South Africa’s Youth Month is upon us. In song and dance, we will commemorate and celebrate the enormous contribution made by the young people of 1976 against the apartheid regime. The struggle for political freedom might, indeed, be over, but the truth is that for the majority of the young people of our beloved country, a different kind of struggle continues – young people are bound in chains of unemployment and poverty.
Unemployment figures from Statistics South Africa indicate that over the period 1994 to 2018, the number of unemployed people more than doubled from 2.5 million to 6.2 million, using the narrow definition of unemployment. This puts the unemployment rate at 27.7%. However, if one uses the expanded definition of unemployment, which includes discouraged workers, the figures increase to 36.6%. The picture becomes even gloomier when one considers that of the 36.6%, the youth unemployment rate for those younger than 25 years is 67.4%.
As young people, we feel a sense of alienation from the larger society and a sense of betrayal by the Government and its policies, which have failed to address the serious challenges and social ills that come as a result of being unemployed, such as poverty. Poverty is not only about lack of access to basic services, but it is also about being excluded from interaction, decision-making processes and, most importantly, from participating in the goods and services market.
Not so long ago, the Government called on young people to make education fashionable – and many of us heeded the call. However, the unemployment rate even amongst the educated and skilled young people is continuously rising.
In today’s ever-competitive world, we regard work as one of the most important aspects of being human. From an early age, we are taught that work gives us purpose. As a child, I remember being often asked: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” Likewise, as an adult today, when I meet people, the question is often “What do you do for a living?”
This means that in today’s world, a job engenders a sense of purpose and value and shapes a person’s identity, principles and self-esteem. Work is, therefore, an integral part of being human and gives structure and meaning to people’s lives.
While the economic effect of unemployment in youth is mostly emphasized, the psychological effect is also extremely important since being unemployed influences the total well-being of a person in a very negative and almost destructive way. Unemployment puts mental health at risk since most unemployed people show a constant decrease in overall life satisfaction, general well-being and self-esteem. This often leads to depression.
According to various studies, other psychological effects include anxiety, lack of self-confidence, pessimism, fatalism, alcoholism, apathy, suicide, as well as stress-related psychosomatic disorders. Youth unemployment has a negative effect not only on the individual and the family, but also on the broader community in the form of serious economic and social consequences.
So what, then, can South Africa do to confront the serious challenge that is youth unemployment?
While there is no single silver bullet that can solve this problem, I believe that the solutions start with Government at policy level. Just as there are B-BBEE codes that reward companies’ transformation efforts, the Government should also dictate to the private sector and make it compulsory that a certain percentage of a company’s staff compliment should be made up of young people.
The Government should also involve young people in its decision-making processes, especially when formulating policies that would have an impact on their employability. South Africa has no shortage of bright young minds that can contribute towards the formulation of policies that will impact positively on them.
Most importantly, however, young people must continuously challenge themselves and take advantage of opportunities presented to them by both the public and private sectors. They must also strive to make their voices and discontent heard by policy makers.
In conclusion, I make a heartfelt plea to President Cyril Ramaphosa, as he reconsiders the structure, size and future of government and governance in South Africa: please ensure that the youth is included. The youth has also been at the forefront of the struggle for freedom and emancipation. They participated in demonstrations at grassroots level in protest against the apartheid regime and many lost their lives in the process. It cannot be right that 24 years into democracy, the youth remains oppressed by policies that continue to sideline them and alienate them in their country, whose future rests in their hands.
This is our country and we want to serve it! Mr President, there is a lot of capable and willing young people in South Africa eager to respond positively to your “thuma mina” call to improve the South African economy, who are innovative to rise to the technological era, who are competent to serve in Government Ministries, the Boards of State-owned companies and positively turn around the future of South Africa for coming generations.
Bridgette Mokoetle is the Industrial Relations and Legal Services Executive at SEIFSA.