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Joblessness plagues South Africa's youth

The country's poor education system and weak governance mean young people suffer from high rates of unemployment.

Last Modified: 18 Jun 2013 16:30
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Lulu Pieterson, the sister of Hector Pieterson, knows a great deal about sacrifice [Zaheer Cassim/Al Jazeera]

Soweto, South Africa - The road to Lulu Pieterson's house is bumpy. The little car bobbles continuously on the potholes along the red earth of Braamfischerville, a neighbourhood in Soweto.

It is the broad smile of Pieterson, who emerges from an unfinished doorway held up by bare bricks, that greets one first. Pieterson was five years old on the day that her older brother, Hector Pieterson, was killed when police opened fire on protesting students in Soweto on June 16, 1976. The date has come to be seen as a pivotal turning point in the struggle against apartheid.

The economy is not growing as fast as it should. And where it does grow, it does not grow in a way that absorbs youth labour.

Daryl Glaser, University of the Witwatersrand

The image of a dying Hector, cradled in the hands of a colleague, was snapped by a local photographer and dispatched across the world.

Hector was among the first of 566 children to be killed on that day and in the violence that ensued. The image has became synonymous with the struggle against apartheid.

But today, Lulu does not remember her brother. She has had to be taught about his 12 years of life, much like she has been taught about the sacrifices made by other South Africans for "freedom".

In Lulu's house, a single bed sits across from a kitchen basin and a coffee table with two chairs. Her few possessions reside with her in the four-wall room.

She is unemployed and her efforts to find work have failed, she says. Today, she does not want to speak about freedom. Instead, she wants to speak about how she has not been rewarded for the use of her surname. 

At the humble abode of Lulu's mother, a woman who has learned the relevance of the loss of her son to the struggle, Dorothy Molefe says that she does not think Hector would be happy with South Africa's current state of affairs.

"People are struggling," she says. "The children died in 1976… but the children that are still alive - there is nothing that they can do."

"There is no work, they can't go to school - their parents can't afford to pay their school fees, because [they are] too high. If you don't have money, your children cannot study further," she says. Even worse, Molefe continues, is that educated young South Africans also struggle to find work.

The image of Hector's death became synonymous with the
struggle against apartheid [AFP]

Professor Daryl Glaser, a political analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand, agrees, saying the biggest single challenge facing the country is youth unemployment. "The economy is not growing as fast as it should," he told Al Jazeera. "And where it does grow, it does not grow in a way that absorbs youth labour."

According to analysts Statistics South Africa, 70.9 percent of unemployed people are between the ages of 14-34. Glaser says young black men are worst affected by joblessness. "Many young black men are facing a crisis of self-worth and identity. They cannot provide for families in circumstances where men are expected to be the providers."

This has added to the country's social ills, including crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence, says Glaser.

Bad education

The education system has largely failed to keep up with South Africa's social challenges, and recent reports paint a grim picture.

 S African youth continue to face challenges

According to the World Economic Forum's 2013 Global IT Report, South Africa's education system ranks dismally among the 144 countries surveyed, scoring second to last in its quality of mathematics and science education and 139th overall.

A study into literacy levels in the country in 2011 revealed similarly damning information. "Forty-three percent of South African Grade 5 learners have not developed the basic reading skills required for reading at an equivalent international Grade 4 level. Fewer learners attained the highest international benchmarks than in 2006," the study said.

South Africa's education problems are nothing new, though. When the African National Congress-led government came to power in 1994, two million children did not even attend school, and one-third of the population was illiterate.

Today, 97 percent of children aged seven to 17 are enrolled in school or other educational facilities, according to research compiled by the University of Cape Town's Children's Institute.

"Irrespective of whether [children] live in the poorest 20 percent or wealthiest 20 percent of households, children's school attendance rates remain high - between 96 percent and 98 percent," the report says. However, it also points out that "continued inequities in the quality of education offered by schools serves to reinforce existing social inequalities, limiting the future work opportunities and life chances of poor children".

Preparation for skilled and semi-skilled labour has suffered. And therein lies the rub. South African industry tends to be capital-intensive, investing in machinery rather than labour, explains Glaser. "Many of the young people are not sufficiently skilled to fare well in the job market… and the [capital-intensive] economy has no use for such people."

Youth make up 50 percent of the population, according to a country census in 2011. This makes the country a fertile breeding ground for discontent.

Poor governance

Stoking this discontent are increasing levels of corruption within the country. In December, South Africa slid down Transparency International's annual corruption index to 69th place out of 176 countries measured.

The index rated political parties as among the most corrupt institutions in the country. Glaser says that for a "black population that hasn't necessarily had access to economic resources, or an independent economic base, connections to the dominant ANC are crucial".

The country's president has not escaped incrimination either. Jacob Zuma has been implicated in an illegal international arms deal, in a bribery case, and was reported to have used state funds for building a lavish estate, including a bunker, in his hometown. 

Also stoking discontent is Zuma's former ally, expelled ANC Youth League chairperson Julius Malema. He has been calling for "economic freedom in our lifetime" through the nationalisation of the country's "mines, banks, and other strategic sectors of the economy" as well as the "expropriation of land without compensation".

Last week he announced the launch of a new group, named the "economic freedom fighters". Malema has not confirmed whether this would be a political party, saying only that he would hold "consultative forums across South Africa". Numerous attempts to gain further explanation from Malema met with no response.

Calls for "economic freedom" have also echoed from former ANCYL deputy president Ronald Lamola, and Zuma as recently as Wednesday. And while land reform has always been on the ANC and government agenda, the new proposals, particularly expropriating land without compensation, threaten to disrupt legal and constitutional frameworks that require a "willing buyer, willing seller".

Additionally, political analysts Ebrahim Fakir and Eusebius McKaiser have rebuked the philosophy of "economic freedom in our lifetime", saying it "would lead to greater, rather than less, social and economic exclusion and injustice".

The question then remains: How will the government deal with the education and employment crisis facing the country's youth? While Zuma on Sunday touted the National Development Plan - a government road map to "eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030" - Glaser explains the NDP as a "technocrat plan from the pragmatists", for "those that saw [the idea of land seizure without compensation] would have caused chaos... as more of a steadying hand in South African politics".

But, Glaser says that he does not expect much to change in the near future. "At best of circumstances it's going to be a long haul to address the structural, economic problems and the social gaps in this country."

On Sunday, South Africa's Youth Day commemorated the death of Hector Pieterson and the many others who died on and following June 16. Addressing crowds of young people gathered for the occasion, Zuma's message was simple: "Learn, learn, learn."

Follow Safeeyah Kharsany on Twitter: @safeeyah

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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