Nov 24

UB40 and South Africa’s Unemployed Youth

An Article By Ian Kilbride.

Way back in the 1980s, the British reggae/pop band UB40 recorded the song “One in Ten”. The band named themselves after the Unemployment Benefit Form 40 that queues of unemployed people had to present to the euphemistically named Department of Employment when claiming fortnightly benefits. The “One in Ten” refers to the 10% of unemployed people during the darkest days of the Thatcher era. The song contains the poignant line, “Nobody knows me, but I’m always there, statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care”. The band has gone on to be gainfully self-employed for decades, earning fame, notoriety and millions in sales along the way.

What then would UB40 make of the current state of unemployment in South Africa and particularly that of the youth? It’s hard to comprehend, but the official unemployment figure for 15–24-year-olds is over 45%, though the South African Cities Network places the figure closer to 66,5%. Currently, Nelson Mandela Bay suffers from the highest urban youth unemployment, followed by Mangaung (Bloemfontein) and Ekurhuleni (the East Rand).  Unsurprisingly, Cape Town enjoys the lowest urban youth unemployment rate nationally.

Yet, StatsSA contends that South Africa has over 10 million people aged between 15-24, of which only 2,5 million are in the labour force, which translates into a 75% unemployment rate by my reckoning. A full 7,7 million of our young people who are eligible to work are regarded as ‘inactive’, are discouraged and have given up hope of finding gainful employment. This catastrophic statistic does not justify the country’s out of control crime statistics of course, but is surely a key contributor. Much has been written about the July 2021 anarchy, riots and looting in KZN and again, one does not have to be a sociologist to join the dots between this behaviour and the appalling high youth unemployment rates in the province.

The social consequences of youth unemployment are multifarious. The loss of dignity, purpose and self-worth give rise to anti-social behaviour, substance abuse, gangsterism and the breakdown of the family unit that forms the very basis of our society. The economic consequences of unemployment mean that the youth are essentially excluded from the formal economy, have no purchasing power and are a drain on, rather than contributor to, the fiscus. The political consequence of this state of affairs is that the youth are abandoning the ANC in droves and turning to the Economic Freedom Fighters. It is the EFF who ‘speak their language’, express anger and frustration as a core narrative and of course, offer idealised hope for a better and brighter future. If the red berets are successful in getting the youth to register as first-time voters, and can mobilise their young and expanding support base, they will increase significantly their share of the national vote in 2024. Ironically perhaps, the Democratic Alliance seems to hold little appeal to the newly enfranchised youth, despite its track record of lower unemployment in the areas it governs. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

So, if the future of our country, its economy and politics lies in the hands of the youth, what can be done to offer them more hope of a brighter future? The first step is symbolic, but terribly important and this is to take the youth seriously, listen to their concerns, include them in our structures and policies and yes, talk to them rather than taking them for granting and using them as voter cannon fodder. Secondly, radically address our failing basic education system and orientate it to the skills required in the jobs marketplace. At the tertiary level, we are producing too many useless graduates at great expense and providing false hope with ‘qualifications’ that are not worth the paper they are written on. Our country and its economy require far more engineers, technologists, IT specialists and actuaries and (with respect), fewer political scientists, administrators and HR consultants. But to achieve this, our education system must be recalibrated and right-sized for the demands of a modern developing economy. Business can be and often is politically agnostic insofar as it doesn’t really care about the political stripe of the government of the day, but it does care deeply about the skill set required of the schooling and training system. And yet business is seldom consulted by government (at all levels) on what its human resources requirements are and how these can be met. Rather, business is left to pay education and training levies on the one hand, or to receive grants and support for conducting in-house training on the others.

Government and business are simply not joined up enough on the fundamental educational and vocational needs of the economy. At the extreme, this results in domestic skills shortages, leaving business to recruit overseas, which in turn, is confronted by a government visa policy that makes it easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the eye of the needle than to recruit skilled staff overseas.

Our bulging unemployed youth constitutes the biggest single threat to the future development of South Africa and we are urgently in need of a national forum between government, business, labour and yes, the youth, to tackle this critical challenge.