June is a special month in South Africa. Not because of the chilly weather in the highveld, the clear blue skies or the storms in the Cape that flood the shacks in the city’s poor neighborhoods. Instead, the month of June is dedicated to the commemoration of the country’s youth. Generally, youth being someone from the age of 14-35 years of age. The Youth Month is held in commemoration of the massacres that were carried out by apartheid police in June 16 of 1976, in Soweto. More than 176 people died in the aftermath of the student uprisings, whereas 23 died on the day of the protests, alone. The month of June and the Youth Day itself have become opportunities for politicians including government leadership to have ceremonies purporting to honor the youth. However, the June of 2020, is even more special in that it is during a year wherein the country is under a lockdown and the economic is facing serious strains. What has become the main theme of the lockdown season in South African policy making and civil society circles is that the country should take the opportunity presented by Covid-19 to reset the economy. In this regard, South Africa is being challenged to imagine and start working on a new normal. A more inclusive society, at peace with itself. The question is to what extend are the country’s youth to be included in the new normal.
Current youth demographics
However, before reflecting on how South African Youth has been positioned within the current Covid-19 reality, and perhaps the imagined new normal, it is important to understand their current condition. Youth constitute about 42% South Africa’s population. Most of the youth can be characterized as uneducated, unemployed and unemployable. In this category, the black African female constitutes a majority. This is mainly due to the majority not having a tertiary education. About 13% of youth have a tertiary degree, according to Statistics South Africa. During the first quarter of 2020, youth unemployment hovered at 59%. These are people that the World Bank has opined may never find work in their lifetime. The latest Statistics South Africa Labour Force Survey, released in June 2020 indicates that about 8.5million of young people aged between 15-34 are not in employment, education, and training.
An economically excluded youth
In a nutshell, South Africa is currently sitting on a time bomb of a youth bulge that is in many respects excluded from the economy. It is therefore quite disturbing that during the lockdown season, with all the disruptions in the economy, there is not much being dedicated to the youth. Most of the times that the government mentions the country’s youth during the lockdown is when dealing with social programs such as education. The government has dedicated a lot of times and resources to ensuring that small, micro and medium enterprises survive the economic meltdown. In addition, the government Covid-19 mitigation programs have been focused on vulnerable sectors in the economy such as tourism, mining, hospitality among others.
Youth Focused programs and institutions
For some reason, there is not enough focus on youth, beyond the education sector. It is important that the new normal be more inclusive in a way that young people become part of the mainstream economy. South Africa already has some institutions and programs dedicated to the youth, albeit with a low impact. Some of the institutions dealing with young people include youth wings/brigades of political parties and government programs.
At a government level the National Youth Development Agency is the lead institution on youth matters. The NYDA has an annual budget of ZAR500m. Its main task is to co-ordinate government youth programs, in addition to driving and funding activities that economically empower young people. Other youth focused programs at government level include the Expanded Public Works Program and the Small Enterprises Finance Agency. None of these institutions’ programs have really had a tremendous impact on the conditions of youth, especially those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.
The yearning for a new normal post Covid South Africa that has found a general positive resonance among South Africans must have the youth at its centre. This should be in all sectors of society, from political leadership, public service, the economy, education and the fourth industrial revolution.
Africa is well known for having the youngest population in the world, yet having the oldest presidents. South Africa is not an exception. In the mid-to late 2000s when momentum was growing around the removal of President Mbeki the ANC started talking about intergenerational leadership. In the main, a lot of lip service was paid to it and currently South African youth feels left out of higher echelons of power. The anti-intellectualism of the Zuma years further alienated the young and educated from the governing party. This alienation of the youth from political leadership needs to be addressed in the post Covid South Africa. A perennial irony about lack of youth in high political office is that June 16 and the Youth Month celebrates the heroic achievements of persons who were very young when they performed the acts. Yet the exclusion of young people from key political positions is based on ageism. Young people from all political formations, need to be given opportunities at political leadership. This will enhance the diversity of views and quality of leadership. Political inclusion will further improve the social capital between the young people and government.
The Constitutional Court recently made a historic ruling which will allow for candidates to stand as independents in elections. Considering that young people constitute the majority of this country, it would be important if they could use the opportunity to directly avail themselves for political office outside dominant party structures.
