will be unemployed. Of black youths aged 15 to 24, 53.5% are unemployed, whereas 33.6% in the 25-to-34 age bracket don’t have jobs.

SA unemployment numbers by race for 2011

Black 15–24 years 25–34 years 35– 44 years 45–54 years 55–64 years TOTAL a.
Male 48.6% 29.0% 16.1% 16.1% 8.2% 25.7%
Female 59.2% 39.2% 23.8% 14.7% 6.5% 33.0%
TOTAL a. 53.5% 33.6% 19.6% 15.4% 7.5% 29.0%

a. Due to rounding, numbers do not necessarily add up to totals. Data supplied by the SAIRR & StatsSA

Employment has always been a big ticket on the ANC’s election manifesto, but obviously wasn’t as fiercely contested during this country’s honeymoon period with the former liberation party. In 1994, the words “employment” and “jobs” were peppered throughout the party’s election manifesto at a time when the unemployment rate was only 22%.

The message the ANC hammered home was that democracy was about more than just voting, it was all about living better. “Democracy means more than just the vote,” the 1994 ANC Manifesto read. “It must be measured by the quality of life of ordinary people – men and women, young and old, rural and urban. It means giving all South Africans the opportunity to share in the country`s wealth, to contribute to its development and to improve their own lives.” The prosaic and inspired tones continue with: “For years, our economy ran for the benefit of the minority, with opportunities and facilities limited to a few. While all parties speak of improving the quality of life, only a government that represents the majority can be trusted to do this.”

When SA’s democracy dawned, the ANC was trusted by a solid majority, and in 1995 the unemployment rate dropped to its lowest rate (16.71%) in almost a decade. But the next year it started to climb and didn’t stop until it hit a record high of just over 30% in 2002. Eight years into South Africa’s democracy people were starting to get itchy feet about when the good life would appear on the horizon.

Increasingly it seems to the youth (and everyone else) that the good life was only afforded to those who worked in government or had a connection to someone in the ruling party, or who was embedded in a state system of nepotism and corruption.

“The youth in the township is a bomb waiting to explode,” says Kindiza Ubami of the Centre for Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. “The bulk of people who have responsibilities to their families are young, and some of them have become parents at a very early age. They have left school because of their parents not being able to take them further in their studies. That on its own creates a big population of young people who are unemployed, who are very frustrated and easily exploited.”

The exploitation is political because township youth are a powder keg to just about any legitimate spark. “When the political upheavals occur within the ANC, the people being used to fuel violence are the youth,” says Ubami. “If people want a protest you don’t even need a date. All you need is a loudhailer and walk up and down the street. The people will gather, because the people are ready for action. The time bomb is there, and it is primed.”

A protester gestures in Siyathemba township outside Balfour July 22, 2009. Protesters hurled stones at police, who responded with teargas and rubber bullets, after thousands marched through the streets on Wednesday over poor services and unemployment. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

Ubami says it has become difficult for the ANC to control the ANCYL, not because of Julius Malema, but because of the restlessness of people on the ground who are feeling betrayed. Democracy was supposed to equate to something to eat, housing and a job. But for township youth this hasn’t materialised.

Eighteen years after democracy people are pretty much in the same economic state of affairs as they were during apartheid. “What makes people angry is that they don’t see any changes. The anger on the ground is because they see these ANC people in big cars and houses, they see the corruption taking place.” Perhaps a significant source of rage is witnessing the exploitation and appropriation of resources meant for service delivery and the realisation of a better life.

“There are RDP projects being implemented by municipalities and the first people that should get employed are people in the community of those municipalities,” says Ubami. But RDP projects don’t enhance living standards for local communities, tenders inevitably realise cronyism, corruption and the drive to make a fast buck. “The people who get these tenders want to benefit more and make more money, so they prefer to use foreign nationals they can easily exploit. They end up paying these foreigners less, and the ‘tenderpreneurs’ also end up even bringing in members of their own families,” he says.

That’s why, if there’s a major project in a Gauteng township like Diepsloot and someone from Limpopo wins the tender, the majority of workers on the project will be foreign nationals, or people brought down from Limpopo. “This adds fuel to xenophobia,” says Ubami. “Xenophobic violence is because of people who come from outside working and benefitting from these projects. The locals see they are not being considered and these people are taking their jobs from them. They start fighting with these foreign nationals and driving them out of their townships.”

From a political perspective, Ubami says it is not that the ruling party doesn’t have the will to try to fix things, rather that they’re paralysed by factionalism and divisions, which are often contestations in the name of wealth accumulation. “The government has to talk about unemployment again and again, because it must be seen to be doing something. But it is failing. If you look at its goals, the ANC can’t even deliver half of the targets set. It is unable to deal with the situation.”

Which begs the question what does the future hold for South Africa? Ubami asks me if I know about the Arab Spring. If a revolution is imminent, what in Ubami’s mind could stem the ferment? “If Zuma loses the presidency of the ANC in Mangaung, the youth might say let’s give the ANC a chance. But if it is still Zuma as president, the revolution is going to be speeded up because the youth don’t want him. The youth have lost faith in Zuma.”

