Over 45% of SA youth are unemployed – are they unemployable?

The Assembly of the Unemployed has been asking for a basic income grant for all. Photos by Mzi Velapi

If we fail to realise that the many-headed monster of youth unemployment requires us to shift the burden from individuals to systems and institutions, we will continue to chop off one head of the hydra, only for two more to grow in its place.

When children are young, there are all sorts of folk tales, iintsomi, cautioning them against an assortment of dangers, from witches with poisoned apples, wolves dressed like sheep, wolves dressed like their grandmother, to Pinky Pinky waiting to attack little girls in the bathroom to the monsters hiding under the bed.

Scarier than all the tokoloshes
is the very real monster
of unemployment

In South Africa, however, children grow up to be young adults who are cautioned against a monster bigger and scarier than all the tokoloshes and wolves in folk tales combined, and that very real monster is unemployment. As these young people transition from school to the workforce, they are faced with a harsh reality that their educational qualifications do not guarantee job security or employment opportunities, that their certificates will not keep them safe from the pangs of poverty. And as their certificates gather dust, this growing fear becomes more tangible as they realise that the labour market is a different kind of beast, an insatiable one that demands more than just academic credentials.

The skills deficit narrative

This harsh reality has been made more evident by recent data. A week ago, Statistics South Africa released the first Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the year, revealing a 45.5% unemployment rate among youth (aged 15-34 years). And one of the most interesting things I find about South Africa’s high youth unemployment rate is the ongoing debate about whether the egg comes before the chicken – i.e. whether jobs come before skills or vice versa. This has baffled policymakers, economists, and government officials alike. With the question lingering, will there ever be enough jobs to absorb the young workforce, or are the skills provided by our education system not meeting the demands of the job market? And what is to be done about it?

Adding fuel to this debate, DJ Zinhle, a popular entertainment figure and successful business owner, stated in an interview a few days ago:

One thing about the South African youth is not just that they’re unemployed. A lot of them are unemployable. They don’t have the skill that is required. It bugs me how long it takes for us to fill positions at ERA [her company]. Just to find the right person for our stores literally takes longer than it should in a country that has so much unemployment.

This unsurprisingly sparked quite an uproar on social media platforms, most notably on X (formerly Twitter), with clear distinctions between those who agreed with her views and those who did not.

Also read:  Municipal workers in Port Elizabeth march for better working conditions

But regardless of whether one is in agreement with DJ Zinhle or not, what remains consistent on either side of the debate, is that among the youth, graduates find themselves in a precarious situation, having invested time and considerable resources in their education, only to face an unwelcoming job market. Education in South Africa is no longer a ticket to freedom, a particularly grim realisation when one considers the struggle (and bloodshed) it took to attain access to quality education for all. From the days of the Soweto youth uprising to the recent #FeesMustFall movement, the cost of universally accessible and equal education has been (and continues to be) steep, and it seems that the promise of better opportunities remains unfulfilled for many, a dream both deferred and denied.

Young people and their organisations sharing their experiences of being unemployed. Produced by Sindile Gulwa for WWMP.

The disproportionate impact on young black women

The burden of unpaid care work
and gendered poverty traps
women in a vicious cycle of
double shifting their economic
and domestic lives

I have argued that the capitalist economy is a by-product of patriarchy and that its toxic masculinity is violent against women both structurally and physically. This is a position I still maintain because young women continue to be over-represented in the latest unemployment statistics. Their 49.4% unemployment rate becomes even more alarming when considered together with South Africa’s high levels of gender-based violence, which is partially linked to the economic vulnerability that arises for many women due to a reliance on male breadwinners. The burden of unpaid care work and gendered poverty – where women are disproportionately responsible for household chores and caregiving – further complicates their ability to participate in the labour market, trapping them in a vicious cycle of double shifting their economic and domestic lives.

Moreover, in rural areas, where young women are almost exclusively black, levels of unemployment in the country are the highest. This indicates a severely uneven distribution of opportunities and resources, exacerbating the already challenging economic conditions for young black women in particular. Thus, the fight for economic equality and employment opportunities is not just about providing jobs but also about dismantling the patriarchal structures that perpetuate inequality, exclusion, and different forms of violence.

Also read:  Across the world, construction workers are caught between coronavirus risk and joblessness

The many-headed monster of unemployment

Tackling the many-headed monster of unemployment, armed merely with a degree, is an almost insurmountable task. This monster is fed by various causes: the lack of practical experience, the mismatch between academic qualifications and job market needs, a corrupt government, economic stagnation, and the rural-urban disparities in job opportunities to name a few. Is it realistic then to expect young people, often fresh out of university or who have been sitting at home for years after graduation, to possess the skills required to be considered employable?

The skills deficit narrative
can lead us down the path
of piecemeal solutions

While the skills deficit narrative mentioned previously is certainly not without merit, it can lead us down the path of piecemeal solutions that are not sustainable in the long run. For example, it was decided that solving the skills deficit requires getting more young people in fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Yet, consider how many newly qualified doctors now remain unplaced, despite the common belief that it is social science graduates who are most affected by unemployment.

Similarly, the notion that young people must become their own employers, despite the excessive start-up costs and resources required to keep businesses sustainable, is yet another temporary so-called solution that we have seen is insufficient. Short-term solutions like the expanded public works programme (EPWP), which has been heavily criticised because of its temporary nature is yet another example of the inadequacies of piecemealing the unemployment crisis. 

These examples illustrate that addressing youth unemployment requires more than temporary fixes. They highlight the need for a comprehensive approach that tackles the various systemic issues at play, simultaneously. The skills deficit narrative must therefore be approached with caution, as it can be harmful as it perpetuates the exploitation of young people, who are often underpaid and overworked because they supposedly lack the requisite skills – skills which in any case are not going to be enough to solve the youth unemployment crisis if the labour market is not a conducive environment for young people to thrive.

Most importantly, if we fail to realise that the many-headed monster of youth unemployment requires us to shift the burden from individuals to systems and institutions, we will continue to chop off one head of the hydra, only for two more to grow in its place.

Copyright policy

Creative Commons LicenceThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Should you wish to republish this Elitsha article, please attribute the author and cite Elitsha as its source.

All of Elitsha's originally produced articles are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please read this.

For regular and timely updates of new Elitsha articles, you can follow us on Twitter, @elitsha2014, and/or become a Elitsha fan on Facebook.