South Africa is battling not only an unprecedented pandemic, but also its deepest economic recession in 100 years.  Unemployment remains stubbornly high and has pushed past 40%, with  2.2 million people having lost their jobs in 2020.  Millions more are at risk of losing their wages, pensions and jobs.

The state is facing varying degrees of collapse.  Key State-Owned Enterprises, central to critical sectors of the economy are hanging by a thread and some in fact are simply dying.  These range from South African Airways to SA Express, SABC, Denel, Prasa but also Eskom and Transnet.

Many municipalities are so dysfunctional that not only can they not deliver essential services, they also cannot even pay their workers’ salaries.

Young people are not immune from this tragedy.  Unemployment levels for young people are far higher than the national average, and worse when taking into account race, gender, disability, rural and township indicators.

Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan

What needs to be done is to get the economy moving and growing.  Government, organised business and labour drafted the Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan (ERRP) which was subsequently tabled at Parliament in October 2020 by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Its central pillars include:

  • Ramping up local procurement. Some’s levels of imports are double the international average.  Shifting consumers, workplaces, companies, government, SOEs etc. to buy locally produced goods e.g. clothing, furniture, food, vehicles, machinery etc. will not only save but create 1000s of local manufacturing, agriculture, transport and other badly needed jobs.
  • Eskom Social Compact. Fixing Eskom, cleansing it of the corruption and mismanagement that has brought it to its knees is central to rebuilding the economy. Reliable and affordable electricity is essential if the economy is to be allowed to recover.
  • Tackling corruption and wasteful expenditure and rebuilding the state. Billions of rand are lost every year to corruption, wasteful expenditure, tax and customs evasion, mismanaged SOEs and a stagnant economy.  These leakages in the state have to be fixed.  Plugging these gaping holes will free up hundreds of billions that can be spent rebuilding essential public services, stimulating the economy and nurturing jobs rich emerging sectors.
  • A massive infrastructure programme. Six trillion is being secured to invest in ports, energy, rail, roads, water, agriculture.  These include funds from the public and private sectors.  Getting these right will boost key export sectors e.g. agriculture, manufacturing etc.  A working Prasa will get workers to work on time.
  • Addressing regulatory blockages. Unlocking digital spectrum, reducing red tape to set up businesses etc. will make it easier for young people to establish their own companies.

Overhaul our education system

Our education system has pockets of excellence.  But these are too few.  Tragically too many young people, in particular from historically disadvantaged communities fall through the cracks.

No modern economy can thrive if the majority of learners entering Grade 1 will not matriculate.  A skilled workforce will not exist if the majority of matriculants do not go on to enter and complete tertiary education.

Money is not the problem.  Billions are spent on basic, further and tertiary education.  It is a crisis of management, infrastructure and curricula.  Schools are under resourced with classrooms overcrowded and basic infrastructure lacking.  Too few spaces exist for the need and demand in tertiary education.  Too many learners leave universities with degrees in humanities and not enough with degrees in science, engineering, medicine etc.  Too few leaners and graduates leave the system with practical skills, training and experience.

The SETAs are the weakest link.  Billions are spent with very little to show for them.  Too often the SETAs are better known for looting and workshops of no value.

The curricula from basic to tertiary education needs to be overhauled to speak to the needs of the economy of not only today but also tomorrow.  The 4th Industrial Revolution is here.  Our education system needs to equip young people with the skills to become digital programmers, drone pilots, electric vehicle engineers etc.

Targeted interventions are needed to ensure young people are not left behind.

These need to include:

  • Expanding and formalising the Presidential Employment Programme which has employed 350 000 young people as learning assistants in our schools. This is helping keep learning safe and providing these young people with skills.  But they need to be paid, paid a living wage and paid on time.
  • Internship programmes need to be expanded with every workplace providing them. But they need to move from reducing interns to photocopy assistants and tea girls to providing them with practical skills so they can move into jobs.  They need to be based on the artisanship programmes that used to provide valuable training.
  • Expanded Public and Community Works Programmes need to move from providing cheap labour to broke municipalities to clean streets to programmes that will give young people real skills and help them to establish their own businesses, e.g. help young people set up recycling companies and not simply to pick up rubbish.
  • Provide unemployed youth with work seekers’ grants to enable them to afford public transport when they look for work.
  • Require job application portals to be data free to enable free access to applicants.
  • Scrap work experience requirements for entry level jobs to enable young people the chance to gain employment and skills.
  • Fix NSFAS so that young people can afford to study.
  • Fix the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) and ensure that its funds go to young people seeking to set up their own businesses.
  • Require banks to provide affordable and accessible credit to young people wanting to set up their own businesses.
  • Overhaul the public procurement system so that there is a single open, online system for the entire state. This will make it easier to monitor and ensure that it favours local procurement and prioritises young entrepreneurs.
  • Reinforce the Sectoral Master Plans to get those sectors of the economy moving and require them to prioritise youth employment.

South Africa has a choice.  Fix the economy and state or continue to head on a downward spiral.  Equally a sustainable recovery needs to champion young people.  There can be no future if the youth continue to be marginalised, unskilled, unemployed and without hope.  That is a ticking time bomb. – Cosatu Parliamentary Coordinator, Matthew Parks, is the author of this piece.