GIDEON POGRUND: The immense suffering behind SA’s youth unemployment statistics

The statistics on youth unemployment in SA are staggering: young people make up 36% of our population, yet more than 50% of those younger than 24 are unemployed. It means more than 6- million young people are not in education, employment or training.

Immense suffering lies behind those statistics. Apart from the grim physical realities of unemployment and poverty, there is a profound psychological dimension. A sense of freedom and independence is basic to someone’s self-respect and dignity.

Not having a job is humiliating. Not having a realistic prospect of getting a job is devastating — especially for young people. It destroys hope, the sense that there is something to live for and that there is a possibility of a better future. In the words of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, it leaves people with a feeling of “futurelessness”.

In SA, youth unemployment is a time bomb. Desperate, unemployed and without skills, many young people turn to crime to survive. And unemployment creates fertile ground for populist politicians who feed off people’s anger and frustration, making promises that are enticing and irresponsible. This threatens the success of the business community and the country. It’s a pragmatic issue as much as it is an ethical one.

The root of the problem can be traced to our education system. Of all apartheid evils, perhaps the worst was Bantu education. We live with its terrible legacy. But almost 25 years after the end of apartheid and despite heavy government spending, our education system still fails many, denying them opportunities to gain decent jobs. This, too, is incompatible with a free and fair society.

Access to education is a precondition for access to opportunities, with a huge bearing on how wealth is accumulated, resources are distributed and power is exercised.

The Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) recently hosted a public forum to debate these challenges. It was chaired by journalist Thandeka Gqubule and included two remarkable leaders, Sizwe Nxasana and Stephen Koseff.

Access to education is a precondition for access to opportunities

Nxasana, former CEO of FirstRand Bank, founded Future Nation Schools, a network of affordable private schools whose model is futuristic and technology-enabled. Koseff, former CEO of Investec, co-convened the Youth Employment Service, which aims to create 1-million jobs in three years. Harambee, whose leaders, Maryana Iskander and Nicola Galombik, took part in the forum, also offers an extraordinary model of activism.

Of course, poor schooling is a major cause of where we are. Historically disadvantaged young people often lack the numerical, English and digital skills tested by employers in hiring. Many also lack the softer skills needed in the world of work.

Marginalised people’s access to jobs is further hindered by their restricted social networks; they get limited information about opportunities, and they don’t know where or how to look for work. And that’s before the high transport costs.

Harambee connects organisations seeking entry-level talent with young, high-potential jobseekers excluded from the economy. Candidates are rigorously assessed and matched to increase their likelihood of success in pre-contracted jobs. And bridging programmes help prepare them for work, addressing gaps. Once employed, they are mentored.

Employers are encouraged to adopt new hiring practices: to judge candidates on potential rather than previous experience or the results of poor schooling. Harambee has already helped 50,000 people to their get first job.

At a time when SA’s prospects seem cloudy, these are important reasons for hope — the belief that we can make things better by acting. Some are embracing this activism to alter the trajectory.

Pogrund is a rabbi and director of the ethics & governance think tank at Gibs

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