Unemployment is one of South Africa’s biggest tragedies. Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the first quarter of 2023 has painted a grim picture of the youth unemployment rate in the country, which increased by 1.1 percent to 46,5 percent this year.
Around 11% of workers who should be working are unemployed. Up to 70% of young workers, between the ages of 15 and 24 years, are unemployed. Over 30 million South Africans live below the poverty line of R1 417 a month.
The challenges faced by the youth in South Africa are numerous and contribute to the high unemployment rate. They include inadequate skills and education, structural economic issues, limited work experience, Inequality and discrimination and high competition.
The country’s economy faces structural challenges such as limited job creation, a mismatch between skills demanded by the market and those possessed by job seekers, and a lack of investment in labour-intensive industries. Moreover, socioeconomic inequality, as well as discrimination based on race, gender, and class, contribute to the challenges faced by the youth in accessing employment opportunities. The same goes for a large number of job seekers and limited job opportunities, which contribute to intense competition for available positions, making it harder for young people to secure employment.
It’s bad enough for young people. This anomaly is also a reminder that the liberation struggle, as encompassed by the African National Congress (ANC) and the broader Mass Democratic Movement, has not yet fulfilled the Freedom Charter’s promise that, “there shall be work and security”.
The national wealth of this country has been a subject of a monumental struggle since the unfortunate arrival of an impostor on April 6, 1652, a day with ramifications that extend to current modernity.
Unemployment in South Africa is not a by-the-way analysis. It is a carefully crafted systematic outlook brought up, purposefully demonised and designed to favour a certain economic structure and outcome. Two definitions of unemployment are commonly utilized: the broad and the narrow.
The narrowly defined unemployed are those who are currently not employed but who looked for work in a week or four. The broadly defined unemployed are the narrow unemployed plus those who say they want work but did not look for work in a medium of a month to four.
The Verwoedian incantation of separate development is largely felt en masse by the African population, which to this day must answer according to standards they are judged by, but for which they are not responsible. In simple terms, who is employed, why and how is still a subject of historical class and race background.
To paraphrase political philosopher Frantz Fanon, in the colony, the economic substructure is equally the superstructure in that you are rich. After all, you are white and white because you are rich.
The basis of this argument is also anchored in what Statistics South Africa depicts as who is employed and who is not. The African is the face of the landless, unemployed, dejected, and disenfranchised.
Moreover, studies reveal that unemployment for different groups resembles a depressing picture of employment by race, gender, age, education, and region. Unemployment in South Africa is still a question of the colour line. The African youth, like its forebears, is the face of poverty, dejection, and repulsive living.
The African youth, alongside its gender – African women – remains the symbolic representation of the race gap and the probability of employment discrimination in the labour market. Like young white men, young white women, together with young white LGBTQI persons, are favoured by the racial inequality complex that characterizes the structure of South Africa’s political economy.
Put differently, African youth unemployment is directly tied to African dispossession. In this case, liberating the land is tantamount to liberating the African youth. Importantly, the incidence of unemployment also varies by region, gender, and education.
For example, people with higher education face an unemployment rate of 6%. But those with primary education or less suffer a rate close to 40%. This pattern is at variance with that commonly observed in developing countries where graduate unemployment is prevalent.
Women experience substantially higher unemployment than men. Rural unemployment rates are higher than urban rates, in contrast to the pattern in most developing countries.
This is due to the segregation policies of the apartheid era, which consigned millions of Africans to live in the “homelands” – predominantly rural areas of poor land quality and less employment opportunities.
These homelands effectively became labour reserves from which permanent and even temporary movement to non-homeland areas was impeded by legislative and administrative rules. Thus, high unemployment in much of rural South Africa took the form of waiting in the homelands for a formal sector job opportunity to arise.
De-industrialisation caused by neoliberal policies has led to the closure of jobs in the manufacturing sector. And this is why the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) must re-iterate the call for state-led economic development. The South African Reserve Bank (SARB), as an apex of the financial sector, should be liberated from the cudgels of private interests together with the mandate pursued by the bank.
The mandate of SARB should change from just inflation targeting to a dual mandate of incorporating unemployment. The ownership of the assets and the ownership of the power to create liabilities on behalf of the nation must lie with a publicly owned institution.
I will add that the SARB’s name must be changed. It must be the “Bank of South Africa”, so that we radically depart from the past. Once power was achieved in 1994, the ANC told the citizenry that its policy framework was the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).
But, the subsequent macro-economic policies, as well as micro policies in each of the developmental or social policy arenas, were either neoliberal (market-oriented) or provided merely tokenistic relief to the poorest (Bond and Khosa 1999, Bond 2014a).
In conclusion, structural unemployment can only be defeated by drastic industrial, economic, and social policy changes in tandem with free education and healthcare for all.
Khulekani Skosana is an ANCYL NYTT member, ANCYL NWTT member and International Union of Socialist Students Vice President. He writes in his capacity.