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As South Africa celebrates 39 years since the June 1976 Soweto Uprising, more needs to be done to ensure that young people are educated, employed and empowered.

South Africa’s Class of 1976 changed the course of our history by rising up and leading the vanguard for equal education and racial equality. Like them, young people today are faced with multiple risks. For instance, they are vulnerable to health risks such as HIV and AIDS. Teenage pregnancy and substance abuse are other major threats, whilst rates of depression are increasing. Disappointingly too, racism and discrimination are still rife twenty years after the transition to democracy. Few would dispute, however, that the single greatest threat facing young people today, and by extension the country as a whole, is unemployment.

It was not supposed to be this way. The government vowed to make reducing unemployment a priority. Leaders promised six million jobs yet unemployment still increased considerably, from 3 million to 3.4 million during the period 2009 to 2013/2014. Bleak reading though these statistics are, it is not merely a question of numbers. It is about the lives, career aspirations and futures of hundreds of thousands of young people who are eager to embark upon productive and meaningful adult lives, but find that they cannot.

Politicians were supposed to partner with young people to address the root causes of the problems that concern them. Instead, they appear to be marginalised from discussing their challenges in decision-making forums and from helping devise solutions thereto. Exclusion only breeds hopelessness. When you’ve repeatedly been promised a better future but are poorly educated, unemployed and foresee little prospect of finding decent work or feel that your voice will not be heard, despair sets in.

Living on the periphery of a society that persists in categorising them according to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or class, they continue waiting, struggling, crying, hustling, dying and even killing while nursing dreams of a better life, stoking ambitions and grappling with fears as they navigate an uncertain future in a society that reflects the divisions of a previous era and the actions of earlier generations. Consequently, members of the generation in whom are vested the greatest hopes of nation-building and transformation, still cut their identity in a society not of their own making.

It is widely believed that young people possess vast potential to contribute to their own well-being and that of other South Africans. In order to realise this potential, however, policymakers have to come up with new ideas that are different to the tired promises that politicians are so fond of spouting.

The first step to coming up with a solution is to identify the nature of the problem: the absence of sustained economic growth and limited job creation. These are essential to reduce poverty and improve living conditions.

Even if this situation were to change, it would be necessary to address the structural constraints imposed on a large, poorly educated, mostly black population, who do not possess sufficient social capital to access employment opportunities that would enable them to obtain workplace skills, work experience and permanent placement.

Enhancing access would require the rollout of targeted state interventions. Without these many young people will remain trapped in poverty and be unable to actively contribute to the socio-economic and political changes that are pre-requisites for the transformation of South African society. While government has successfully undertaken several high profile infrastructure projects – South Africa hosted a very successful World Cup in 2010, put a satellite in space, and built a world-class passenger-rail service in the richest province - it has performed less admirably when projects require regular, on-going contact with a large number of end users, in areas like education and skills development, for example.

Its performance in these areas could be improved by eradicating nepotism and corruption, or by appointing skilled people in key positions at local government level. It goes without saying that, for a ruling party that is showing increasing signs of paranoia about its position in the run up to next year’s municipal elections, doing so is likely to improve its standing among younger members of the electorate.

In conclusion, the situation of young people today is dire. But now, as in 1976, young people are still our greatest hope for effecting genuine societal transformation. As we embark on a new period of youth policy development, it is critical that the powers that be bear this in mind when engaging with young people; and when devising plans to build their capacity, they do so by supporting multiple, diverse and innovative interventions that bridge the gaps between government, civil society and business and ensure deep accountability. For ultimately, securing possibility, affording opportunity and empowering the youth to act as change agents is the critical task which will define the broader situation of the country as a whole.

* Oliver Meth is a Social Advocacy Journalist and Gerard Boyce is a Researcher at the University of KwaZulu Natal School of Economics and Finance.



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