Youth unemployment is one of the greatest challenges of our time, but there are safety nets being thrown out into the ocean of deep need.
At an important arts summit held in Stellenbosch on 2 and 3 June, which brought together the CEOs of some of the country’s biggest theatre festivals, the successes of the Social Employment Fund in this industry and beyond were highlighted.
The summit was an attempt by theatre-makers and artists to forge a sustainable industry, collectively, without having to rely on government funding or stamps of approval — a bit like independent power producers and Eskom.
At the summit many of us heard, some for the first time, how communities can deploy government funding to leapfrog the same government’s failures, to make right, so to speak.
Overseen by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition and managed by the Industrial Development Corporation, the fund — part of the Presidential Employment Stimulus — has so far offered more than a million beneficiaries opportunities for education, training, employment and service.
It was launched by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2020 in an attempt to create jobs and support the “meaningful work” of organisations after the economic devastation brought by Covid-19.
The vast majority of beneficiaries so far have been people in their 20s. The work is part-time and participants receive a minimum wage.
There are myriad examples of projects and initiatives that have benefited from the Social Employment Fund, which seeks to create work “for the common good” and also possibly indicates a way forward on a larger scale.
Yvette Hardie is the recipient of many awards locally and internationally for her work in theatre and education. She launched the South African branch of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (Assitej) in 2007. Today it is part of a network of at least 100 partners globally.
So far, Assitej SA has employed 1,650 participants. It was able to upscale because of a grant provided by the fund. Four programmes were designed to help teachers bring the arts to education and facilitate after-school programmes.
Makhanda rises, slowly
Also at the conference was Monica Newton, CEO of the National Arts Festival, which takes place annually in Makhanda. The Eastern Cape town has seen significant involvement from the fund.
Education and culture drive the economy of this region and Newton praised the work being done in partnership with the fund. As a first-hand witness to the challenges that Makhanda residents experience, she says these interventions have been crucial.
In 2020 it got so bad that the Unemployed People’s Movement of Makhanda took the Eastern Cape government to court over this collapse. Taps had run dry and raw sewage spilled out into the streets.
In July 2022, the Makhanda-based Awarenet, an e-learning platform for youth, became a recipient of the Social Employment Fund and is now one of 24 partners in the nationwide Catch-up Coalition, which supports “educational recovery” after the pandemic.
Awarenet has also placed about 250 previously unemployed persons in 16 non-profit organisations working in the university town.
Five schools have been recruited to train learners in its robotics programme, and it has grown its number of learners and interns. “This programme is implemented in order to help learners be prepared when robotics and coding is implemented as a subject in schools,” Awarenet’s website explains.
In 2022, the non-profit announced that 21 participants “who are all out-of-school youth” with an interest in technology were recruited to participate in the Taking Technology to Power project.
“The youth are currently receiving training in media creation by Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies and in laws and practices around government accountability by the Public Service Accountability Monitor.”
The participants have since conducted a survey of all 26 public primary schools in Makhanda that will soon be released “to the media and government stakeholders”. Local libraries are also a focus of the students, who are studying “the duty of libraries to provide ICT to communities”.
Those who have signed up for the Open Lab project have become involved in helping with homework, tutoring and cleaning up rivers and streams, as well as cooking food in relief programmes in the region.
Turning the pages
Nal’ibali is a national “reading-for-enjoyment campaign” that targets children from birth to 12 in all languages. It has, through the years, become a household name.
With the help of a grant from the Social Employment Fund in August 2022, Nal’ibali has been able to fund 1,000 unemployed people from 90 local municipalities in seven provinces to visit families at home to provide free reading materials.
These participants host a variety of programmes, including story sessions at crèches and other early childhood development centres, and workshops for caregivers about how to read to children. They also distribute books and other literacy requirements.
“All recruits received on-the-job training and mentorship. The project has also provided children, families, early childhood development practitioners, educators and communities with direct access to multilingual Nal’ibali newspaper supplements, books, stories and literacy support,” the project reports.
So far, more than 20,000 children, 3,500 families and 450 early learning centres around the country have directly benefited from the Nal’ibali literacy intervention.
Round of applause.
In a February 2023 update on the employment stimulus package, Ramaphosa reported that, as a result, “we have unlocked energy, commitment, creativity, innovation and opportunities”.
The project, he added, was an “innovation sandbox” for widening the scope of publicly funded jobs and livelihood opportunities through existing programmes.
Funds are transferred directly to approved programmes, and the project management office in the private office of the President provides design input and strategic oversight.
Implementation, said Ramaphosa, had involved a “whole of government” effort and a “whole of society” effort and had taken “a huge amount of collaboration between the Presidency and the 15 departments that have risen to this occasion — along with partners in the private sector and community-based organisations across the country”.
He added that this was an example of what “the social compact can look like in practice; it is an example of what we can deliver when we work together”.
And in this instance, the results are proof of the tightly controlled partnership and how this can be replicated far and wide, circumventing unscrupulous government officials.
Happy Youth Month. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.