SA has a narrow window of opportunity to carve out a prosperous future for this generation of youngsters, who are at a crossroads, writes Zama Mthunzi.
A few weeks into the new year, millions of desperate young people are in search of opportunities.
Those who just received their matric results are standing in long queues to secure limited spaces at universities or colleges.
Those who recently graduated are updating and sending their CVs and sending them to prospective employers.
And those who remain unemployed are trying their luck again.
In the midst of seeking improved livelihoods, millions of young people find themselves shut out of opportunities.
The question is, who represents the aspirations of young South Africans?
THE DETERIORATING CONDITIONS OF THE YOUTH
With 36% – 20 million – of the population under the age of 35, children and young adults lie at the heart of the country’s untapped potential.
Yet, more than 30% of young South Africans aged between 15 and 24 are not in any form of employment, education or training; 46% of 25- to 34-year-olds fall into the same category.
This equates to about 7.9 million youngsters out of work, education or training opportunities.
At the start of every year, youth unemployment spikes to pandemic proportions.
This is mainly due to new entrants into a labour market that is not creating enough job opportunities.
Among graduates aged between 15 and 24, the unemployment rate was 31% during this period last year compared with 19% in the fourth quarter of 2018 – an increase of 11 percentage points quarter on quarter.
Young people have a tough relationship with employment – youth unemployment now stands at 56.4% – the highest globally and 63.4% of the total unemployed population is young people.
Last year recorded the highest number of retrenchments and unemployment rates in 16 years. The “old” saying remains that “last in, first out”. So young people are the first in the firing line when there are retrenchments.
Government can no longer sweep this crisis under the rug. Legislative and policy instruments such as the 2015 National Youth Policy and last year’s Youth Employment Service, one of the first social compacts between government, business and labour created to give 1 million youth 1 million opportunities, raised hope.
Yet many of the resolutions have not been implemented.
In his first state of the nation address in 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa recognised youth unemployment as “our most grave and pressing challenge”.
This year we must take action to tackle this crisis!
ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL COST OF THIS DIRE SITUATION
Almost 17 million South Africans live on social grants.
In 2017 alone, social grants received by people under 35 increased by 11% and they continue to rise.
The exclusion of young people from opportunities is building a huge population of citizens highly dependent on government.
The Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that 89% of matric pupils who wrote exams last year were grant beneficiaries.
Most of them will turn 18 this year and their grants will be cut off, leaving them with nothing to survive on.
A University of Johannesburg study showed that a person spends more than R500 per month when looking for a job.
More and more young, functional people are pushed out of opportunities and depend on government for their livelihoods.
Government spending was projected to rise from R193.4 billion in 2018/19 to R223.9 billion in 2020/21, an annual growth of 7.9%.
This money could be redirected to other needs – such as health, housing and education.
Many researchers have found that a pool of young people who are not in employment, education or training are prone to be entangled in crime, drug abuse and violence.
South Africa has been experiencing high levels of violence in the recent past. This has moved to almost every part of South African society.
Gender-based violence in this country is now five times the global average, drug abuse is three times higher while the rates of murder, mental illness, violence in schools and suicide keep increasing yearly.
THE DECLINE OF YOUTH REPRESENTATIVE ORGANISATIONS
Youth formations of the country’s three biggest political parties have been absent in debates about young people’s challenges.
The ANC Youth League has been in disarray since the expulsion of Julius Malema in 2012.
The DA Youth, throughout history, has not been at the forefront of issues facing the young people.
Only the EFF seems to have a “legitimate” claim on young people’s issues but the party has been destroyed by corruption allegations, the VBS scandal being a case in point, and internal leadership fights that have seen many young party members expelled.
THE ‘OLD GUARD’ AND GATE-KEEPING
Major sectors of South African society are still dominated by senior citizens.
The average age of a member of Parliament is 66 and that of a farmer is 65.
Young people show far higher rates of unemployment than the elders.
This might be justified by the lack of experience among the youngsters, yet the gap shouldn’t be this huge due to the diminishing number of senior citizens and the rise of young people.
This is not to say older people must be replaced with the youngsters but it is to show that more spaces specifically for young people must be created.
South Africa cannot continue losing young people to poverty and unemployment.
Millions of youngsters with talent are wasting away.
A country that doesn’t invest in its young people will fail to solve its immediate and future challenges.
It is evident now that young people do not know where to go.
Last year the Electoral Commission of SA recorded a 47% decrease in young people’s voter turnout.
It is time for us as young people to show how big this crisis really is and put it at the centre of the national dialogue.
This will require a united front, with campaigns and action from all young people across the country.
Mthunzi is a mathematical science graduate from Wits University and a social justice activist focusing on access to quality education to address the socioeconomic issues in SA
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