Defend Truth


Effecting a successful youth transition in SA


Mcebisi Jonas is MTN group chairman and former deputy Finance Minister of South Africa.

SA is a country characterised by high levels of unemployment, economic exclusion, and inequality. Within our fragmented and unequal society, youth experience the highest levels of social dislocation and marginalisation in a socio-economic system which they perceive as unresponsive to their needs, identity and aspirations.

In a very real sense the youth are outsiders, not by choice, but by circumstance – in many instances undereducated, excluded from the economy, and living on the outskirts of urban centres with few services and opportunities to change their lives. These objective factors drive high risk and anti-social behaviour (substance abuse, crime, unsafe sex etc), which in a classic vicious cycle further reinforces and exacerbates vulnerability and dislocation. The challenge we need to urgently confront is how to disrupt this vicious cycle.

The youth are generally always at the forefront of social protest and change (think the US hippie movement of the 1960s and the Vietnam solidarity struggles; Soweto Uprising; Arab Spring; Tiananmen Square etc). Having such large numbers of youth in South Africa who have little or no vested interest in the socio-political and institutional status quo represents a significant risk to social cohesion (the so-called ticking time bomb), and provides fertile recruitment ground for populist political movements that could threaten our democratic gains.

This short paper outlines two broad sets of strategic issues that require analysis with a view to discerning policy implications and immediate actions to be taken. The first looks at the labour market and the economy, and why we are unable to absorb the growing numbers of unemployed youth as economically active citizens. How do we break with our historic economic path dependency? How do we reconfigure our education and training sector and reform our labour market to ensure millions of unemployed youth find employment or access to entrepreneurial opportunities? The second section of the paper looks at youth organisation and mobilisation, pointing both to risks that need to be mitigated and opportunities that must be seized for a successful youth transition in South Africa. Key to this will be reorienting instinctive youth discontent towards directive social change. But this will require a rethink on organisational strategy and the role of organic youth intellectuals.

Youth in the labour market and economy

The vulnerability of South Africa’s youth is nowhere more evident than in the labour market. South Africa has an extremely youthful population; those who are below the age of 35 years constitute about 66% of the total population (ie. 36-million people). A staggering 24% of the population or 13-million people are aged between 15 and 24 years (StatSA, Mid-year population estimate).

Having a youthful population is often viewed as positive for unlocking growth and development potential (the so-called youth dividend). There is strong international evidence to suggest it is the youth who are the most innovative, the most risk-taking and entrepreneurial, and as the new entrants into the economy the most likely to stimulate both productivity and demand. But with growing structural unemployment and an economy stuck in a low growth trap, the youth dividend can quickly turn into a youth burden.

Youth unemployment in South Africa among those aged between 15-24 is estimated at 52.6%. In simple terms out of every 10 unemployed persons seven are young people. This is a crisis of epidemic proportions.

The figure below clearly illustrates the direct link between youth unemployment and the structure of the South African economy.

The South African economy is best described as being in some kind of state of interregnum – where the old economic order has died or is dying, and we have not yet transitioned to the new. The economy remains locked in to an historic growth model built around a minerals-energy-complex of mining and finance corporates. The economic logic of this accumulation strategy – built on low cost super–exploited migrant labour and cheap energy – has been unravelling over the past few decades. This has intensified since the Great Recession with rapidly rising energy costs and insecurities in supply, and the decline in global commodities demand.

There has also been a deepening of SA’s subordination within the global economic system since 1994, with the intensification of the export of primary commodities and the import of value-added manufactured products. South Africa is a very open economy by international standards (reflected in the ratio of imports to GDP and exports to GDP), and remains highly dependent on foreign capital inflows, with foreign savings presently accounting for 30% of our new investment. More than one third of our government bond market and 40% of our equity market is foreign owned. This has huge risk should we be downgraded to junk status.

This leaves South Africa extremely vulnerable. The global economy is in a period of underconsumption because of a low and declining share of wages in national incomes in advanced economies, as well as the slowdown of China. Prospects for returned upcycles in commodity prices and capital flows are some years away, limiting our space to navigate the current downturn through consumption-led growth or counter-cyclical fiscal policy.

But as the old adage goes, one should never waste a good crisis. The question is how we use the current moment and its attendant risks to break path dependency and effect radical structural change? How do we navigate a more jobs intensive, equitable, less energy intensive growth path? And what trade-offs are needed for this to be effected?

