Zama Ndlovu

The youth's attitude will change when SA's policies change

2012-05-23 10:15

When I read Zweli Ndlovu City Press article titled "The Youth need an attitude change", I was baffled by such a point of view from someone who has succeeded because of his circumstances, and not in spite of them.

Ndlovu asserts that a mismatch between young people’s aspirations and available employment is a factor that’s unaccounted for in the definition of unemployment. He states that government’s actions will not be effective if "the youth feel degraded by taking up certain employment".

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to escape the life sentence of being unproductive – a sentence that is imposed on the majority of young people in this country- are now participating in callous victim-blaming

Regardless of the definition used to quantify unemployment in South Africa, levels are amongst the highest in the world. In the period from 1990-2000, the annual growth rate for the labour market was 3.4% while the corresponding formal employment rate for that period fell to 1.2%.

In order to break this problem, South Africa’s economy must grow significantly faster than the current rate. The persistence and consistently burgeoning unemployment has led to growing frustrations, and is the reason for the war of words, and occasional bricks, between Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance over the Youth Wage Subsidy.

Unemployment crisis

South Africa’s unemployment crisis is a result of the mishandled “resource curse” exacerbated by discriminatory and tragic policies that have not adequately addressed by the current government.

From early in the previous century, South Africa’s industrial policy consisted of protectionalism through the imposing of high tariffs on imports to protect local business and subsidisation of local industries that conduced business abroad.

Restricted by the size of the economy and limited opportunities for import-substitution opportunities, the economy was forced to open to imports and competition, despite sanctions.

Although the foreign currency earned from mining allowed the government to focus on growing heavy industries, it also contributed to a loss in competitive advantage due to the relative strength of the Rand.

A strong Rand also heavily restricted the growth of a manufacturing industry because a strong currency meant South African goods became more expensive. Through more decisive action and policy by the Apartheid government, a manufacturing industry extending beyond steel, synthetic fuels and defence could have been nurtured; however, there was less incentive to buy South Africa products due to sanctions. More importantly there was no real incentive for the government to push for such policies that would create jobs for a black working class since they were not considered citizens.

In parallel, separate development policies inhibited the intellectual growth of the black majority, and ultimately led to South Africa being unable to benefit from a period of industrialisation that would have led to the absorption of the unskilled from farms and mines.

Segregation policies

As these industries decline, white (Afrikaans) skills that had gained from the Affirmative Action policies of their government migrated to the tertiary sector (banking, services, etc), and a ruinous hole was left in secondary skills, vacant because black people were not being trained to fill the gap.

Add segregation policies and recent failures in the current administration’s education policies and the result has been large variances in unemployment levels across age, education, region and race. Today, most unemployed persons have not previously held a job, nor have the basic skills to be trainable in the growing, tertiary sector, basics that should be met by a country’s education system.

Macro-economic decisions dating back almost a hundred years at minimum have led to this crisis, and NOT the youth’s attitude. Twenty years of prudent and often overly conservative economic policies by today’s government have also not equated to the economic growth rates required to absorb the unemployed due to the inherent structural inefficiencies in the economy.

Had Mr Ndlovu moved beyond simply defining unemployment, he would have come across the definition of structural unemployment. This type of unemployment, is due to losses in jobs or changes in jobs due to a permanent or significant change in the way things are done in the economy, and surprisingly, not due to the “attitude” of the unemployed. 

To put it simply, there is high unemployment because people were not educated for jobs that were created, not because young people don’t want to take crappy jobs that exist. The gap is too wide to be fixed simply through experience, because young people simply don’t possess the skills required to learn on the job.

Unless the country matches the skills produced with those required or creates jobs for the currently existing level of skills, unemployment will persist.

We were fortuitous

Civil society has to take a large chunk of the blame for the persistence in of this crisis. As soon as our parents were able to, they dragged us out of the "black" education system, taking their power to effect change with them. We were lucky enough to have limited (in Mr Ndlovu’s case, no) experience of apathetic teachers, many of whom were educated in a system that ensured that their productivity was greatly restricted. Since we were no longer part of these schools, our more effectual parents had no impetus to dedicate themselves to removing the hindrances for those left behind.

Meanwhile, in model C and private schools, while we focused on being children a protective schooling environment and committed informed parents carried us. They ensured that regardless of our “attitude”, our progress was closely monitored until we were old enough to take over. We were not special, we were fortuitous.

Instead of perpetuating the idea that poor youth must jump through more hoops, to show that they deserve the bare minimum, we must commit to doing better than previous generations. Most young people are being sent to schools that will not equip them with the bare minimum to find a good job or start a value-adding enterprise is this country, through no fault of their own. If we do not commit to fighting for an effective resolution of the education crisis; we will not produce enough skills to enter the tertiary sector.

When young people want better for themselves, our response should not be to strip them of their dreams and tell them to “change their attitude”, we should be advocating the changes in the economy to make it happen.

- Zama Ndlovu is a management consultant, managing director of Youth Lab, writer, activist, and anything else you'd like her to be. Follow her on Twitter: @JoziGoddess

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