A social catastrophe

2009-03-04 00:00

An unusually large number of young people have registered to vote for the first time in next month’s election. What has motivated them and how they will vote is the big unknown factor in this election. But what is known is that a vast segment of the youth constitute the most seriously disadvantaged and alienated sector of our society — and that no one engaged in the election debate is addressing this shameful situation.

In fact there is no real election debate taking place. The great issues of how to survive the economic recession and the worsening unemployment that will come with it, combined with the impending collapse of the Zimbabwe deal and the swelling flood of cholera-infected refugees that this will disgorge into our society to compound our existing unemployment and xenophobia problems and ultimately pose a threat to our holding of next year’s soccer World Cup, are drowned out by the splattering sound of mud being hurled across the electoral arena in the dirtiest and most intellectually arid election campaign that I can recall.

The crisis of our swelling numbers of poorly educated, unskilled and unemployed youth is central to this country’s many problems. It is the taproot from which other problems sprout, from crime to delinquent social behaviour and poor economic performance.

Mampele Ramphele, one of our wisest and most independent-minded citizens, pointed out in a recent article that 60% of our population between the ages of 18 and 35 are unemployed. That is a staggering statistic. But it is only the end result of a chain of failures that begins with our dysfunctional education system, then interfaces with a failed technical training system and a set of labour laws that make it difficult for unqualified young people to get first-time jobs.

And so they end up in a swelling pool of the unemployed and unemployable with no future to look forward to, young people who can only become increasingly frustrated, angry and alienated.

I sometimes wonder whether [ANC Youth League president] Julius Malema is not both a symbol and a representative of this huge constituency of lumpen youth and whether this is why the ANC leadership is allowing him free rein in this election campaign. Perhaps they think that his incoherent anger is tapping into this second lost generation. If so, it would be a shameful thing for it would mean that they are deliberately exploiting a social catastrophe that is largely of their own making.

In an interview last year Mary Metcalfe, the former MEC for Education in Gauteng who now heads Wits University’s Education Department, noted that between the end of 2005 and 2007 the education system ejected 535 000 young people from school with no passing certificate of any kind.

“The majority of these will join the ranks of the unemployed,” she said, noting that young people between the ages of 20 and 24 comprised 14% of the labour force but 27% of the unemployed.

Nor is it only the high school dropouts who end up in this precarious situation, for large numbers of young people with only matric have great difficulty getting jobs in the face of labour laws that discourage businesses from employing anyone with no skills qualification or work record — and then having to go through the bureaucratic hassle of getting rid of those who are no good. They would rather not hire them in the first place.

When Jabu Moleketi, then deputy finance minister, proposed a reform of the labour laws two years ago to remedy this by making it easier for employers to hire and fire first timers under the age of 25 and pay them a little less to begin with — in other words build in a kind of apprenticeship phase or trial period before the labour regulations kicked in fully for them — Cosatu went ballistic and the item never made it onto the agenda of the ANC’s National General Council meeting.

So another half-million-plus under 25s have joined the ranks of the unemployed since then, while the economy screams out for skilled workers.

Which brings one to the problem of tertiary education. There has been much boasting about this year’s improved matric pass rate, but it must be noted that to pass matric one needs to get only 30% in three out of seven subjects. This is hardly the kind of level to get employers wetting themselves with excitement.

Despite the low level, 135 000 matric students failed. Of these, 124 000 qualified to write supplementary examinations. My heart goes out to these anxious young people. I picture them, nervous and hopeful as they go to the trouble of writing those sups. Some will pass and some will fail. But either way they will stand no chance of getting into a university or technical college.

A year from now 80% of them will be sitting at home, with no job and little prospect of ever getting one.

I try to imagine myself in that situation, realising at such an early age that my life’s prospects are at zero. What would I do? The frustration and anger and sense of injustice must be so overwhelming that I can imagine myself wanting to take revenge on society somehow. Smash things. Inflict violence on people. Or slip into a career of crime, petty thieving at first and then drifting into the ranks of those who serve the big crime syndicates that have set up in this country because they know the policing is weak and that there is this big pool of young foot soldiers who are available to do the dirty hit work for them.

The missing link in our chain is the disappearance of the old apprenticeship system, where young people who were not headed for higher education institutions could become apprenticed in a craft that interested them, where they could learn on the job from qualified workers in the company that employed them while at the same time studying through further education and training colleges to acquire their NTC certificates, NTC one to six, until they were certified tradesmen.

That is how Germany built its high level of artisan skills that made it such an efficient producer of quality goods. We used to have such a system in the old South Africa, but it was tainted because it was confined to the white working class. Under apartheid, black people were not allowed to train to become skilled workers, nor were they allowed to join trade unions which played a key role in operating the system.

So the tainted apprenticeship system was effectively replaced by a new system of Setas — joint government-union-employer bodies that are supposed to identify skills needed in each of 27 economic sectors and fund “learnerships” to meet those needs.

But the Setas system is a failure. Billions of rands have been poured into it but the money has dribbled away through corruption and mismanagement and the standard of technical instruction has slumped.

The result, as a recent survey showed, is that while 44% of unemployed South Africans can’t find jobs because they don’t have the skills employers need, half a million vacant positions can’t be filled because people with the right skills can’t be found.

So we are losing on both the swings and the roundabouts in our much-vaunted striving to create “a better life for all”.


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