by Lindani Dhlamini

Ticking time bomb

Youth unemployment peaks

Lindani Dhlamini; CEO of SekelaXabiso

Whenever South Africa’s latest unemployment statistics are released, I’m struck by how easily our very high levels of unemployment could destabilise not only the economy, but the country as a whole.


According to the most recent figures released by Statistics SA (5 February 2013), the official unemployment rate during the third quarter of last year (2012) remained exceptionally high, with 25.3% of the population aged between 15 and 64 being unemployed. The expanded unemployment rate, which includes discouraged job seekers and people who’ve never been able to find a job, was 35.9% for the same period. This is in stark contrast with our major trading partners, with other BRICS countries and even with other developing economies around the world. And a closer examination of these statistics reveals an even more concerning trend.


The highest level of unemployment in South Africa is among young people, with 50.9% of individuals aged between 15 and 24 not being gainfully employed. More specifically, 3.3 million of the 10.4 million people in this age group are neither employed nor engaged in any form of education or training. To put it plainly, this is a disaster waiting to happen.


Unemployment and, in particular, youth unemployment, is not only one of our most pressing social and economic challenges, but also a major obstacle to transformation, growth and development. When one half of a county’s youth is unemployed, prospects for the future look grim.


The reasons for this state of affairs are, of course, complex, but unless we’re prepared to examine them honestly and address them head-on, we have little hope of turning the tide - or of seeing youngsters becoming secure, productive and engaged citizens. 


On a macro level, global economic instability is obviously having a serious impact on developing and mixed economies, and South Africa is no exception. However, there can be no denying the fact that social and political factors at home, also have a major role to play. Recent labour unrest, unrelenting violent crime and accusations of police brutality have made headlines around the world, and South Africa’s reputation for being a violent, unstable and fractured country is becoming increasingly entrenched.


This is leading not only to skills and capital flight, but to a drop in direct foreign investment, without which we simply can’t hope to achieve our development goals as a nation. This is further being exacerbated by the drop-off in the value of the rand after recent events, which is having a real and immediate effect on our balance of payments.  


What then, in this seemingly impossible situation, are the solutions?


As I see it, we need to begin by acknowledging that there are no easy fixes, and that everyone has to be part of the solution. Government, of course, has an urgent responsibility to address unemployment in general and youth unemployment in particular, but that responsibility extends to business and individuals too. Only a collective effort will make a difference.


Business, for example, needs to be more proactive about finding ways in which to work with government to develop skills among the country’s youth, to create new job opportunities, and to support the creation of a vibrant small and medium enterprise sector. This shouldn’t be seen as altruism, for it is essential to securing not only social and economic stability, but also the very markets on which business depends.


As importantly, we as South Africans need to look at the individual responsibility we have for finding and creating work, and for securing success in our working lives. The unspoken and uncomfortable truth is that a culture of entitlement is alive and well in South Africa, and that many young people want both jobs and advancement delivered to them on a platter. In some ways, this is a uniquely South African phenomenon, for young people in countries from the US to China recognise that personal effort, hard work and dedication, are the only sure path to a secure and successful working life.


In contrast, we so often see young South Africans failing miserably in their commitment to find work or making a success of the jobs they already have. Blasé about performance and unrealistic in their expectations, they fail to deliver the kind of results that are essential to long-term job security and advancement.


This seems to indicate a serious disconnection between what youngsters want out of their jobs, and what they’re prepared to put into them, and shows a very real lack of understanding about how the labour market works. To cite just one example, wary employers who have had bad experiences are becoming reluctant to take on young job-seekers, and this trend is effectively reducing the already small pool of new jobs.  


In short, structural programmes - whether initiated by government, business or NGOs - can only go so far. They can provide a context in which success can take place, but it is up to the individual to seize the opportunities and foster their success. If young people don’t acknowledge their own responsibility for creation of own opportunities, and for making a success of their working lives, official solutions to South Africa’s youth unemployment will remain, at best, only partially effective.  


Personal motivation, commitment and hard work are as much a part of the solution to unemployment as skills development and job creation programmes.


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