It remains one of the daily pleasures my wife and I enjoy when we meet up with our former students and see how they have schooled themselves in some career or other and perform their jobs with passion and excellence.
Recently I went to buy flowers for my wife for her birthday. I gazed in wonderment as the pair of skilled hands converted the flowers into a delightful arrangement like an artist creating a painting on canvas. It was not long before the florist began to talk of the days when meneer en juffrou had taught her.
The other day, a former pupil walked into my house to repair the geyser. An hour later what had looked like an insurmountable problem was something of the past.
I remember the former student who came to my house during the drought in 2017 to install a system of water tanks so that every drop of rain could be redirected to my garden and toilets.
And I think to myself: where did these young people learn all these skills? Then I must admit to my shame that it was certainly not at the school where my wife and I used to teach them. No, we bored them with subjects about the Second World War and the reproduction of the earthworm. Although they did pass the examinations, we spectacularly failed the test of life.
For 12 years, learners struggle to complete their school careers, some under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, only to crash over the economic cliff and become part of the growing youth unemployment statistics — a direct result of an education system that does not prepare our youth for the world of work.
According to the statistics for the second quarter of 2023, 32.6% of South Africans are currently unemployed while the extended unemployment figure (which includes those who have stopped looking for work), stands at 42.1%. Among young people with matric, unemployment is currently 35.2%. The highest figure of 36.8% is found among black South Africans; among coloured people it is 21.9% and among Indians and other Asians it is 16.6%.
The lowest figure is among whites at 7.4%.
In the age group 15 to 24 years, more than half of South Africans (60.7%) have no work. With 3.5 million young people in this age group who do not work, go to school or receive any training, warning lights are flickering: many of these youths get involved in gang violence, looting or youth crime while the number of teen pregnancies has risen by 91,000 in the past year.
Thus it is clear that youth unemployment is an enormous problem in South Africa. Nearly 29 million South Africans live on a monthly allowance or on the R350 Covid Social Relief of Distress grant on which 18 million South Africans depend.
Only 7.4 million of South Africa’s 61 million citizens pay tax. This means that 11% of our country’s population must support the other 89%. This is a non-sustainable funding model destined to collapse.
Ticking time bomb
In a previous article, I mentioned that the high unemployment rate among the youth and the accompanying poverty and lack of income is a “ticking time bomb”. This state of affairs prevents the youth from making an economic contribution to state coffers. As a result, many youths are indifferent to the state.
Through desperation, they turn to illegal activities such as the looting of July 2021. Their apathy towards national issues such as voting testify to youth who have nothing to live for.
This feeling recurred when I was recently asked to be a panel member in a Gradlinc panel discussion about youth unemployment held in the Neelsie on the campus of Stellenbosch University. Gradlinc is an organisation which was founded by youth to facilitate a process to help them in their search for solutions. The purpose is to unlock the potential of Gen Z as unstoppable change champions in the youth battle against unemployment.
Young people, including Gen Z activists as well as Masilo Silokazi (chairperson of the student council of Stellenbosch University) and Maambele Khosa (one of Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 most influential youth) agreed that now is the time for cooperation between public and private sectors to nurture partnerships which can bridge the gap between educational institutions, business leaders and young work seekers.
For me, it was a watershed moment similar to the 1976 youth uprising when the youth took the initiative because adults could not escape their own preconceived ideas. The youth of 2023 may do things differently, but I notice the same urgency and determination to bring about positive change. The youth envisaged this to be done through our combined expertise and to utilise resources in their quest to find sustainable solutions.
An important question which must be asked is, what defines employability? Previously it was thought having a qualification would be sufficient. Today it is much more. It is accepted that employability includes the skills to identify and solve problems, your ability to adapt to people and to work in a group, and the knowledge and professional skills to be successful in the workplace. In short: employability is your whole attitude towards life and people.
Now that has been determined, the question is what role the school can play in making young people more employable. The school should certainly play a role in this. It starts with the correct choice of subjects.
Before a learner chooses a subject, the question must be asked how this will put bread on the table. Therefore, it is important to first have a conversation with the parents or someone trustworthy like a teacher.
In hindsight, it was a huge mistake when Kader Asmal abolished a subject like Career Guidance shortly after 1994. The destructive effect it had on young people and their future is immeasurable since most parents do not have the necessary knowledge.
Much is made of the fact that the government invests the lion’s share of its budget in education and the youth. Perhaps we should start asking what dividends this investment has produced.
From where I sit, I see little if any. I see learners who are so bored with a curriculum which means nothing to them, so that the dropout rate increases every year. It also does not put bread on the table. This horrible waste of money must stop.
Time upon time I and others have pointed out that the current Curriculum, Assessment and Policy Statement (Caps) places too much emphasis on assessment (basically this comes down to coaching for exams). It is also too prescriptive. Teachers have no room to use their own judgement and initiative to make their lessons interesting and relevant within the context of the child’s needs and his or her future.
We need a curriculum which develops skills for the 21st century. I call it Skills-based Education (SBE) which must not be confused with OBE. Our children must be schooled in the skills they will need for the world of work. Currently, we do not teach the child of a fisherman how to start a fish factory; and we do not train the child of a wine farm labourer to become a winemaker.
Youth unemployment and the utilisation of the employability of South Africa’s youth is a critical development challenge for the country. The task of empowering young people must be based on a growing and inclusive economy. Therefore, it is important that the social partners all pursue the same goal: the growth of our economy.
Taking subjects which prepare the youth for work is part of that goal. The saying goes that “a country which does not appreciate its youth, does not deserve a future”. Everyone involved in education must realise that the task of tuition, education and empowerment is never complete. DM