South Africa has failed its young people. What can be done about it

It is more than 40 years since young people, first in Soweto, and then around the country, rose up against the apartheid regime. Initially their protest was against the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. But it quickly spread into a general uprising against apartheid.

Four decades later and more than two decades after democracy, what prospects do young South Africans have?

The end of apartheid should have heralded a new South African dream for the generation born at its demise. The “born frees” comprise about one fifth of the population. If the definition of youth is extended to include those between 15 and 34, they make up almost 55% of the population.

The hope was that this generation would be living radically different lives from the young people who rose up in 1976. But that dream is still out of reach for most. Two thirds of the country’s children live in poverty. About 50% of young people are without jobs.

Without doubt, there have been key improvements. Education is now provided to all, and years of schooling have increased; child support grants have made substantial differences to nutrition and wellbeing; the delivery of public housing has helped many secure a home for the first time.


Yet the quality of life and opportunities for young people are still defined, to a large extent, by the legacies of their parents. This also means that young South Africans are in no position to help drive economic growth. The country is missing its demographic dividend moment.

So what can be done about it? An initiative that connects researchers and local governments, combined with a web tool that draws together detailed local information about young people, could help policy makers take a fine-grained rather than a scatter-gun approach to support youth wellbeing.

Missed chances

Life’s chances are determined by the quality of education. And that in turn is determined by the income of parents. South Africa’s schooling systems has failed young people abysmally. Drop out rates are shockingly high, with nearly half the country’s learners leaving the schooling system before they matriculate.

These numbers are dismal enough. But there’s an added twist. Unless a young person passes matric – or gets a tertiary qualification – their chances in the labour market are slim. An employer generally doesn’t distinguish between three years of schooling or six or eight or even ten.

It has given rise to a desperate group of young people known as NEETS, which stands for Not in Employment, Education or Training. They can include young people with matric, but all are unemployed and few have prospects for further education.

The government has consistently committed to putting youth development high on its national agenda. It has put a number of initiatives in place, including:

  • The adoption of a new youth policy in 2015. More recently, President Jacob Zuma promised that all government departments would prioritise programmes that are critical to youth development. There’s little evidence that the national youth policy and the ones that came before achieved anything.
  • In 2014 the National Treasury implemented a youth incentive employment tax to encourage employers to give young people their first foot in the door of an increasingly tight labour market. It’s too early to assess whether this is making a difference.
  • The creation of a policy-oriented research project on employment, income distribution and inclusive growth at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to look into the stubborn problems of youth unemployment, among other issues. The youth unemployment project is due to present its findings in the next few weeks.

Clearly more needs to be done. Later this month local governments will be asked to play a more proactive role in youth development. This could be a critical contribution.

Fresh attempt

A local approach could be significant because the spatial legacy of apartheid still largely determines a person’s life chances. This means that there are vast differences between young people based on where they live. This includes income, education and employment opportunities.

A web tool, called the Youth Explorer , has been developed to help a host of players, including policy makers, to access information about young people in a particular area. It does this by drilling down into conditions in every ward across the country.

The Youth Explorer also allows for comparisons within provinces and between different rural and urban areas, allowing policymakers to compare one area to the country as a whole.

To illustrate its usefulness, take the information that’s been put together comparing Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma’s rural home constituency, and Sandton, one of the country’s wealthier urban areas. The profile shows that:

  • 22% of the population is between 15 and 24 years of age compared with just 10% in Sandton,
  • Just under 50% of young people aged between 20 and 24 have completed matric or higher. The comparable figure in Sandton is about 88%,
  • the NEETS category is about 31% in Nkandla and less than 7% in Sandton,
  • 76% of young people live in households with no access to the internet in Nkandla, compared with 13% in Sandton,
  • more than three quarters of people live in households where there is no employed adult, compared with 10% in Sandton, and
  • More than 50% of Nkandla homes have no electricity, hardly any have flush toilets (13% have no toilets at all), and 33% live in overcrowded households (defined as more than two people to a habitable room). In Sandton, only 2% have no electricity, everyone has access to a flush toilet and only 1% live in overcrowded households.

Detailed information like this could lead to focused policy interventions that are in tune with young people’s local realities, and conversations that may be able to break the inter-generational cycle of inequality and poverty area by area.

It could help ensure that the South African dream of the “Born-Free” generation may not be entirely lost.

Emily Harris and Pippa Green co-authored this article.

Ariane De Lannoy, Senior Researcher: Poverty and Inequality Initiative, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, University of Cape Town

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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