Zuma came to power at the ANC’s 52nd national conference at Polokwane in 2007, which ironically is the same province that late last year was placed under administration of the treasury because it was technically bankrupt. Two years after the ANC had unceremoniously evicted one president in exchange for another, who beamingly cruised into the national elections two years later promising that “the people will share in the country’s wealth”.

In all fairness the ANC did deliver on ensuring people shared in the country’s wealth, but the wealth was shared among a privileged few. Zuma’s family Inc., Malema et al and the Limpopo money-men, together with some of the Mandelas have had a fine time feeding at the trough. As have the cronies of many MPs, ANC big-wigs and anyone with any kind of influence in national, regional or local government finances or resources. Corruption and financial mismanagement is now said to account for a 20% loss in SA’s budget. For every R5.00 spent, R1.00 goes down the drain – or more accurately into the pocket of a government bandit or crony.

In the townships people are saying enough is enough. In recent video-based, qualitative research by the Consumer Insight Agency, a study of South African youth revealed a sector that feels they have been failed by the state, by their family and their education.

“They gave us false hope, man,” said one. “They said that we are going to have jobs when we walk out of here. We can earn so much money, we can have this car. Nothing like that… nothing. It was all promises they made to us before the election.”

Speaking of a local acquaintance, another said, “Now he’s the commissioner of oaths. He lives in a double storey with a balcony and a dish and everything. We vote for him, but then they do nothing for us. Job creation for the community, get something for us to do to keep us busy during the day, but they never do that. He never kept his promise. Hy lewe nou lekker. (He lives the good life). He eats chops every day.”

Another identifies several volatile ingredients: “To be a man, you must be a man putting bread on the table. If you don’t do that the people will just say ‘hau’.”

Craig Irving, founding director of the anthropological-type market researchers the Consumer Insight Agency, says years spent with South Africa’s “lokshin” youth has led him to believe the government isn’t entirely at fault on the issue of unemployment. “This is a terrible thing to say coming from a highly privileged whitey. What is getting in the way isn’t always the opportunity for employment, because there is a lot of opportunity for employment. I am saying that the youth could do more. There are a group of youth, many profiled on our video as a generation, who are not willing to do the kind of work that they feel is beneath them. Who can you blame for this? It is probably from years of government promising high-order jobs – everyone is going to be the doctor and the lawyer and the architect. It is an Mbeki-era problem.”

“Lokshin” is a self-styled township descriptor meaning “kasi” or the township. In typical marketing or research terms you spell the word “loxion” and it means disenfranchised township youth who are angry and gatvol (fed up). They’re the gasoline waiting for a match and harbour a justifiably malignant attitude which has all the potential of a virus.

“Wealth has sky-rocketed in South Africa, so it may well be that if you live in a township your neighbour will have made it. Young unemployed people are living cheek-by-jowl with wealth. They are tasting it and spending time with it,” says Irving, who adds that the gap between real position and where people want to be is so immense that the mediative steps that must be taken to realise a bridge are just too uninspiring.

“The people we spoke to are not willing to do menial work, they would consider it below them,” says Irving, who explains they’re eloquent, urban and picky when it comes to jobs. “The poor person sitting a tier below this group in terms of language ability and skill set hardly has access, because every job is taken by someone from Zimbabwe, or somebody from outside of South Africa. Just go to a restaurant in Johannesburg, and ask the guy who is serving you where he is from.” Those with skill, street smarts and presentation power don’t want the jobs, says Irving, while those who are struggling with literacy and English are trumped by foreign nationals.

“What Australians have managed to do is to give honour to work. And when I say work, it could be working in a garden or packing a truck. Any of the many, many things people have to do to run a business or a country – in Australia, those roles have honour. This same sense is evident in Ghana or in Kenya. But here in South Africa we have made that kind of work uninspiring and unappealing.”

One wonders why? Could it have anything to do with the ANC’s aspirational election manifestos which repeatedly promise a better jobs and better lives for people in a country that desperately needs its populace to buckle down and build roads, colleges, hospitals and infrastructure? Or could it be the invisible curriculum, the unspoken education in which people see government-connected role models getting rich quick without investing in hard work or education.

“There is a new force rising which I think is an emerging trend,” says Irving. This dynamic is articulated by the logic that the energy put into education is not worth the time spent. “You have a crew of people coming out of an education department saying ‘well, we are not going to even get jobs’.” Then the word on the street becomes: “What is the value of that education?” But if you cross the border into Zimbabwe, the youth have one thing in their heads, and education is the one thing all the children are thinking about, says Irving.

In a country where unemployment is rife, the education system shaky, economic growth uncertain and tempers are rising, a youth that turns its back on learning only adds instability to a country facing an increasingly uncertain future. Whether or not Irving is right about the youth market’s willingness to engage in labour, his emerging evidence that this sector could be rejecting education as an impotent option is the stuff of which new national nightmares are made. DM

Read more:

  • Youth unemployment: South Africa’s ticking bomb in Mail & Guardian.
  • South Africa’s Poor Want More Help From Local Mines in the Jakarta Globe.
  • Debate is important. Action is critical. by Cyril Ramaphosa on TimesLIVE.

Photo: Thousands of hopeful job applicants queue for 200 positions advertised by the Metro Police Department in Durban, September 9, 2009. Unemployment figures in South Africa for the 2nd quarter of 2009 stand at 23.6%. REUTERS/Rogan Ward.


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