Petition: Open letter to the Minister of Finance and the National Treasury
Dear Minister Godongwana and National Treasury, don’t make budget cuts at the expense of South Africa’s future.
Dear Minister of Finance and National Treasury,
The Presidential Employment Stimulus (PES) has been a game-changer. Launched in October 2020, PES has not only provided over 1 million opportunities – it has reinvigorated communities by recognising a number of interconnected challenges they face; at the same time, it has empowered our biggest asset, young people, to be the engine of our economy and agents of change. But the future of PES, like the future of South Africa, is at stake.
Scaling social investment for economic growth.
As a nation, we cannot afford to cut costs on social and public employment programmes. We know that South Africa is facing a multitude of socio-economic challenges- a sluggish economy, loadshedding and a host of government programmes all desperately vying for a piece of the ever-shrinking budget pie. But with youth unemployment sitting at 45%, and the role of work experiences in facilitating access to the labour market, the need to provide young people with opportunities to be part of the economy and build a society that works have become more urgent than before. We simply cannot afford to lose these programmes.
A flagship programme of the PES, the Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI), has placed over 875 000 young South Africans as teacher’s assistants and general assistants since its inception in 2020, providing extra support to learners and teachers in over 22 000 schools, nearly all the public schools in our country in both rural and urban areas. While schools are essential building blocks of communities, members face many other serious socio-economic challenges – which are addressed through a range of other programmes in the Presidential Employment Stimulus, including the Social Employment Fund (SEF). The SEF recognises that gainful employment is not just about financial stability but also about providing people with a sense of purpose, dignity and the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to society in areas like education, food security and nutrition. The programme is providing part-time work for 65 000 previously unemployed people, with over 7 in 10 being youth. For the duration of the programme, they learn valuable skills, contribute to programmes that fill vital needs in their communities, while earning a stipend. The SEF is implemented across the country by 40 civil society organisations, in turn working with over 1 000 community organisations. This programme is the practical demonstration that it is possible to scale up public employment programmes that leverage existing capabilities while investing in building innovative institutional architecture.
We know that one of the biggest challenges for young people trying to get into the labour market is the lack of work experience, with the National Treasury estimating that only 2 in 10 young people are likely to find a job. By providing young people with valuable opportunities to grow competencies and learn work skills, the BEEI, SEF and other public employment programmes support the private sector by preparing a generation of young people to transition into the labour market, effectively derisking youth unemployment. There is no single silver bullet, but these programmes are crucial in addressing that gap, and leading young people into sectors that critically need support or those that are rife with potential for growth.
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Driving economic and skills development in communities across South Africa.
These programmes cut across a variety of sectors including health, agriculture, the creative sectors and education, with an unparalleled geographical spread, reaching young people across all corners of South Africa. The BEEI, for example, reaches every community in the country – because every community has schools, in areas that are otherwise economic deserts in terms of job opportunities for young people. This is planting seeds of growth, purpose and enthusiasm, offering young people a chance to grow the skills to earn an income, ploughed back into their local economy, with sizable ripple effects.
Driving money into local economies while providing skills is a key strategy to improve South Africa’s economic growth, offering our future workforce a springboard for income generation. Incomes, paid at the National Minimum Wage, have boosted purchasing power for entire households; young people reported spending their wage mostly on food, in small enterprise and the informal sector as well as in major retailers, or using it as seed capital for entrepreneurship ventures.
Catching up learners is a pressing concern.
It’s no secret that education outcomes and earning potential are connected. The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study revealed that 8 in 10 Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language, with the steepest decline in rural provinces. These results paint a dim outlook for the future; without extra learning support, this generation of young people will experience poor learning outcomes, higher dropout rates, and future unemployment. But programmes like the BEEI can help us turn this around, catching up thousands of children on skills they currently lack. Funda Wande mentored school assistants in 120 schools in Limpopo; results showed that learners in Grade 2 in classrooms with teacher’s assistants reported significantly higher outcomes in literacy and numeracy skills, compared to schools in similar environments that didn’t have these assistants. DBE is working with Funda Wande to build these lessons into the BEEI and further initiatives to leverage the assistants presence to support Phonics, Reading for Meaning and maths and science are all currently being tested.
Furthermore, South Africa is set to face a teacher shortage crisis, with half of the current teaching population retiring by 2030, further impacting the ongoing overcrowding in schools. We desperately need to pipeline skilled young people into the teaching profession. Again, the BEEI offers an answer, as in 2023 alone it provided 242 000 young people with exposure to teaching, and many of the participants report being in the process of pursuing a teaching career as a result.
The right return on investment into the future.
In well-designed public programmes, every rand spent by the state does double duty by supporting both employment and also delivering real social value, building a better future for South Africa. It is an investment that South Africa desperately needs.
At the scale of South Africa’s educational challenges and multi-generational unemployment, we need to make courageous choices to build a society that works for everyone. We can only do so when you, Minister, and National Treasury start prioritising programmes that are deliberately designed to make real differences in the lives of learners, young people and their communities at the same time. But as academia and civil society working with young people we can’t stay silent, and are actively calling for the continued funding of the Presidential Employment Stimulus. We can’t hope for a more just South Africa if we don’t support programmes with the scale, reach and impact to truly make a dent in the crisis of unemployment while creating work that addresses our many social challenges.
This letter was co-authored by Youth Capital, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town and the Centre for Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at the University of Johannesburg.
This open letter has been signed by over 50 organisations.
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