‘You need to let us help ourselves’

2012-07-21 12:27

Where is the income equality in SA? Eesham September gives his view from the pavement

I am an unemployed South African below the age of 35. I am far from extraordinary and there are so many people who fit that description that the numbers have ceased to be meaningful.

I don’t pretend to speak for all unemployed South African youth, but we’re blessed with abundant free time, and frustration has made us increasingly vocal, so I’m very clear on the views of those fellow unemployed youth I’ve spoken to.

My hope is to provide a view from the coalface, from someone who spends the majority of his time thinking deeply about sustainable employment, business, entrepreneurship and organised labour, and its role in promoting quality of life for all South Africans.

That I’m writing this at all comes in the aftermath of my attendance at Parliament’s Next Economy National Dialogue Policy Platform panel discussion on income inequality, where I met Joseph Edozien, who chaired the panel. He inspired me to write this.

The discussion was informative and valuable as an entry point to the larger problem of unemployment in South Africa, particularly among the youth. The big problem is that I was one of five people who could possibly be termed “youth” at the venue.

This is indicative of a broader problem – that the majority of youth are not engaged in the governing process of our society.

If this information was actually reaching young people, then there would have been more young people there.

I found out about this opportunity to engage with these powerful people, whose decisions shape my society via a forwarded email. There was zero social or broadcast media advertising.

I believe that, at its core, South Africa’s government has the ability to deliver that elusive quality of life, and has demonstrated that in much positive work.

There are many government initiatives in existence, which are conceptually vital to developing a thriving small, medium and microenterprise (SMME) sector – from the Small Enterprise Development Agency to the programmes highlighted in the New Growth Path programme.

The ideas are there, but too often we embarrass ourselves when it comes to execution.

Could one not draw parallels between the propensity of many South Africans to throw their hands up in despair and stop looking for work, and the seeming propensity of government to throw its hands up and give up on these initiatives?

Every time government gives up on what seemed like a great plan, doesn’t seem to try to fix “broken” aspects of otherwise promising plans or tries to push its mistakes under the rug and move on to something else as if the mistakes had never happened, it is telling us we can also be swept under the rug.

It must become easier to start a business in South Africa. It must become easier to access the information and educational material on the basics of starting and running a business. And this must happen early, at primary school level.

It is critical that new entrepreneurs should have easy access to guidance and information on navigating South African labour law, which is admirable in the protection it affords workers but which treats the owners of microenterprises in the same way as the heads of large multinational corporations.

To organised labour, either way you’re a “boss”, which is both hilarious and heartbreaking in that the major multinationals have resources aplenty to find a way to do business as usual, despite horrible abuse of employees; whereas entrepreneurs are often learning as they go and, due to the great difficulty they have in accessing help and information, are too afraid or ignorant of what is required of them, so their businesses die.

South Africa has one of the highest SMME failure rates in the world (75%) and neither government nor organised labour seems to want that to change.

There is a link between the issue of income equality and the youth wage subsidy. The prospect of a bridge into the formal economy for unemployed youth is hugely exciting, but naturally there are reservations. What are the chances of this being effectively implemented?

I can’t say government’s previous track record inspires confidence. I understand organised labour’s view that the youth wage subsidy could open the door to the unions’ collective bargaining power being undermined, but there is a chance this could be the beginning of a turnaround for our economy.

By only spouting vitriol and “warnings”, organised labour has created an image for itself that seems to say that my only future is as a worker for some big “boss”, and that if I want to start a business I am an enemy of the people.

Youth are not joining the unions in any significant numbers and a case has been made for organised labour being at least part of the reason it is so hard for youth to find initial employment.

There is a chance the youth wage subsidy could work. But government needs to talk to us. You need to let us help ourselves because clearly you cannot achieve change on your own.

How can anyone say the system is fine if it’s failing 75% of entrepreneurs? How can anyone say the fault is with us and the information is available? It’s not easy to access information or help – if it was, we’d have more SMMEs.

The youth, particularly the unemployed, do not particularly trust or respect anyone in government. But once government creates the space for us to earn a living that is part of an equitable spread of income, it will have created the space to earn that trust and respect.
 

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