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John Dludlu | 11 October 2023

There is a widely shared quote attributed to Oliver Tambo. “OR”, the ANC’s longest-serving president during its many decades in exile, instructed his comrades to learn from their enemies — especially what they got right.

Despicable though the apartheid regime was, it did get some things right. Tambo would no doubt have agreed that Afrikaner empowerment and employment were among them.

SA is facing a ticking time bomb: youth unemployment. At over 60% joblessness among those aged 16-25, this is among the highest rates in the world. If it is not resolved the country’s tenuous stability will soon go up in flames.

Worse, in addition to the thousands of young people who are walking the streets despite having earned university degrees, most of the unemployed youth are not in training or education.

According to the Professional Provident Society (PPS), a financial services company, 90% of tertiary education students would leave the country and search for greener pastures abroad if they could. A year ago this figure was just under 40%, according to the PPS student confidence index.

It’s not hard to work out why. Crime and corruption, failing infrastructure, the load-shedding and water crises, the crisis in the freight logistics system, a poorly performing economy, the cost-of-living crisis and, obviously, bleak prospects of finding a job in SA are driving them away.

Believe it or not, they are among the lucky few. Those with quality education from SA’s top schools and tertiary institutions at least have some hope of finding jobs abroad. Civil, mechanical and electrical engineers, young and old, who are frustrated by the dysfunction of Transnet and Eskom are also increasingly making careers overseas.

While executive positions in SA pay relatively well in both the private and public sectors, the other problems associated with living in SA make it not worth the while for many to stick around. Anecdotal accounts suggest that people with experience and qualifications are even willing to start at the bottom in a new country and work their way up. This flexibility is important as a gateway to gaining experience and prosperity.

Growing at just 1% on an annual basis, this economy is ill-equipped to absorb the millions of unemployed, especially inexperienced, youths straight from high school or fresh from tertiary institutions.

Over the years, the private sector and the government have scrambled to find solutions to youth unemployment. For its part, the government has designed and introduced tax employment mechanisms to encourage business to take on young people.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has implemented a youth employment initiative. In Gauteng there are two projects tackling youth unemployment: the assistant teacher programme and the introduction of hundreds of crime fighters to patrol unsafe township streets where criminals are terrorising communities.

Though the projects have not been without controversy, they communicate the message that at least the government accepts that the SA house is on fire and something needs to be done to put it out. The government has also — admittedly with mixed success — scrapped the requirement for experience in entry-level jobs in the public service.

The private sector has also weighed in. A few years ago business introduced the Youth Employment Service. This took on tens of thousands of youths, placing them in banks, financial services companies and businesses in other sectors. It remains the flagship intervention by business on youth unemployment.

This is over and above the work business is already doing to help address other SA crises, such as crime and corruption, freight logistics and energy — issues that should ordinarily be addressed by the government.

Several other initiatives have been launched by various businesses. One that stands out is the Harambee youth employment accelerator, a nonprofit programme. The initiative drives partnerships, including with the government, to connect the youth with employment and training opportunities.

On its website Harambee reports that it has enabled 1-million employment opportunities for youth work-seekers, assisted 3.5-million jobseekers and generated a total of R17.5bn in income for youths. The numbers alone show the scale of the problem and the need for help.

While commendable, more creative thinking is required to defuse this ticking time bomb. For example, like India, Pakistan and the Philippines, SA policymakers could consider facilitating unemployed youths to find employment in partner countries that have a labour shortage.

It may also be time to start thinking the unthinkable: reintroducing conscription. During the apartheid era conscription trained young white men to “defend their country” from internal and external threats. But it also helped hundreds of thousands of white youths pick up non-combat “soft” skills such as discipline, and opened pathways for academic and professional careers. Most of these career paths were subsequently state-funded.

SA faces no obvious external military threat at present. But it does face an internal one from its restless unemployed youth. Perhaps it is time to repurpose conscription to address youth unemployment and training in a structured way.

Tambo may well have considered this an example of where the ANC could learn from its erstwhile enemy.

‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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