South Africa: Young, unemployed, disempowered and looking for opportunities

By Anna Maree
Posted on Tuesday, 29 June 2021 21:10

A protester holds up a placard as students gather outside South African President Jacob Zuma's offices demanding free university education, in Pretoria, South Africa 20 October 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Apartheid ruined the youth of generation of South Africans. While the country now has democracy, how long will the cycle of youth challenges – poor-quality schools, lack of funding for education, extremely weak job prospects and a political system closed off to new voices – go unbroken?

In a speech on Youth Day on 16 June, which commemorates the 1976 uprisings of black school pupils against apartheid, President Cyril Ramaphosa said getting young people to work was his single biggest concern. “Young people are the force that drives a country and grows its economy,” he said.

Employment statistics released this month have shown that more young people than ever are out of work in South Africa.

Under the expanded definition of unemployment, 74.7% of school-leavers under the age of 24 are either looking for a job or have given up looking for a job, Statistics South Africa’s data has shown.

These figures were reflective of the national unemployment rate, which has reached an all-time high under the expanded definition, at 43.2%. Job creation is a major election issue, and with a local government poll set for October, these figures are of concern to the governing African National Congress (ANC).

The struggles

The riots 45 years ago resulted in the death of a number of children, and it marked one of the major moments in the struggle against apartheid. Many young leaders fled into exile, some taking up arms. Few of these leaders eventually ended up in executive government positions, but they are a reason why political leaders say they hold the youth in high regard.

Yet education is still a contested terrain, with student protests to scrap fees for higher education in recent years often resulting in violent clashes. Employment initiatives, such as the Youth Employment Service announced by Ramaphosa in 2018, have seen a scanty uptake, with only 55,000 out of the promised 1m job opportunities created thus far.

What makes youth unemployment especially pressing is that almost half of the country’s approximately 58 million people are younger than 24, according to 2019 statistics. The National Youth Policy, which is aimed at youth development, defines young people as those aged between 14 and 35 years, representing 20.6 million of the population.

The policy says “much has changed for young people since the advent of democracy in 1994”, but it has kept the relatively high age limit for youth consistent since then “due to the need to fully address historical imbalances in the country”.

How old is young?

Youth-development worker and political commentator Tessa Dooms, however, says this high limit is making it difficult to help young people become productive and independent.

There is something more sinister underlying it too, she says. “It has become politically expedient to have youth end as late as possible to gate-keep young people out of political power.”

The age limit was set when new policies were drawn up when South Africa became a democracy in 1994 by leaders who lost their youth to the struggle against apartheid. They set the age of youth for as late as possible so that they, too, could benefit from youth interventions, Dooms says.

“There is no actual understanding what we are developing young people to,” she says. If youth is “a transition from being a child to being an adult”, there are no clear policy goals to this.

“What is the point at which you exit youth into adulthood? That is the thing we have never understood,” she says. “The way we frame youth is by age, but age is not a good marker of anything. You can grow older without developing in any way that is meaningful.”

Seen but not heard

It has resulted in an older generation keeping a younger generation – born just before or after 1994 – from accessing opportunities in a democratic dispensation and from entering political power.

That explains why people stay longer in organisations like the [ANC] Youth League,” she says. There was a recent controversy where a number of over-35s were appointed to rebuild the league that has been destroyed in the past decade as a result of factional battles in the governing party.

A number of younger people have inserted themselves into other leagues, like the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association, to fight the battles between the various lobbies from there.

Young vets

The veterans’ association is meant for those who fought in the ANC’s armed struggle. The cut-off age this year is 42, since these soldiers were not meant to have been younger than 15 by 1994, but many younger members have signed up and are now participating in the association’s activities.

These include quasi-military parades and activities such as guarding former president Jacob Zuma’s rural home in KwaZulu-Natal when there were threats to arrest him for refusing to testify before a commission of inquiry into state corruption during his administration.

Military veteran Gregory Nthatisi, who is part of an effort to clean up the association, says there are “children” on the database, who would not even have been born in 1994. Rather than shrinking due to older members dying, the veterans’ association has been growing. Younger people have signed up because being a military veteran gives them access to good social benefits and political and business connections in the absence of having jobs. They have also been used as political cannon fodder by the faction supporting Zuma.

It is reflective of a “societal problem”, Nthatisi says. The association was recently disbanded because of these organisational problems, but also because the recent posturing fuelled concerns that they might attempt to plot a coup – a prospect as unlikely as it is unsavoury. “Part of why they have been tolerated [by ANC leaders] is that they are threatening leadership as if they’re masters of the guns,” he says.

When for a young president?

Any prospect of a young leader stepping up to the country’s presidency in the foreseeable future looks dim. Ramaphosa, who is now 68, looks set to be re-elected at the party’s conference next year, which means he will be 70 when he starts his second term as the country’s president.

Ramaphosa himself was a leader in his youth, and aged 22 found himself in solitary confinement because of it. In 1982, aged 30, he helped found a trade union.

Although he has surrounded himself with younger leaders, such as his justice minister, Ronald Lamola, who is 37 and a former leader in the ANC Youth League, there is not immediate talk of a youthful presidential contender. Former youth league leader, Malusi Gigaba, now 49, was once touted as such, but corruption allegations and a leaked intimate video he made of himself dimmed his prospects.

Dooms says a telling moment for her was when someone called into a radio programme she participated in and told her: “Our youth was eaten by apartheid, and now we’re going to eat yours.”

She says: “At that point, I realised that this is not going to end.” Unless there is a generation willing to make sacrifices and allow a younger generation to lead, the cycle of keeping out young people is going to perpetuate itself, she concludes.

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