“Nothing is dangerous like an educated but unemployed youth”-Unknown
By: Nyasha Mcbride Mpani
Introduction and Background
Unemployment has been the number one major problem affecting youth in South Africa. Youth unemployment is South Africa’s ticking time bomb as a figures of many graduate unemployed youth is increasing. The latest figures released by Stats SA (2022) indicate that the official unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2022 sits at 34,5%. This takes into account that 63,9% is of those aged between 15-24 and 42,1% is for those aged 25-34 years. (See Graph Below)
Source: Stats SA (2022)
The advent of Covid19 in March 2020 worsened the situation as it led to a number of companies closing and many people losing their jobs and thus contributing to the increase in unemployment rate. A number of graduate youth in South Africa are battling the mental health stress that comes with struggling to get employment. For some, unemployment has made them feel stagnant. The South African Government has put in place different measures, policies and strategies which are aimed at mitigating the scourge of unemployment in the country but these have not stopped the number of unemployed youth from rising. Year in and year out universities and colleges churn out graduates who are now ending up being vendors in the streets as they cannot find jobs in the continuously shrinking labour economy of the country. The unemployment levels have forced some graduates to indulge in drug abuse as an escape route from the realities and pains of not securing a job after completion of studies. As the effects of unemployment are robbing many youths of their prime years, a sad proposition is that for some they will be forced to reach pensionable age without knowing what a payslip looks like and without a pension. It is prudent that while measures are being put in place by the government to tackle unemployment, the legislature plays its critical role to interrogate these policies and measures and see how effective they are in addressing this biggest problem affecting our nation.
Government Initiatives to Tackle Youth Unemployment in South Africa
To address youth unemployment a number of initiatives have been put in place by the South African government and these have had their own success and challenges. Some of these initiatives include;
While the list of these initiatives is not exhaustive, the mentioned strategies or initiatives are indicative of the government’s appetite to address youth unemployment in South Africa. The strategies differ in how they seek to address this scourge. What is encouraging is that they do have one objective which is to address unemployment.
Presidential Commission on the 4th Industrial Revolution (PC4IR) (DCDT, 2019)
The PC4IR is an initiative by the government which seeks to adjust the content or curricula at schools with current knowledge needs or demands. PC4IR endeavours to align the skills ecosystem to 4IR learning and considers the Department of Basic Education, TVET and training institutions and technology hubs as key actors in this process. In this process the PC4IR supports foundation skills i.e. (digital literacy, literacy, and numeracy) and competency skills i.e. (creativity, critical thinking, complex problem solving) in ECD and primary education and incapacitating all educators with digital skills (Government Gazette, 2020).
The initiative recommends that the digital infrastructure be prioritised to improve access to information and in turn, build interconnected empowered communities. The essence of this initiative is to address the existing skills gap through building adaptive digital skills for the future workplace and promote the reskilling of the workforce where significant job losses will occur as a result of disruptive technologies. In doing so, the PC4IR supports investments into skills to create new and better jobs, employment, or entrepreneurial opportunities for the youth. The most important thrust of PC4IR is its focus on youth inclusion to acquire high levels of digital skills and 21st century life skills. Through equipping the youth with these digital skills, the PC4IR envisions it as a solution to unemployment as it enables the youth to function within the new world that is now highly dependent upon digital technologies.
Department of Employment and Labour (DEL)-Revised Strategic Plan for 2020/21 – 2024/25
The DEL does not focus on building advanced digital skills but merely encourages the need to embrace the 4IR in order to address the unemployment challenges in the country (Department of Employment and Labour,2020). The DEL’s strategic plan seeks to engage with various departments of government on how to develop strategies and initiatives that seeks to promote re-skilling, up-skilling, and multi-skilling of youth to adapt to the 4IR that will afford them better jobs, employment, or entrepreneurial opportunities.
Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) Strategic Plan 2020 – 2025
The strategic plan endeavours to build advanced digital skills and to promote tertiary curriculum reform and to capacitate TVET colleges and universities. It also aims to promote start-ups or digital hubs and collabs with an aim to promote digital and future skills for industry with a focus on youth (Department of Higher Education and Training, 2020). This is aimed at upskilling and reskilling youth for them to be able to fully participate in digital economy. Equipping the youth with work ready skills is a key priority for DHET.
