Finding the SA dream

2014-06-02 08:00

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Isn’t it time to enshrine the right to work in law?

Two years ago, I set up an NGO called Action Volunteers Africa (AVA), placing young people who are not in employment, education or training (Neet) into other NGOs as volunteers to gain skills and much-needed work experience.

One of the 30 recruits in the pilot programme was Siphumelele Zibi, a 20-year-old from Khayelitsha. We placed him at the SPCA as he is passionate about animals and was keen to see if he could find a career working with them.

Siphumelele’s dream was to work in conservation, but he didn’t have a science or maths teacher for the last two years of school and would have had to upgrade his maths and physics marks to be accepted to study in that field.

Siphumelele is from the Eastern Cape. When he was in Grade 10, his father died and his mother moved the family to Cape Town so she could find work. She was briefly employed, but was retrenched and the family slipped into deep poverty.

Sticking it out at the SPCA was not easy for Siphumelele. He had to travel from Khayelitsha to Grassy Park every day, work long hours, and spend a lot of time cleaning cages and picking up dog faeces.

Siphumelele Zibi is a permanent staff member at Tygerberg Animal Hospital. Picture: Denvor de Wee/City Press

All he received was R750 a month, the AVA travel stipend, and during that time he was often hungry. After eight months in the programme, while collecting a dog from the Tygerberg Animal Hospital, he chatted to an orderly, asking how he could get a job there. He got a name and number, we made a phone call and when the HR manager discovered AVA and the SPCA could vouch for him, he was given an interview and within a week was employed. Siphumelele is still working there.

He is a permanent staff member, supports his mother and sister, and still plans to study conservation one day.

Over the past two years, I have met and come to know almost 100 young people like Siphumelele and have had the opportunity to take a long, cold, hard and very close-up look at the state of our youth. I have learnt a lot.

I have learnt that even though young people in our country are rebellious, fun loving, materialistic and narcissistic, they are also willing, tenacious, determined and courageous. Basically, they’re like most adolescents across the world facing the chasm between school and the adult world of work.

The difference is that our youth are also very frightened. Most are facing a bleak future and they know it. They are losing hope very fast. They lack trust, they can’t handle conflict, they face seemingly insurmountable challenges in their daily lives and they often have almost no support.

Obviously, the fact that there are more than 3.7 million Neets in the 18-25 age group shows that the opportunities for finding work as a young unskilled person are limited.

So we churn out generations of young people through one of the worst education systems in the world and then do very little to ensure their progression after leaving school.

As a nation, we are just not taking responsibility, probably because the problem is so overwhelming no one really knows where to start.

Government employment schemes are not aimed at developing youth and getting them working – most public employment programmes have poverty alleviation as their immediate goal.

While a few corporations, such as Discovery Health (one of the funders of our youth programme) are willing to invest in long-term sustainable youth development solutions, most are only interested in employing young people who have the soft skills required to satisfy their often unrealistic criteria. Even NGOs are scrabbling for the “best youth” to fill their quotas and get the results they need to satisfy their donors.

For young people living in challenging conditions with substandard educational levels, often no working role models and the kind of life problems that continually trip them up, the entry into working life seems virtually impossible.

I speak with some authority, having worked on an individual level with more than 100 such youths over the past two years. What I have discovered is that it takes a certain navigational capacity (for example, access to some money, awareness of opportunities and a realistic goal-setting ability) to traverse the confusing terrain of the world after school and find something real that will lead to progression.

Even in my programme, which is designed to mentor and support young people through their first working experience in the less intimidating world of NGOs and community-based organisations, the challenges preventing many of them from making the most of what they call a golden opportunity come thick and fast.

Violent, often gang-related crime affects them regularly, from constant muggings to losing siblings and other relatives to tik addiction and gang murders. Rape and sexual abuse are common – girls are afraid to leave for work in the dark winter mornings and are afraid to come home again in the dark.

Poverty levels are so dire that many are forced to use their meagre stipends to put food on the table and have no money left over to pay for transport to get to work.

I have discovered that the young people who do somehow find a way to navigate the challenges and stay at work start to change. They become stronger and more confident, their body language changes, and they become more creative and are able to find solutions.

Work makes everything better. Siphumelele and many of the other young people who stuck it out on the AVA programme are proof of this.

I was shocked to discover that the right to work, one of the most basic and fundamental human rights, is not written into our supposedly world-best Constitution.

And that is not right. Perhaps if it was more clearly identified as a human right, the issue of youth unemployment in our country would be dealt with as the emergency it is.

It seems to me no one is prepared to tackle this burning issue head-on and until we can collectively take responsibility for finding creative, sustainable and large-scale solutions to youth unemployment and give our young people the right to hope and dream and create positive futures, we are all failing our youth and we will have to face the consequences.

Garson is director at Action Volunteers Africa

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