/ 19 June 2014

Keeping youth unemployment on top of the political agenda

The National Development Plan (NDP), which the National Planning Commission (NPC) presented to Parliament on August 16 2012, remarks that a youthful population such as South Africa’s can either offer a “perfect window” of opportunity that could see young, skilled people contribute to a thriving economy, or a “perfect storm” where these same young, but unskilled people vent their frustration in the streets in ways that undermine social and political stability. 

On the very same day that the NDP was presented to Parliament the Marikana massacre occurred. The window, it seems, remains tightly bolted.

Although not directly related to the question of youth unemployment, the gradual breakdown of systems, institutions and ultimately relations of trust at Marikana did offer a glimpse of the turbulent future scenario that the NDP has sketched, and must have contributed to the renewed urgency with which the issue was discussed in subsequent months. 

Unfortunately, much of this energy was directed towards a single policy, the youth wage subsidy, which sought to encourage the employment of young labour market entrants by providing an incentive to employers, aimed at off-setting potential productivity losses related to inexperienced workers. 

Although potentially potent in addressing youth unemployment under certain conditions, experts agree that it offers no panacea for the broader malaise.  

Yet, as parties became increasingly aware of the potential voting power of the “born free” generation, the youth wage subsidy became a point of intense political rallying to the extent that in 2013 it lead to the now infamous confrontation between DA marchers and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) that vociferously opposed the measure. 

Prior to the elections the ANC, which has favoured the idea of a youth subsidy in the past, managed to convince Cosatu about the strategic merit of providing a modified employment incentive in the form of a tax break. Legislation to this effect was passed accordingly at the end of 2013. But for a problem so complex, this is far from enough. Measures that promote access to the work place mean little if entrants to the job market don’t have the minimum qualifications that make them eligible to benefit from it. 

We require more creative thinking in this regard, and for that to happen there needs to be sustained pressure on policymakers.   

However, it seems as if some of the impetus has been lost in the wake of the recent general elections. Up until the beginning of this year much of the political momentum was sustained by the potential impact that young voters could have had on the polls. 

The evidence suggests that young South Africans are taking a dim view on their economic prospects in the short- to medium-term future. 

Survey research from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s (IJR) 2012 SA Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) Survey, for example, showed in 2012 that only 35% of respondents younger than 35 felt that the government is doing well in creating employment. 

Less than half (45%) felt that their general economic prospects were likely to improve in the two years that lay ahead. Such findings, translated into possible votes, had profound political relevance in the run-up to the elections. 

It was therefore not surprising that election posters and advertisements, almost without exception, targeted this demographic during the first months of the election season. Yet, about two months before South Africans were due to go to the polls it became noticeable how this changed, as campaigns started to shift their messaging toward the broader issues of national unity. 

Of particular interest was the pervasiveness of the word “together” in the slogans of almost all political parties, from the ANC to the DA and right through to the Freedom Front Plus.

In a year that we are celebrating two decades of democracy, this emphasis made sense, but in the cut and thrust of party politics there is little room for sentimentality. Although one would want to give parties much more credit, decisions such as these are always informed by a careful assessment of ever-changing contextual factors. 

One of these may have been the final results of the Independent Electoral Commission’s (IEC’s) voter registration drive, which closed on February 25. It turned out that few young people of voting age actually registered to vote. While the absence of reliable statistics makes the exact percentage difficult to gauge (the IEC’s website, for example, notes more registered voters older than 80 than our most recent census suggests are alive), but it is generally accepted that only about a third of eligible voters, aged between 18 and 29, could do so.  

Compare this with the 74.2% and the 84.1% registration figures of the 30 to 39 and 40 to 49 age groups respectively, where unemployment levels remain severe, but less acute, and considering that even registered voters might stay away, it made strategic short-term sense to tone down on the youth bias and rather speak to those that were more likely to go to the polls. 

Ultimately this election did not compel party political players to focus directly on young people and their struggles to enter the work place. Instead it allowed them to shy away from detail and, more importantly, from a firm commitment to retain youth employment at the top of the political agenda. This may have offered some reprieve to parties, but the longer term challenge is to ensure that the largest section of our population, which feels economically marginalised, remain within the fray of formal, democratic political engagement. This requires trust in the system and its ability to confront their plight. 

If not, it may in future have to face up to more substantial challenges to the political order itself. Again, we only have to turn our eyes to the platinum belt to witness the impact of systemic failure, underpinned by a total absence of trust.

Jan Hofmeyr is programme head for policy and analysis at Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.