When I was a young boy, I wanted to be like Mama Brenda Fassie, bringing the nation together and to be celebrated for doing good things for the country. But as years went by, I questioned how I could change the trajectory for myself, my family and young people around me. With one in two young people unemployed, my story is not unique.
Growing up in Khayelitsha, I shared a two-room shack with my mother, two siblings and three cousins. My mother was the only provider for the family, working as a domestic worker two days a week and selling amagwinya at the train station for the rest of the week. We often went to school without breakfast and for dinner we had to ask the school kitchen for leftovers.
I didn’t have a support structure that could provide me with good advice when I was finishing my school years and looking for work. The majority of young South Africans live in homes where no adult is employed, so deciding on our future often feels like performing in front of a packed audience without any prior rehearsal.
I considered myself lucky enough to study after high school. But when I completed my first tertiary qualification (a national diploma in biotechnology) and the in-service internship at a start-up pharmaceutical company, I realised that I was stuck in revolving doors. We get in and out of education and employment opportunities that don’t build on each other and lead nowhere slowly. This makes us lose valuable time trying to gain relevant work experience. As a result, we end up swinging between the extremes of either being under- or overqualified for jobs.
To increase my chance of finding employment I went back to university, and graduated in project management in 2019. But it started to get more difficult to get into the job market, because I was overqualified. Once, I remember bursting into tears because not being able to support myself or my family is a heavy burden to carry. When Covid-19 hit, my mother lost her permanent employment. I had high hopes about joining the South African Police Service, but the process was put on hold. I started wondering if I would ever find a job.
In 2020, I joined the Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI) as an education assistant. A programme designed for young unemployed people during the Covid-19 pandemic, the initiative is coordinated by the department of basic education. Since 2020, the programme has placed 587 000 young people in education and general assistant positions. The number of short-term opportunities created is encouraging, but it’s still unclear how these programmes stop the revolving door in which many young people are stuck.
When I was based at Andile Primary School in New Crossroad for four months, I worked closely with the administration and school management team. I was fortunate to receive some training in administrative systems because I was tasked with filing, inventory and stock taking and report writing. I acquired skills that I can use for future opportunities.
But I have met many other education assistants whose experience of the programme was nothing more than a revolving door; once the programme was over, they were back at home.
According to a report by the youth-led advocacy campaign, Youth Capital, for the BEEI to be effective it needs to equip people with relevant and transferable skills, provide work mentorship and support young people with an exit strategy.
I now work as a part-time school tutor and my situation is still precarious. Even though I love the education sector, my dream is still to work in biotechnology. But I am 28 and I am not getting any younger; I am concerned about what the future will look like.
For many young people like me, public employment programmes can provide a structured work experience, and a foot in the labour market. But to be beneficial, these programmes need to address the roadblocks young South Africans face, such as the difficulty acquiring skills through education, the difficulty in gaining entry to employment opportunities and the lack of a professional support system that can direct young people.
Imagine how many young South Africans also wanted to be like Mama Brenda Fassie, for themselves, their families and their country. Now imagine what it would be like to live in a country that supports young people to be all that they want to be, to break out of the labyrinth and change not only their trajectory, but that of an entire generation.
Phila Prince Msutu is a campaigner with Youth Capital, a youth-led advocacy campaign