Xolile Blessing Bam is passionate about computers. The 20-year-old South African studied IT at a business college in Johannesburg but he has not been able to find a job since.
To get some experience, and to keep himself busy, he volunteers as a teaching assistant at a local school in Soweto.
“I’ve tried looking for a job for a year and a half now,” Bam said. “The challenges are experience and the level of education which I have because I only have a certificate, not a diploma or degree.”
Bam’s story is typical. Out of a population of 49-million, 7.5-million South Africans are out of work. Young people are worst affected, with over half of 18- to 25-year-olds unemployed.
According to the labour federation, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), there’s no other middle income country in the world with such a high rate of unemployment.
“This is a crisis. We call it a ticking bomb,” said Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu’s general secretary. “We think that one day there may be an explosion. Seventy-three percent of people who are unemployed in South Africa are below the age of 35 and a lot of them have been to universities.
“If we look at lots of our cities, they are all surrounded by a ring of fire. We have seen in almost every direction around Johannesburg, periodic violent protest actions led by young people and women, the two sections of the community that bear the brunt of that crisis of unemployment.”
Demonstrations have exploded in poor areas, with the number of protests rising eight-fold in the last seven years, peaking at 111 in 2010.
Last October, more than 2 000 young people marched through Johannesburg to demand jobs, led by the ANC Youth League’s fiery former leader Julius Malema, who has made “economic freedom” his rallying cry.
Now, some observers warn that South Africa could see its own Arab Spring.
“When those people stand up, they are not going to be as peaceful as we hope when they try and voice their grievances,” said Kindiza Ubami, from Johannesburg’s Centre for Violence and Reconciliation.
“It will be as bad as what happened in the Arab countries.”
In an attempt to pacify this growing anger, President Zuma has promised to create five million jobs by 2020.
In his recent State of the Nation address, he put forward an ambitious job creation plan, underpinned by R300-billion in spending to upgrade the nation’s railways and ports.
A new story
South Africa’s economy has begun creating jobs again, with unemployment at 23.9% in the last quarter of 2011 — still very high but at the lowest level since the 2008 global financial crisis.
But South Africa still has not replaced the one million jobs lost during the global recession, and the part of the population living in poverty — nearly 40% — has hardly budged since white-minority rule ended in 1994.
“The work done last year indicates that if we continue to grow reasonably well, we will begin to write a new story about South Africa — the story of how, working together, we drove back unemployment and reduced economic inequality and poverty,” Zuma said.
“It is beginning to look possible. We must not lose this momentum.”
The job creation drive might seem a long way off but politicians trust it is enough to give young people hope in order to avoid more social unrest. Despite the increase in protests, many young people do not want revolution.
Bam, for one, just wants an opportunity to earn a living.
“I actually believe in myself and the skills which I have. So if anyone says ‘hey, I can try out for two days’, I’ll be there and make sure that that person is impressed.” — Sapa