Presidential Youth Employment Intervention (PYEI) (with a focus on the National Pathway Management Network)
Presidential Youth Employment Intervention (PYEI) is a government initiative that focuses on digital curricula, teacher digital training and secure and sustainable infrastructure. The intervention is also aimed at building advanced digital skills for the youth in order to make them attractive in the digitally demanding economy and thus focus on the need to include the youth in the digital economy as they are a critical player. The PYEI in addition focuses on the need for coordination of all government programmes and sectors to accelerate youth pathways into the economy and sees the need to raise digital awareness for youth and how it is important creating jobs for the youth.
Digital Skills for Decent Jobs for Youth (DSDJY)
The Digital Skills for Decent Jobs for Youth is an initiative that sees the need to have digital curricula, digital teacher training that is adaptive to the needs of the workplace and the digital economy. It advocates for the need to have relevant infrastructure that will support and strengthen the uptake and access of digital skills for young people and link them to decent job opportunities. More so, the DSDJY sees the need to build advanced digital skills so that they increase the number of young people accessing digital skills development and decent job opportunities. The need to reskilling and upskilling youth in the industry or workplace and seeing the need to promote effective digital use in the world of work is also central in the DSDJY initiative.
The DSDJY focuses on youth inclusion in the digital economy and addresses youth unemployment and employability in a context of extreme inequality and digitalisation. Key in the DSDJY initiative is that it sees the need for coordination across sectors, departments, and organisations with a mandate related to youth development, education, and training to contribute to its implementation. It speaks of the need for digital skills awareness to make youth aware of the relevant digital skills that can enhance their employability and emphasises the importance of research so that policy interventions can adequately respond to specific needs and demands in the digital economy. 
Are these initiatives effective in addressing the challenge of Youth unemployment?
The increasing unemployment rate in South Africa has hit the youth hard and it has to be admitted that it has become a topical issue that can no longer be ignored. The most crucial point to note is that this challenge has also given currency to the Xenophobic anti-foreigner movement #OperationDudula that has seen South African youth mobilising themselves against foreign nationals whom they are now forcefully removing from jobs citing that they are taking away their jobs. It is now an open secret that the continuously shrinking employment pool is making more and more young people unable to find work. The pandemic further caused some to withdraw from the labour market entirely and rendered others inactive. It has to be admitted that youth unemployment is not unique only to the South African youth but it has also become a regional problem with countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Malawi, DRC also battling to contain and address it. The South African government has put in place the above initiatives and many more not mentioned in order to provide incentives for youth employment. However, while these initiatives are in place the issues of youth unemployment remain.
A serious introspection into the initiatives put in place by government to try and address youth employment are centred on changing the school curricula so that it meets the 21st century digital demands. It is believed that having a youth pool that is well acquainted with digital skills can address unemployment as digital skills are in demand and in cases where one does not need to be employed they can lead one into becoming an entrepreneur that’s curing inactiveness. The department of education starting at the basic education level has started to change the curricula so that it speaks and acquaints learners with these skills and knowledge at an early age. More so, TVET colleges and universities have also started to develop new curricula that also are in line with the digital skills that are in demand in the digital economy. A number of these initiatives by the government are being informed by the Digital and Future Skills Strategy, which was prepared by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT). This strategy seeks to increase the placement and implementation of digital technologies in the economy and society. The understanding is that digital skills are one of the fundamental skill sets that are now required for the creation of new kinds of 21st century jobs. The DFSS emphasises that originality, agility, critical thinking and problem-solving are significant 21st century skills that must be intertwined with digital skills.
It is therefore imperative to note that the majority of government initiatives in trying to address unemployment in South Africa are streamlined in advancing digital skills. While these initiatives are crucial in addressing unemployment in the long run, the challenge is that some of the strategies such as PC4IR, do not specify how to streamline the process of aligning relevant legislation to avoid legislative bottlenecks that may hinder progress to support and grow the digital economy. Secondly the policies/strategies need to address the lack of infrastructure funding. It is very evident that most schools are yet to receive 4IR infrastructure due to funding challenges and this makes it difficult for the policies to be expected to achieve positive results when funding has not been given to remote schools. Furthermore, the policies/strategies do not sufficiently address the structural problems in South Africa, which negatively affect the availability and usage of digital platforms, also known as the digital divide. This then further calls for the government to prioritise rural areas and some underserviced parts of the country when it comes to building digital infrastructure.
In addition, the initiatives do not consider the various challenges that teachers and students face in the practical implementation of digital skills development. The barriers keeping teachers and students from accessing these opportunities given their economic, social, and geographical circumstances are not addressed. The strategies do not sufficiently address the digital divide which limits current efforts to develop digital skills in an inclusive manner and hence this makes the efforts to address unemployment very much impossible.