In many respects, the Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP), National Growth Path (NGP) and the National Development Plan (NDP) all converge around the need for some kind of radical structural change, and have identified sectors in which SA is (or could be) competitive – the mining value chain, oil and gas, energy, agriculture and the agro-industrial value chain, advanced manufacturing, labour-intensive light manufacturing, high tech and financial services, tourism, the creative industries and the infrastructure build value chain, among others.

Paradoxically the sectors where SA is currently most competitive – finance, knowledge services and advanced manufacturing – all require relatively high skills for entry. Increased youth participation rates would require a drastic step up in education and training outcomes.

The challenges of our current education and training system are well illustrated in this example from the Eastern Cape. Of all Grade 2 enrolments in the year 2000,

  • 65% reached Grade 10 in the expected year;
  • Only 16% passed grade 12 in the expected year;
  • Only 2% will get a bachelors degree;
  • Only 0.6% will get science, engineering and technology degrees.

Education is about more than preparation for the job market. Education is a fundamental human right, and provides the basis upon which we can develop and transform South Africa.

Education outcomes structure the possibilities (or otherwise) of creating new generations of independent and critical thinkers as agents for social change in South Africa. Without quality education, young people will not fulfil their inherent human potential. If young people do not fulfil their potential, the nation will fail.

We also need to focus more on improving the pace of the transition from school to work. One of the reasons why Germany has had relative success in youth employment is because of its training system which prepares the youth for the labour market and entrepreneurial activities through experiential on-the-job training. Commitments to experiential learning is one reason why the Chinese have accelerated learning within their firms and ensured skills transfers (and technology transfer) from multinationals investing in China.

In the South African experience, skilling outcomes have been compromised by the poor performance of Sector Education Training Authorities (SETAs), as well as the sub-optimal uptake of learnerships and apprenticeships by private sector firms. New incentives (for example, tax allowances) require to be looked at to radically increase the uptake of learnerships and apprenticeships. Active employment services to improve efficiencies of job searching and job-matching are also key.

Youth also need to be streamlined towards entrepreneurship. Key here will be more inclusive innovation and technology transfer, special support for start-ups through youth incubators, product development and market readiness support, and targeted financial support with customised instruments from Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) and private banks. The need to address regulatory constraints that limit SMMEs and which prohibit transitioning from informal to formal enterprises must be prioritized.

Ultimately though, we must find employment opportunities for millions of unskilled and low skilled youth who have been failed by our education and training system. This will require a combination of upscaling direct public employment schemes, as well as opening up opportunities in low skill, labour intensive industrial segments. To achieve the latter would require some innovations in our labour market policies, possibly including wage subsidies and productivity-enhancing measures as an incentive for the private sector to increase employment. These innovations and their risks will require robust discussion among employers, government, labour unions, and youth formations.

Youth mobilisation and leadership

Robert Michels wrote about the “iron law of oligarchy” referring to how leadership in various organisations in society and political parties hold on to their positions and ensure their continued occupation because of the resources and power that come with occupying these positions. We are perhaps confronted by the iron law of oligarchy today where those who were the youth during the Struggle and transition have moved into middle and old age and now hold on to positions of power and authority. If we do not find a way of enabling a youth transition in our society to accompany a fundamental economic transformation, we are likely to face worse social instability than we do today.

Youth social movements have not yet come into their own in terms of articulating and channelling their interests towards constructive arenas for engaging in meaningful social transformation. The recent uprisings by students first against symbols of colonialism (#Rhodes must fall) and then against the higher education system (# fees must fall) have met with a number of responses.

  • The first approach suggests that this student movement reflects a similar historical moment to the 1976 uprisings and its aftermath. Note, for example, these words in one of the commentaries: “As a student activist of the 1980s, I know instinctively that students are disrupting the relations of power for a much broader aim in society.” (Mail & Guardian, 13 November 2015).
  • The second broad approach suggests that the current student uprisings are a reflection of an emerging momentary student movement which is acting on a few immediate general student issues but is extremely fractured and discordant, and as such not a principled force for driving a youth transformation agenda.
  • A third view is that there are a significant and complex range of issues confronting the youth today in South Africa which are very different from previous historical conjunctures and that the current youth uprising is but a first step in defining a meaningful youth politics and transformation agenda.

