South Africa’s Born-Free youth shackled by unemployment

The Born-Free generation, which came into the world after the end of Apartheid and comprise roughly half the country's population, is struggling to make a living.

South Africa's Born-Free youth shackled by unemployment-1

Mandla Nqaba lives in Duncan Village, a township in South Africa’s East London city. The 29-year-old has been searching for a job tirelessly for years.

“I have never had a call back interview in the last two years,” Nqaba told TRT World.  

“Maybe I am doing something wrong. Even with these security guard qualifications I have, it is still hard to get a job. I have been hanging in there, though”.

South Africa celebrated Youth Day last week to honour the 45th anniversary of the deadly Soweto student protests which played a crucial role in ending the Apartheid regime by exposing the deeply violent racist regime to the world. 

When the Apartheid system was dismantled 27 years ago, the new democratic era brought a dizzying jolt of hope to millions of disenfranchised citizens particularly to the youth who makes up the bulk of South Africa. 

But today, the warm optimism has turned into an icy glare of disillusionment. The Born Frees, who were born after the end of Apartheid and comprise roughly half the population, are struggling to make ends meet. 

Agatha Mologadi Magagane, from Soweto township in Johannesburg, is among millions of young South Africans who are desperately looking for employment.

The unemployment amongst young South African has morphed into a crisis, the 29-year-old says. 

“It has not been easy. I have been struggling…A lot of young people like me are struggling to get jobs” Magagane told TRT World. 

Staggering numbers

Africa’s most industrialised economy has long suffered from extremely high levels of unemployment, trapping millions in poverty and contributing to stark inequalities that persist nearly three decades after the end of Apartheid in 1994.

The Covid-19 pandemic has rapidly exacerbated South Africa’s labour market woes. The economy was already in recession when the first case of the virus was recorded in March last year. 

Lebo Nke is a chief culture officer at the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, a non-profit social enterprise that helps break down the barriers keeping young people locked out of opportunity.

Nke said as of 2021, the formal sector employs only 800,000 more people than it did ten years ago. 

“This slow job growth, accompanied by a high number of labour market entrants, has meant that young people have for a long time been engaging in informal ‘side’ work – hustling – to make ends meet,” Nke said.

Men hold placards offering temporal employment services in Johannesburg. (Reuters)

The country’s statistics agency this month recorded the highest quarterly labour force survey since it began in 2008. According to Statistics South Africa, the unemployment rate rose to a new record high of 32.6 percent in the first quarter of 2021. 

The rate among youth, however, is at a staggering 46.3 percent, mostly affecting the age group of 15 – 34 years. It means that almost one in every two young people in the labour force did not have a job in the first quarter of 2021. 

More importantly, those aged between 15–24 years are more vulnerable in the labour market with an unemployment rate of over 63 percent. 

Apart from the lack of an adequate inclusive system, young South Africans also struggle from acquiring necessary skills, education and basic training that is required for the recruitment process. 

Of the over 10 million people aged 15–24 years, 32.4 percent — approximately 3.3 million —  were neither employed nor pursuing any education or training in the first quarter of 2021.

“I dropped out of school, and I don’t have a matric [the qualification received on graduating from high school]. This makes it extra hard to find employment as most companies need a minimum of a matric” Nqaba said.  

A 2019 study shows young South Africans have to spend US$85 a month on average in search of a job. The cost includes transportation, internet access, application fees and even bribes in some cases. 

The costs become unbearable particularly for millions of people from low-income backgrounds who live in townships established far away from economic hubs and city centres. This stark inequality largely affects black people and keeps them away from the workforce. 

“The current situation is bleak, and it comes off the back of systemic barriers to access work like poor education systems, increasing transport costs, and high data costs that make it hard for excluded youth to find a foothold in the labour market”, Nke said. 

A carpenter waits to sell cupboards to customers at his workshop in Soweto. (Reuters)

Reducing youth unemployment

In his speech on Youth Day President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged that 27 years after the end of Apartheid, the future looks dim for many of the country’s young people.

Ramaphosa pledged that his government will launch various initiatives to support youth-owned businesses, develop their skills in various sectors and create job opportunities.

In part of these efforts, an online platform called SA Youth was launched in cooperation with state and non-state actors like Harambee. The cost-free platform aims to assist youth with job search, personalised recommendations and other learning opportunities. 

Nke is hopeful that the innovation at a scale can reduce youth unemployment. 

“The private sector, government, and civil society put their opportunities in a single place to be served up – for free – to millions of unemployed work-seekers, and also connect them to the resources of hundreds more partners on the ground,” she said. 

Back in Duncan village, Nqaba is quite hopeful for a better South Africa but he says he isn’t quite sure how it will happen.  

“We need changes and the government needs to empower young people”, he said. 

Published on TRT World