"Still in chains", says black honours graduate

A graduate from one of South Africa’s top universities has written a scathing open letter to Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande detailing the difficulties he and other black graduates face in finding employment.

The government has failed to help mainly black South Africans break the chains of poverty, the letter says.

Fikile Dube graduated from the University of Cape Town in 2004 with a BComm (Honours) degree in human resource management but says he has still not managed to secure full-time employment.

“I am an unemployed graduate, a product of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme [NSFAS] with more than five years in the labour market, seemingly with no prospect of ever getting a job, and the interest on the NSFAS loan accumulating [such] that I am in serious debt even before I get employed,” reads his letter.

Dube posed his letter this week on the Skills Universe website, and site administrator Alan Hammond highlighted it in his email newsletter, sent to subscribers to the site, on Monday.

Skills Universe hosts discussions of all aspects of the country’s skills landscape and many subscribers are themselves training providers in the private sector.

Dube’s lengthy and detailed letter tears into government’s skills policies for failing to provide any escape from poverty for the majority of poor South Africans. “It is a fact that the country is facing serious skills shortage in various sectors while there are many African black graduates sitting idle in the townships with no hope of ever getting formal employment despite the many years spent at universities with the hope that they will finally break the chains of poverty,” the letter reads.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Dube said his frustration at not finding work was compounded by his NSFAS debt, which has ballooned in the years since he completed his studies.

“When I completed my studies in 2004, I owed NSFAS R40 000. Now, five years later that has doubled. I keep sending them [NSFAS] letters but the interest just grows. I’m sitting here doing nothing and there doesn’t seem to be any real help for me,” said the 43-year-old.

Dube’s letter appeals to Nzimande to address the plight of unemployed graduates like himself, by “utilising the public service and state-owned enterprises to give graduates the experience required by industry”.

He suggests that NSFAS, the Sector Education and Training Authorities (Setas) and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) should work in tandem if the problems of skills shortage and unemployment are to be solved.

“Setas should inform [NSFAS] of the skills required by their industries and work with NSFAS, sponsoring students through tertiary education in the identified skills [and] thereby ensuring that students study exactly what industry wants. It will ensure that all graduates are employed upon graduation, levels of poverty are reduced and the economy functions at full capacity.”

Dube himself is no stranger to the Seta system, which has been controversial since its introduction in 2000. The system was designed to provide learnerships, internships, unit-based skills programmes and apprenticeships in every industry and occupation in South Africa

But critics—including Nzimande himself when he became minister last year—have repeatedly said participants are not receiving training that is matched closely enough to the skills needs of the market. Two weeks ago, Nzimande released his so-called “new Seta landscape”.

Dube told the M&G he has been registered with the Services Seta since 2007 but hasn’t seen any benefit since signing up. “These changes the minister has made [two weeks ago] are minimal. He has reduced the number of Setas but my feeling is that the process will remain the same.

“These bodies have lots of money but they are just sitting on it. Nothing will change,” he said.

Meanwhile, on Monday Nzimande launched the National Artisan Moderation Body (NAMB), aimed at bolstering technical skills training.

“This forms part of our mission to increase the options that our young people have to find meaningful employment,” departmental spokesperson Moloantoa Molaba told the M&G.

“We don’t need more lawyers in this country, we need technicians. So we want to have an apprenticeship-based artisan development system as opposed to the current Seta- and sector-driven process,” Molaba said.

“It is a national disaster that there are these millions of unemployable youths walking the streets, and accelerating the artisan programme could be a step towards dealing with this.”

Read Dube’s letter