The need to declare war on youth unemployment has never been as urgent as it is today. The economic situation is deteriorating and official police data reveals that there have been more than 3000 service delivery protests since 2009, most of which involved young people.
The ever-increasing unemployment rate, deepening poverty and widening inequality should serve as a wake-up call for all of us. Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the trade union federation Cosatu, has reminded us over and over again that such high rates of youth unemployment are a ticking time bomb. Recent figures show that 72% of the total number of the unemployed is composed of people younger than 35. The government is expected to play a critical role in reducing unemployment but fighting it cannot be the role of the government alone.
As we commemorate the youth's contribution to the liberation struggle on June 16 – and 20 years of democracy next year – all stakeholders should pause and ask themselves tough questions. Have we done enough to address unemployment?
From where I'm sitting, I don't think we have. But, as our experience over years in South Africa should show, finger-pointing does not reduce the level of unemployment or help to expand the economy. Only our actions can do that.
Are there instances that can help us see what is to be done? Germany had an unemployment rate almost the same as South Africa's, possibly higher, after World War II. Today, however, the unemployment figures in Germany are lower than 5%.
When I visited the country recently on a study tour organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, it was instructive to see and learn about how the Germans reduced unemployment.
This is not to say Germany is the perfect example or that it does not have its own shortcomings. However, my few days' experience there indicated that every stakeholder – business, the government, the trade unions and civil society – not only took the issue of youth unemployment very seriously but were also prepared to invest sufficient resources to ensure that unemployment levels remained minimal.
Unlike in South Africa, in Germany it is very rare to find an unemployed young person roaming the streets. The country has created an effective system that allows it to absorb young unemployed people who have dropped out of school; it can also employ the disabled and those who could not afford to go to university. This category is taken care of by the government's funded job centres, which offer potential employees a dual training system that combines practical work and learning in the relevant enterprise with theoretical education in a vocational school.
Learners are given a monthly stipend for the duration of their training, which usually takes two to three years to complete. On completion, students are given certificates and entered into a database from which potential employers can extract information about them.
The private sector also plays its part. The skilled crafts, as they are called, range from hairdressing to joinery, forming the core of the country's small-and-medium-sized enterprises.
The skilled-crafts sector is number one in Germany when it comes to providing training for the new recruits, most of whom are young people.
Training concludes with exams for the workers once the course has been completed. Every skilled worker can take further training and sit the master-craftsman's examination, which is the top specialist skilled-crafts qualification and authorises the person to manage an enterprise and to train apprentices.
In South Africa, we have the sector education and training authorities and further education training colleges, which have not been effective in addressing the high unemployment rate, despite the millions of taxpayers' rands being channelled into them. The so-called labour centres, which are found in all provinces and were intended to create jobs, particularly for the youth, have not achieved their objectives.
Another contributing factor is the apparent lack of trust between business and the government. And the trade unions' hostile attitude to government programmes such as the youth wage subsidy – without the unions creating alternatives – has also aggravated unemployment.
I would agree with those who argue that a huge chunk of the R5-billion set aside for the youth wage subsidy should be channelled towards small businesses, which have the potential to create more jobs.
But big businesses in South Africa should follow in the footsteps of German counterparts by digging deep into their pockets to create more jobs, instead of waiting for government subsidies before they do so.
South African banks should also consider easing the stringent conditions that make it almost impossible for small businesses to get loans. The government's finance institutions should do more to support up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
The government should consider putting some parastatals under private control and rechannelling the millions it uses to bail out failing state-owned enterprises to support small businesses and to accelerate service delivery in our communities.
Most importantly, the government should ensure that key positions are given to qualified people with the capacity to think creatively about opportunities for unemployed youth.
Eradicating corruption by government officials is a high priority, but trade unions can also play a significant role if they can channel the proceeds generated by their investment arms to support job-creation initiatives and skills development, instead of complaining about government initiatives.
'Lost generation' of youngsters needs to become politicised
There seems to be a belief that the youth of today are not interested in social and civic development – and that they lack motivation.
This "lost generation", as some call it, is apparently self-absorbed, lacks an interest in the political process, and is not interested in being positive contributors to society. Africa has lowest levels in the world of youth participation in national and local decision-making processes.
This makes one question the health of our democratic systems and their ability to fulfil expectations if such a large percentage of the population is basically consigned to the role of bystander.
"On our youth depends the future of Africa and the continent's total liberation and unity," said Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah. Oliver Tambo, ANC leader for three decades, said: "A nation that does not nurture its youth does not deserve its future."
Young people are the vibrant, dynamic and creative part of society. Their political participation is fundamental to building the nation, economic growth and political stability. Yet, for them, it seems, conventional politics has an image problem: They tend to believe they are unable to exert any influence in this way.
But this does not mean, as some believe, that they are not interested in social and civic development; it simply draws attentions to the methods used to galvanise their political participation.
The key to political participation of young people is the ability to use popular culture to enable them to become contributors to development. Promote their personal, social and civic development; encourage them to see themselves as positive contributors to society.
Over the last few years, the world has seen political uprisings in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. New technology and popular culture were used to organise, communicate and raise awareness, and the average age of the protesters was under 30.
If governments and political parties were to use these platforms to engage with the youth and give young people a voice, we would then perhaps deserve the future of which Tambo spoke. – Gandhi Baai, chief executive of Mwalimu Communications
Nourish our democracy
The school pupils' uprising that began on June 16 1976 helped unleash the energy of the entire spectrum of society – workers, professionals, cultural activists, clergy, black and white, young and old – to say in unison to the apartheid state: "Enough is enough!"
The events of 1976 helped revive the revolutionary movements and the mass democratic movement. Using stones and dustbin lids, the youth confronted the might of the racist regime, its machine guns, tear gas and brute force. After the crackdown, thousands left the country to execute the noble struggle for freedom. They swelled the ranks of Umkhonto weSizwe and the Azanian People's Liberation Army.
As we commemorate the 37th anniversary of the Soweto uprising – and June as Youth Month – the nation should start reconnecting today's youth with military veterans, such as those of MK's June 16 Detachment, to share their rich experiences and enhance the patriotism that our country now needs like dry soil needs water.
Youth Month and June 16 should serve as a reminder that our freedom did not come easily. Many laid down their lives. We need to nurture and nourish our freedom and democracy so that the most vulnerable in our society can enjoy its fruits. – Mbulelo Musi, head of communications in the department of defence and military veterans