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President Ramaphosa is right that youth unemployment is a crisis, but his analysis is wrong

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Bongani K Mahlangu is a National Executive Member of the South African Youth Council (SAYC).

It is saddening to witness those with much-required skills — skills that allegedly are in short supply to build state capacity and private sector efficiency — being reduced to being unemployed and underemployed. Graduate unemployment is increasing with each quarter and has reached double digits.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is fully correct in his statement that youth unemployment is the most pressing issue facing South Africa at the moment. South Africa’s youth unemployment rate is the highest globally according to statistics provided by Trading Economics; a youth NEET (not in education, employment, or training) at 44.2%, competing with countries less developed than South Africa. Countries with lower per capita expenditure of their budget have become competitors with the most developed African state.

It’s these dynamics that lead youth to crime, drugs, reckless sexual conduct, prostitution, depression, suicide and other acts and behaviours not aligned with nation-building.

The president, however, gives part truths on some accounts and in part exonerates the state of its responsibilities as far as the development of a responsive curriculum for learners in basic education, and for students in higher education and training institutions is concerned.

Student and youth leaders have for ages called on the state to “force” state education intuitions to align curriculum development and programme offerings to that of state objectives. This request, which has largely been received with snail-paced reaction, is not just to ensure beneficiaries are able to compete in the domestic and foreign labour markets, but it gives a higher return to the limited state resources pumped into these social infrastructures.

We currently are witnesses to severe fiscal consolidation, austerity (“budget restructuring”) and their negative impact on education institutions — more so on those that serve the majority poor and African demographics. We witness the collapsing infrastructure of a once-glittering Dinoto Technical Secondary in Daveyton, a technical school for children from mainly poor families, that can’t raise a third-stream income to cover budget shortfalls at the school.

This compared to Hoer Tegniese Skool Potchefstroom, where parents are mainly middle- to high-income earners and are able to assist the school. Their offspring are being easily absorbed into Pukke, Tukkies and Maties to study engineering and related fields, while those who do not wish to do so can use their school-generated skills to feed themselves sustainably.

These cuts have had significantly negative impacts at historically Bantu universities, for they lack significant third-stream revenue inflows as compared to historically white universities (HWUs). Wider access to education and training is noted, but so are low throughput rates throughout the entire education value chain.

If the National Skills Development Plan, Skills Development Act and Skills Development Levies Act were adequately implemented, the National Skills Fund (NSF) sufficiently used, and the National Skills Authority impactful, then skills would not be the hot topic it is across the republic.

South Africa has progressive policies that, if implemented at a pace and extent envisioned by their drafters and expected by beneficiaries, certain conversations would be irrelevant today. The Youth Employment Services Initiative (YES) by and large looks like a repackaged Learnership-Seta programme and as such has about the same impact — no significant efficiency has been derived from it.

It is saddening to witness those with much-required skills — skills that allegedly are in short supply to build state capacity and private sector efficiency — being reduced to a state of unemployment and underemployed. Graduate unemployment is increasing with each quarter. Employment filtering causes those with a graduate qualification to crowd those with lesser educational levels out of the labour market, and as such portray an image that graduates are generally thriving better.

We have witnessed graduates with Stem and other critical qualifications, as published by government, being absorbed by banks on the YES-Bank Seta Learnership programme. They are “trained” to perform functions that several years ago were performed by matriculants, yet less-qualified white executives at those banks are in the media frequently speaking about skills shortages. Master’s in Commerce graduates are administrative assistants in government departments, yet the DPSA publishes job adverts looking for human capital with those skills to serve in the very same departments.

It has become rhetoric in South Africa that in order to secure employment you must have experience in that field, over and above a qualification, and other required attributes that deem an individual “suitably qualified”. The Employment Equity Act (no.55 of 1998) section 20 (5) states thatan employer may not unfairly discriminate against a person on the grounds of that person’s lack of relevant experience — experience being one attribute among formal qualifications, prior learning and capacity to acquire experience within a reasonable time as stated in 20(3) (4) of the Act.

In South Africa, with this progressive piece of legislation, experience is the alpha and omega — unless you are “connected” to the recruiter or recruiting manager then only will the legislation apply to you.

Young, qualified people find themselves on the Presidential Employment Stimulus at schools as temperature screeners, sanitising hands, mopping floors and assisting with marking. These are the same youths that were on NSFAS, which implies that the state spent close to a half-a-million rand producing graduates, only for these “assets” to not realise their full capacity to the direct or indirect benefit of the state.

The SA Youth Pathway Management Network mainly leads to general underemployment and entrepreneurship (at a generally micro-level) destinations. These pathways, probably not deliberate, assume youths are homogeneous, and it’s the same homogeneity in pathways that leads to labour market absorption, or rather, upward mobility for youths. They lead those who should be in the capital-intensive sectors of the economy to the labour-intensive side — this is a misdirection of the skills and capabilities of youths.

Unemployment in South Africa is structural, unemployment in South Africa is cyclical, but it’s worth arguing that South Africa is a country commonly characterised by jobless growth. This has little to do with a “youth skills deficit” and more to do with inadequate gross capital formation, divestment/capital flight as witnessed through delistings and revenue reduction of the JSE, and government’s slow movement on implementing the South African Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan among other measures to restrain decline and turn the trajectory. Even if the youth had all the skills, if the government’s behaviour doesn’t improve, youth unemployment will remain at its current trajectory. 

Government has the responsibility of economic development and development economics through policy formulation, proper implementation, spending and regulation. It is government that can mobilise all social partners behind a shared objective, the National Development Plan (NDP). It is government that must ensure that “… schools, colleges, universities and other training institutions are producing the skills and capabilities that our country needs”.  It is government’s responsibility to give full truths at all material times.

Therefore, this serves to rebut the claims made by the number one citizen of the Republic as part-truths, and requests engagement on issues related to youth development with the Office of the President. “Nothing for us, without us.” DM

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All Comments 5

  • Hard to disagree with any of the points the writer makes, except to say that appealing to the present government to correct their wrongs is similar to believing in the Second Coming – only faith makes it an option. For the unbelievers the only rational alternative is to replace the present government with one who is not confused about what it is, and focuses on the country, not itself. The writer mentions ‘nation building’ – what is that again? Haven’t heard it mentioned for at least a decade. This is the last thing on the ANC’s mind.

  • Bongani, on the Presidential Employment Stimulus, your facts are not correct. There were two categories of school assistants – teachers assistants and general assistants. The latter did not need to have matric and they were the ones doing the kinds of jobs you specify. For the teachers assistants, matric was required and graduates were prioritised. They worked with teachers – often in a 1:1 mentoring relationship and were directly involved in supporting curriculum delivery, through things like reading for meaning and numeracy support. Teachers say that the assistants enhanced one-to-one attention to learners that needed this support, in a context in which teachers were extremely stretched. This helped keep curriculum outcomes on track which is why over 94% of 64,000 teachers surveyed wanted the programme to continue and said it made a real difference to learning outcomes in the classroom. Over 94% of participants also disagree with you, saying the experience was positive. Many also say they now want to pursue careers in education. And now in Phase 2, we have the opportunity to build on lessons from what was an emergency programme delivered in difficult timeframes, to augment the quality of outcomes. Creating a work experience for 319,000 young people – at the national minimum wage – does not solve our youth unemployment challenge but it certainly makes a difference: what matters is to sustain, extend and augment it – not trash it on slim evidence.