Before COVID-19 hit the South African economy, one of the main focuses of government and economists was reducing the public wage bill. The reduction of a bloated public service did feature in Minister Mboweni’s Supplementary Budget. This is probably because other more urgent Covid induced matters have come to the fore. The proposal pre COVID was that early retirement packages would be offered to employees above fifty-five years of age. Calculations had indicated that such measures would significantly reduce the public service bill. However, a post Covid South Africa that is more inclusive should consider creating a tier of young people, at junior positions in government to develop the next cohort of public servants. Stories abound of young graduates who served internships in government and made to feel unwelcome by senior personnel. A reimagined South Africa should strive to attract the youth in its public service.
South Africa has been designated by the World Bank as the most unequal society in the world. Generally, the economic exclusion race based due to the legacy of apartheid. The contours of inequality run through demographic, age and education lines. Statistics South Africa has made findings to the effect that post 1994, black African youth have lagged behind in terms of social progression. Of the previously disadvantaged populations groups, Indian and Coloured youth have made tremendous progress post 1994. As indicated earlier, the recently released statistics demonstrate a link between economic exclusion and level of education. Besides exclusion at an employment level, the youth participate even less in running SMMEs. Ownership and control of firms is still mostly dominated by white and older males. However, for the youth to be meaningfully included into the mainstream economy they have to be part of the SMME ecosystem.
SMMES and Youth Alienation
Current discussions around Covid-19 mitigation factors are mostly focused on SMMEs. Within this category, the focus is on black and women owned businesses. There is already a court case in which some sections of society challenged the race-based distribution of Covid relief funds. However, there has been less appetite to advocate for the prioritization of youth owned businesses in relief efforts. The National Treasury is in the process of developing a Public Procurement Bill aimed at a more centralized process to regulate how business between the private sector and state is to be conducted. Categories of preferred bidders do not include youth owned businesses. If this economy is to be inclusive in a sustainable way, the youth must be at the center of programs such as black economic empowerment and the preferential procurement schemes. This is an anomaly that needs to be corrected going forward. However, the youth will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities availed to them if they lack skills. Therefore, the post Covid South Africa should intensify skills development for the youth.
One of the often-noted aspects about the unemployment crisis in South Africa is that those who are unemployed and the majority whom are young people between the ages of 15 and 34, are actually unemployable. Their unemployability stems from lack of skills. South Africa has a huge skills deficit, in spite of spending an above average education budget to GDP. Besides the absence of skills, the country also has a skills mismatch, due to the fact that the education system produces skills that are not necessarily needed by the economy. This is not to suggest that the government itself is not aware of the skills necessary for the economy. A perusal of the Department of Employment and Labour’s Critical Skills List, meant to guide the issuance of work visas, reflects that the country is in dire need of artisanal skills. These include plumbing, electricians, boiler making, fitting and turning among others. Most technical colleges were disbanded post 1994, for political reasons. The current technical and vocational training colleges are understaffed and the trainers themselves are products of an inadequate skilling system.
A post Covid South Africa will have to urgently address the skills deficit. This can be done through multiple ways. The first being to import technical and vocational trainers from countries in the region such as Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe. A relaxation of visa laws will therefore have to be considered. Simultaneously, the country should consider sending young people to other countries in the region and beyond for intensive artisanal training. Most of the artisanal jobs in South Africa are already being conducted by persons from African countries where they have strong and vibrant poly technical colleges. The private sector must scale up the absorption of young people by giving them placements as apprentices. However, all these efforts will be in vain if young people have no access to information.
Information inequality and the role for an inclusive digital economy
One of the challenges bedeviling South African youth and society in general is information inequality. Due to the history of apartheid characterized by segregated spatial planning, a poor education system among the general population and lack of access to transport networks, access to information is a challenge. Young people find it difficult to access information with regards to internship, placements, scholarship and job opportunities. Information inequality is a silent pandemic afflicting the country’s youth. This can be addressed by increasing access to affordable internet facilities in the townships and rural areas. South Africa should therefore strive towards an inclusive digital economy. The government can contribute through creating an enabling environment, whereas the private sector should invest in township and rural economies. Multinationals such as Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM among others have already shown an appetite to create innovation hubs. However, these can only be accessible if located in hitherto neglected but densely populated sections of society.
Covid-19 has brought a lot of challenges to society including the economy. However, like any crisis, the pandemic presents an opportunity for South Africa. In this regard, they is an opportunity for the country to reimagine an inclusive society. The inclusivity that Covid-19 demands of us goes beyond the traditional demarcations of race, gender, disability but include youth. South Africa should reimagine a society that places the youth at the centre of every facet of life. This will be a true honour to the memory of the gallant young women and men for fell fighting for the freedom we all enjoy today.
Mr Azwimpheleli Langalanga is a Senior Associate: International Trade and Investment Policy at Tutwa Consulting Group. He writes in his personal capacity.