While the policies/strategies prioritise employment creation and endeavour to provide all young people leaving school with work opportunity and experience to improve their employability. The policies/strategies are overambitious in thinking that the 4IR will completely address the unemployment challenge in the country. Instead, there is a need to connect the opportunities in the digital economy with strengthening employment opportunities in other sectors. While doing so it is important that these initiatives also address challenges of patronage in the process of creating employment and facilitating access to jobs so that access to jobs is for every youth despite social, economic and political status.
Moreover, while these strategies do have plans on how to enhance employment creation through developing work experience projects for young people through leveraging youth employment they are therefore short-changed in their quest due to their inability to address how they seek to deal with the underlying challenges of poverty and instability that youth on the continent are facing and which is a fundamental contributing factor to youth unemployment. The failure of these strategies in addressing these structural and systematic challenges that different groups of youth face have contributed in making the initiatives ineffective.
It has to be admitted that tackling unemployment in South Africa does not come cheap. These initiatives demand adequate funding for them to work and ensure that unemployment has been resolved. The entrepreneurial hubs and colabs demand adequate funding and the initiatives put in place by the government do not have the needed funding. Strategic plans by DEL and DHET can be beneficial to the youths if they secure adequate funding needed to develop digital infrastructure. The lack of relevant ICT infrastructure at learning institutions remains a constraint and only adequate funding can address this and help in developing the digital skills needed to make the young people employable.
Role of parliamentarians in tackling this increase in youth and graduate unemployment
Given the challenge of youth unemployment that is affecting the country, parliamentarians in the country do have a constitutional duty and role to play in tackling this problem. Parliamentarians are tasked to play three key roles which are representation, legislative and oversight. Thus they are strategically positioned to use their influence and power to assist in tackling youth unemployment in the country. We have noted above that while the government has put in place measures and strategies to curb and address youth unemployment, for these strategies to be effective they need to be adequately scrutinised and analysed such that they do benefit the youth who are represented by the parliamentarians who come from different areas across the country. Some of the plans outlined by the government do not have adequate government funding and it is the duty of parliamentarians to make sure that they lobby and advocate for the government through the ministry of finance to increase funding such that the strategies can realise the primary goal of creating employment. Supplementary budget votes that will see these funds being increased and released will need the voting of parliamentarians hence their role is key.
Furthermore, the concerns and voices of the youth as to whether these initiatives are benefiting them or not would need to be brought to the attention of the executive and it is the role of parliamentarians to represent the youth and bring their concerns and issues towards the initiatives to the attention of the executive so that there is feedback. More so, the youth from rural parts and underserviced areas of the country need to have their voices and concerns heard around some of these initiatives that are meant to advance their employment cause. In such a case parliamentarians have a key role to play in ensuring that these programmes or initiatives being rolled out by government are also benefiting youth from this constituency and ensure that the policies or strategies are not only viewing the youth as a homogeneous group but are adjusting the approach to the specific needs or different demographic groups among young people. These initiatives as much as they are nationalistic in outlook they need to be sensitive to the plight of the vulnerable group and seek not to make them more vulnerable and parliamentarians are key to ensure that this is observed.
In conclusion it can be noted that unemployment is a ticking time bomb in South Africa and more and more youth are struggling to get employment opportunities. The covid19 pandemic has further worsened the situation and contributed largely to shrinking the employment chances of youth as a number of companies were forced to downsize or close due to non-performance. Government has tried to put in place various strategies and initiatives to try and address the challenge of unemployment in the country. These strategies include the DHET and DEL strategic plan 2020/25, the PYEI, the PC4IR among other initiatives. These initiatives are centred on capacitating the youth with digital skills that are relevant in the current digital economy and can offer the youth jobs. However, these strategies do have challenges that needs to be addressed if they are to produce tangible results. Parliamentarians have a key role to play in scrutinising these strategies to ensure that they do address the unemployment challenges facing the country.
Department of Employment and Labour (2020). Revised Strategic Plan 2020/2025. Available at: https://www.labour.gov.za/DocumentCenter/Pages/Strategic-Plan-2020-2025.aspx
Department of Higher Education and Training (2020). Revised 2020-2025 Strategic Plan. Available at: https://www.dhet.gov.za/SiteAssets/Planing%2CPolicy%20and%20Strategy/DHET%20Revised%202020-2025%20Strat%20Plan%20.pdf
Government Gazette (2020) Presidential Commission on the 4th Industrial Revolution: Summary Report and Recommendations. Available at: Report of the Presidential Commission on the 4th Industrial Revolution (www.gov.za)
Stats Sa (2022) South Africa’s youth continues to bear the burden of unemployment. Available at: https://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=15407