Unemployment in South Africa: Feel It, the Ticking Time Bomb Is Here

“Feel it, it is here!” This slogan somewhat incredulously reminds us that South Africa hosted the 2011 World Cup. A year on, the slogan still resonates in our conversations.

However, another catchphrase, the “ticking time bomb,” has emerged to underscore the strong possibility of a youth uprising in the future.

The recognition that South Africa faces a significant challenge, especially with respect to including young, unemployed, African males in our economy, marks an important acknowledgment of the challenge facing our society. Yet the metaphor of the “ticking time bomb” suggests some distant future for a popular uprising when in fact, appropriating the World Cup slogan, “Feel it, it is here!” would be more appropriate.

The metaphor of a “ticking time bomb” has gained support, as young activists in North Africa and the Middle East have toppled governments in what is called the “Arab Spring.” Moeletsi Mbeki has popularised the idea arguing that South Africa is facing the possibility of greater social upheaval due to high levels of youth unemployment. In fact, according to Statistics South Africa, 72% of the unemployed are between the ages of 15-34 years old.

The COSATU General-Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, further elaborated upon this theme at a recent lecture on an “employment guarantee” in South Africa, warning again of the prospect of an uprising, if the challenges facing young people are not addressed quickly.

It is a theme that has routinely featured in COSATU’s documents over the last decade, even if many were not willing to pay heed. Vavi, however, provided an organisers perspective, arguing that Johannesburg is surrounded by a “ring of fire.”

Spatially speaking, service delivery protests are concentrated in poorer communities and especially in informal settlements, which are located on the periphery of cities. Plotting protests on a map does give the impression of a ring of fire. The metaphor however suggests something more: that coordinating these service delivery protests is spatially possible and enhanced with technological advancements, such as cell phones.

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, the Centre for Development and Enterprise produced an important research paper in 2006, which traced the histories of 1000 young people, and later argued that current interventions, by both government and business, are not addressing the problem. Importantly, there is even in the business community, an important and early recognition of the problem, even if the policy options proposed by business are open to debate.

The National Planning Commission adopts a more national perspective and reports in its diagnostic report that if a young person does not get a job by age 24, they are likely never to get a job. The NPC then amplifies this by saying that “about 60 percent of an entire generation could live their lives without ever holding a formal job. This time bomb is the greatest risk to social stability in South Africa.”

The African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), at its recent congress, agreed to pursue a programme for economic transformation, which it calls the “7 cardinal pillars.” The programme includes nationalisation and expropriation without compensation.

The radical rhetoric emerging from the ANCYL can be understood in the context of a growing recognition that the exclusion of youth is our biggest challenge. Thus far, the ANCYL has provided a radical expression for the views of youth, but as several political commentators argue, they play another useful function: that of containing anger.

However, there is a disconnect between protesting communities and the African National Congress — leadership of young, unemployed youth will have to be constructed on the ground, rather than be proclaimed from Congress podiums.

The space for more ambitious programmes of transformation has thus been improved with the growing consensus that we face an uncertain future if youth unemployment remains at current levels. This is an encouraging development, as changes are clearly needed to address the problem of youth unemployment. In answering this policy question, there are two important policy directions that must be emphasised.

First, that the challenge is not simply about tweaking incentives, but rather that providing work to the current generation of unemployed youth will require wider interventions.

One possibility is to scale-up the Community Works Programme (CWP), which provides community based work opportunities with regular transfers of income by government. Other possibilities exist in the areas of increasing public service employment, or in undertaking a mass-retraining programme.

The exactness of the policy package has however been debated for the last decade with government and its social partners failing dismally to lend coherence to the problem. In important senses, the spadework for a wider intervention has been completed, but the leaders in our society have failed to create consensus and allocate resources to a programme to tackle the challenges.

Importantly, the disconnect between leaders and disillusioned youth was a precursor not only to the Arab spring, but in South Africa’s liberation struggle too.

Second, policy must not only address the fears of the middle and upper classes, but far more importantly, express the hopes of young unemployed people.

Current proposals in public policy propose social safety nets, gaining initial work experience in the public sector and even a subsidy to enter the workforce. These are important policy proposals that need to be quickly decided upon as a class of policies, which could be called “social stabilizers.” 

However, in building the South African dream, transforming the economy will need to consider the importance of creating an entity that provides a fair chance for anyone to participate in it and attain their dreams. The idealism in such an approach requires dealing with the hard features of our economy, which in its current form has a default position that supports larger firms and current incumbents.

Certainly, structural changes to the economy will take time, but even the most ambitious programme of social stabilisation will only attain sustainable results as part of a broader programme of economic restructuring.

South Africa is thus at a crucial point where the social conditions for a stronger push towards addressing inequality – because of the reality of exclusion – are becoming more apparent to those who are part of the economy.

However, the metaphor of a “ticking time bomb” may lull us into a false sense of security. Look around, listen and you might just recognise that an uprising is not a distant reality. Current protest action may be small and uncoordinated, but it is happening – “Feel it, it is here!” 

This article was first published under creative commons license on South African Civil Society Information Service website.

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