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By Cyriaque Hakizimana

The Covid-19 crisis is likely to deepen the hardship experienced by the youth in South Africa who are already considered to be the most vulnerable in the South African labour market. Even before the current crisis, young people were the hardest hit by the economic slowdown. Approximately 8.2 million (40.1%) of South Africa’s 20.4 million young people aged 15 to 34 were not employed, educated or trained, according to the latest figures released by Statistics SA in the Quarterly Labour Force Survey on 12 February, 2020.

As we move deeper into the crisis, we should consider lessons from the 2008 global financial crisis, which led to massive job losses and pushed many young people into unemployment.  While the overall employment decline was about 6.4 percent between 2008 and 2010 in South Africa, employment dropped by more than 20% for young people between 18 and 24 years during the same period. The situation is expected to worsen in the wake of Covid-19. Globally, the International Labour Organization estimates that 24.7 million people could be unemployed as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. In South Africa, the Reserve Bank estimates that about 1.6 million jobs could be lost and an estimated 10% drop in GDP for 2020. Young persons, particularly women, already facing higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, are more vulnerable to falling labour demand. This is not good news for young people who were hoping that the situation would get better sooner than later.

Youth unemployment should be the most important development concern for South Africa. The temporary Covid-19 relief grant for the unemployed people in the 18 to 59 age group who are receiving no other form of government assistance is just a drop of water in the ocean given the scale and magnitude of youth unemployed in South Africa. The minister of social development, Lindiwe Zulu, stressed in a media briefing that an amount of R350 would be transferred to the unemployed applicant from the date of approval up to the end of October 2020: “So if applicants apply in June their payments will be from June and there will be no back pay.”  A spirited discussion of the youth problem in the country and the accurate detail of the government’s plan to address it are particularly important at this juncture. Yes, no condition is indeed permanent and, as the President reassured the nation, there is no doubt that the South African society shall overcome this crisis as it did in the past. But, what is the plan for unemployed and marginalised young people?

Even more disturbing is the absence in the current debates of youth organisations such as the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) and the South African Youth Council (SAYC) which were primarily established to be the voice for the youth and defend their interests and aspirations in South Africa’s policy making-processes and planning. With all the privileges and financial resources that they command, these organisations have been unable to achieve success in influencing the policy direction that promotes young people’s involvement in South Africa’s economy. This failure may be attributed to political interference in the operations and functioning of these youth organisations.

The government’s lack of a clear and coherent vision to incorporate young people particularly from the marginalised communities in the economy is problematic and needs to be urgently addressed. A clear youth vision ought to be a unique qualified enabler to create a conducive environment in the country that young people can take advantage of to grow and flourish as independent economic actors in their own right. The political priorities for creating a youth-friendly inclusive economy as articulated in various macro-level policies have remained rhetorical talk in both private and public sectors. While the government’s policy failures may be in the spotlight, the reluctant private sector needs to reform in order to facilitate the inclusion of the historically marginalised communities to compound the problem. There is no-one-size-fits-all solution to addressing the youth problem in South Africa. All stakeholders need to come on board and work together to tackle the youth unemployment in the country. In the short to medium term, the government may consider extending the proposed unemployment grant programme beyond October 2020 to keep millions of unemployed young people afloat. However, the lasting solution lies in the profound restructuring of South Africa’s economy so that it can work for all South Africans. Clearly, the last 26 years have shown that the current highly concentrated South African economy is less likely to distribute resources or create enough employment for all job seekers, particularly the historically marginalised young people. The reform in property ownership coupled with wealth distributive measures could go a long way in addressing the youth unemployment problem in South Africa in the long term.

Cover image: REUTERS/Rogan Ward