We are fast running out of time to create hope for the millions of young people who are still excluded from the formal economy. Escalating violence in South Africa shows that the problem is not absolute poverty; after all, there are many countries poorer but more peaceful than ours. Rather, the problem is extreme inequality, where work-seekers on street corners see the ‘good life’ through the wrought-iron gates of fancy homes and know they’ll never be part of it.
The challenge is psychological and much as it is economic. Young people want hope now. They want to be valued. If we are to build their sense of agency, we must create real and imminent possibility in their lives. As much as we need mass employment, the ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ refrain could end up paralysing us because there are too few jobs in the formal sector for the millions who need them. To date, our response has been top-heavy, driven largely through accords between big business, labour and government. These initiatives are crucial, but the channels for upward mobility are still constricted. Our economy is structured to create big opportunities for few, whereas right now we should be creating lots of small opportunities for many. We need a youth labour market that is flexible, dynamic and expansive – more lattice than ladders of opportunity.
Here are ten ways to create new opportunity for young people in the next year.
First, create a learning stream in primary schools that allows children who can’t cope with the fundamentals, despite repeating a grade, to concentrate solely on home language, English and maths. Otherwise, we can be almost certain that they will be part of the 50% of children who eventually fail to complete school. This intense focus on the basics should aim to get all children back on track by the end of Grade 7, prior to any academic, occupational or vocational streaming in high school. We must create a platform of basic skills to help all learners to navigate into meaningful adulthood – even if they don’t complete school – so that they don’t feel written off as by-products of the education system.
Second, reintroduce the Grade 10 school-leaving certificate so that those who can’t complete school feel some sense of achievement. Then facilitate their transition into other learning opportunities such as apprenticeships and TVET and community colleges. Almost 90% of learners reach Grade 10 but only half go on to complete Grade 12. The rest leave with nothing to show after 10 years of effort.
Third, establish effective work-link programmes in every TVET and community college with the support of local chambers of business. This will enable more young people to complete the practical components of their training and allow them to be certified. It is unconscionable that, after spending years in vocational training, young people often fail to complete their qualification because they can’t get the necessary work experience. Certification rates – the proportion of examination candidates who successfully complete both the theory and practical parts of their courses – vary from about 40% for the National Certificate (Vocational) to 66% for the N6 diploma at TVET colleges. This means that a third to a half of students who actually get as far as writing final exams – and that’s a minority of those who enrol – still leave without anything to show prospective employers.
Fourth, ensure that every young person has access to information about the options available to them. There are dozens of resource hubs for young people to draw on, mostly run by NGO’s such as DreamWorker and JobStarter. All that is needed is to expand their ease of access.
A fifth strategy is thus to ensure that young people can receive information on their cellphones by providing mobile services for education and job-mediation free of charge. Network operator costs could be covered by their statutory obligations for socio-economic development and universal access. It’s a simple solution begging to be implemented.
Sixth, the funding of all Sector and Education Training Authorities (SETA’s) should prioritise skills development for jobless youth through short courses and part-qualifications offered by non-profit organisations and businesses. Currently, there is a strong emphasis on learnerships and internships, which are especially important for university graduates. However, the majority of young people will not access formal post-school institutions, and they require a vast array of shorter ‘foothold’ training opportunities to develop their potential.
Seventh, the high costs of looking for work – and holding onto a first job – must be reduced, through government commitment to a six month work-seekers’ grant for 19-21 year olds and by employers who are willing to advance a month’s salary for those who find work but have no means of transport until they receive their first pay-cheque.
Eighth, public employment schemes such as the Community Work Programme (CWP) should be used more effectively as ‘first rung’ opportunities for job seekers, especially in building the social economy. Early learning and reading programmes like SmartStart and Nal’ibali have shown how this can be done in partnership with CWP – already benefiting over 1000 participants and 10,000 children.
Ninth, thousands of people across South Africa should raise their hands as mentors for young people trying to negotiate their way into the world of work. ‘Standing with’ young people is a crucial strategy for our nation at this time.
Tenth, the labour laws should be relaxed for employment of people under 25 years, allowing for easier hiring and firing, while still retaining the minimum wage. While there will be a concern that employers will replace older workers with younger ones, it is more likely that small and medium-sized enterprises will bring young people in as ‘apprentices’ for their more experienced workers who remain real assets to the company. It will create new openings into the labour market where, currently, most young people just hit a brick wall.
These are practical steps that we can take now, without incurring much additional cost. We have the means to create hope for young people. All that is now required is a bit of imagination and the political will to act fast.
This op-ed first was first published by the Daily Maverick on 15 September 2019. Find it here.
 Dept of Basic Education (2019). Annual performance plan. https://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Reports/Annual%20Performance%20Plan%20201819.pdf?ver=2018-03-14-121624-263
 Dept of Higher Education and Training (2019). Post-school Education and Training Monitor: Macro-Indicators.
 DG Murray Trust (2019). Quarterly reports on the DGMT-COGTA partnership for Community Work Programme (early learning).