I would argue that we are not yet witnessing a meaningful student movement and the emergence of a transformative youth agenda. These outcomes will only emerge if a new cadre of organic intellectuals emerges who can inspire youth mobilisation by linking the current eruption of youth protests to an agenda of transformation welded to genuine foundations. This requires proper analytical work to prioritise issues and the appropriate strategic response. Reliance on instinctive idealism is unlikely to rescue the youth movement from the seductive populism currently doing the rounds and instead will drive it into its arms. The 1970s student movement, when it rose, found a wide and deep range of analyses of the conjuncture (from historical materialist analyses of political economy, to strong statements of “black consciousness” to archives of research on the South Africa labour movement and civil society). It also found a militant and active labour movement (rising from the 1973 strikes), with strong linkages with progressive university-based intellectuals, as well as community and cultural activists. This enabled the articulation of diverse struggles as one co-ordinated national liberation agenda (led by the ANC in exile).

Today as our students rose in militancy they were not supported by a critical mass of organic intellectuals who could help shape a real and sustained struggle. And they were not supported by a mobilised civil society which could both defend and advance their interests. Instead the student protesters rose as a rather fragmented mass, co-ordinated by social media tweets, but without an overarching agenda around which to build alliances with activists from other sectors of society. This unfortunately creates a very real foundation for traction for populist politics.

Partly this relates to one of the unintended consequences of our transition to state power. In our attempts to consolidate power and effect the promises of transformation, the ANC inadvertently also shut down the key sites of grooming organic intellectuals. This includes inadvertently demobilising our youth structures which had historically grown a large contingent of our current leadership. These were the core organic intellectuals from the 1970s grown in exile and at home. At the same time the large and vibrant civil society organisations of the pre-apartheid era which had been sustained through donor inflows into the NGO and civil society sector were also phased out with the emergence of a legitimate state. As a consequence most donor funding was rechannelled away from the sites where organic intellectuals had been historically grown – organised labour, women and youth organisations, and community-based structures. NGOs and other civil society organizations adopted a survival strategy, and increasingly became agents of government service delivery.

In addition, organic intellectuals from communities were demobilised through movement into traditional intellectual positions within the state, and found themselves curtailed by regulations and bureaucratic hierarchy, far detached from the youth realities of today.

The challenge of restoring youth to their rightful position in society must begin by opening up the terrain where young organic intellectuals can thrive and grow, shaping the visions that will inspire other youth to follow and embrace the process of transformation and fundamental change. We must guard against “picking winners” in youth leadership and instead encourage a socially legitimate, critical and inspirational youth leadership that consistently and deliberately influences our policy agenda and holds us to account.


This short paper has argued that the current objective position of youth in the economy and labour market presents significant risks to social and political stability. Having such high numbers of youth who are not in employment, education or training is a challenge that requires our urgent and unwavering attention. The paper has argued that our extremely high youth unemployment is mainly a result of structural weaknesses in the economy (low growth, and the capital-intensive and skill-intensive bias), and also partly an unintended consequence of policy choices we have made, as well as our sub-optimal education and training outcomes. This objective situation of high youth unemployment is in turn encouraging levels of instinctive discontent – sporadic, militant and even violent protests, but which are not linked to a broader transformation agenda.

High levels of unemployment and low levels of optimism about the future also fuel anti-social behaviour (crime, drugs, unsafe sex etc) which further reinforces vulnerability. Hard policy choices must be made to break this vicious cycle, especially with regards combating youth unemployment and fixing our education and training system. More of the same will not help. With such huge challenges and so much at stake, we should be more prepared to venture into new policy terrains and choices – experiment with new instruments, and if successful, run at scale.

We must also acknowledge we have been somewhat limited in harnessing the energy (and militancy) of youth. The youth are there to agitate and remind us that access to power is not the end game. As leadership, we must use the power that has been bestowed upon us to transform society. And this is never easy, because there will always be powerful interests vested in the current status quo. This is the broader struggle that the youth must become more integrated into.

Perhaps we have over-borrowed from the multilateral institutions’ policy discourse – establishing youth desks, establishing youth commissions and youth councils, trying to implement youth mainstreaming etc – which we must acknowledge has not been as effective as desired. The youth, supported by other progressive sectors of society, must be seized with the ideological work of linking the current issues they confront – what in this paper was referred to as instinctive discontent – with the broader transformation agenda tied to the National Democratic Revolution. We must guard against populist capture, or becoming populist ourselves to outdo our political opponents.

As senior leadership within government, business, and civil society, we must be more prepared to confront the issues which the youth puts on the table. Dynamic, effective and disciplined youth structures will, and I would argue should, make us uncomfortable. This is precisely what is required to trigger the innovation and change we need to move our country forward. DM

Mcebisi Jonas, an SACP member, is the Deputy Minister of Finance. He writes here in his personal capacity. This article was first published in African Communist.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.