Is SA’s youth unemployment ‘among the highest in the world’?

Jobseekers advertise their services in Constantia Kloof, Johannesburg. Picture: Mpumelelo Buthelezi
Jobseekers advertise their services in Constantia Kloof, Johannesburg. Picture: Mpumelelo Buthelezi

Did the DA keep to the facts in its 2019 election manifesto? We fact-check a claim about youth unemployment.

Claim: Youth unemployment [in South Africa] is amongst the highest in the world.

The National Youth Commission Act defines the youth as people “between the ages of 14 and 35”.

But Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey does not collect data on 14-year-olds. And according to the agency’s acting chief director for labour statistics, Malerato Mosiane, “benchmarking is done using five-year age groups, so the 35-year-olds will be in the 35- to 39-year age group”. 

Mosiane said the unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 34 was 38.7% in the fourth quarter of 2018 – the latest available data.

This is according to the official definition of “unemployed”: people without work who are still looking for work or trying to start a business.

Using the expanded definition – which includes people who are not actively looking for work – half (50.1%) were unemployed, Mosiane said.

Read our previous fact checks of DA manifesto claims:

How does South Africa compare?

In its 2019 election manifesto, the DA claims that South Africa’s youth unemployment is among the highest in the world.

But there is no standard definition of “youth”. And comparing unemployment across countries is complicated by factors such as different data collection methods.

The DA said it based its claim on British news magazine the Economist’s Pocket World in Figures, which ranked South Africa first for youth unemployment. “However, these stats were based on 2017 numbers, which is why the statement in our manifesto places South Africa amongst others globally with high youth unemployment statistics,” DA spokesperson Solly Malatsi told City Press/Africa Check.

“As employment stats are highly dynamic it is not inconceivable that countries could move a rank or two depending on labour market shocks.”

The UN defines the youth as people between the ages of 15 and 24 years.

The International Labour Organisation, a UN agency, provides data for this age group in 189 countries, territories and areas.

In its 2018 estimates, South Africa had the highest unemployment rate for 15-to-24-year-olds. Neighbouring Namibia and eSwatini ranked in sixth and seventh place.

Why so high?

There are many reasons for South Africa’s high youth unemployment, and many of them are connected. That’s according to Ariane De Lannoy, associate professor in the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.

At the level of the individual, De Lannoy said, South Africa’s past – where the education system and labour market discriminated against black people – lives on. “We have young people that live in households where no one else is employed.”

As a result, they may struggle to come to grips with the job market.

At the structural level, the education system doesn’t provide the advanced skills required by the labour market, she said.

A recently released report on youth unemployment by the Centre for Development and Enterprise also says the education system is an underlying cause of youth unemployment.

The report identifies other contributing factors, including:

  • The small difference between minimum wages and median wages, which discourages companies from employing people without experience. “Why do so, when an experienced worker costs about the same amount?”
  • “Too many South Africans live in places where it is hard to find a job or expensive to get to and from work.”

De Lannoy, who co-authored a 2018 review of hundreds of journal articles and government documents related to youth unemployment, said there wasn’t a “single, simple” solution to the problem. It should be tackled by society as a whole – by the government, businesses and other employers, as well as by communities, where people could help each other get access to knowledge and opportunities. 

Verdict: Correct

While country comparisons of youth unemployment data have limitations, the available data does put South Africa among the worst performers.

  • This fact-check was produced as part of a journalism partnership with Africa Check, the continent’s leading fact-checking organisation. The project aims to ensure that claims made by those in charge of state resources and delivering essential services are factually correct. In the run-up to this year’s national and provincial elections it will be increasingly important that voters are able to make informed decisions. This series aims to provide voters with the tools to do that. The Raith Foundation contributed to the cost of reporting. 
Fact-checking 101
We fact-check claims using the same standard for every fact check. We do not concentrate our fact-checking on any one side. We follow the same process for every fact check and let the evidence dictate our conclusions. We do not advocate or take policy positions on the issues we fact-check. First we contact the person who has made the claim and ask for the evidence. Our next step is to check publicly available sources for evidence that supports or contradicts the claim. Having secured the evidence, we discuss it with experts where necessary to help understand the data. When we write up the report we explain what we found and how we reached our conclusion. We want our readers to be able to verify our findings themselves, so we provide all sources in enough detail that readers can replicate our work. Read our principles here and more information on how we work. If you think we've got something wrong you can contact us on or tweet @AfricaCheck 

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