To a large extent, South Africa has been built on the backs of the youth, from the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the 1976 riots to the more recent #FeesMustFall movement. Young people have often put their bodies on the line to fight for basic human rights. Every year, when Youth Month comes around, we hear politicians tell us once again that, “the youth are our future”. But where is the actual structural, financial and educational support for our youth?
According to statistics, South Africa’s population is around 54 million people. The youth makes up about 66% of that, meaning that more than half of the population falls under the age of 35. The future is young, bright and ready to revolutionise, it seems.
But when you take another look at the statistics, you’ll see another glaringly obvious figure. South Africa’s unemployment rate currently stands at around 50.4%, with the youth making up the majority of that percentage.
Thus, the “youth are our future” rhetoric seems tired, because the statement is hardly followed by long-lasting and sustainable action in the long run. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the youth who are living this reality fall under poor to working class groups. Generational divides pose an issue, with elders believing in the motto of “work hard enough and you’ll go far” or another favourite, “education gets you places”. South Africa is riddled with inequality and it shows. Children go to schools that are structurally unsound, in overcrowded classes and often with no food to eat. Those same children then have to navigate gang warfare, lack of resources, dysfunctional homes and still somehow get a matric exemption. Working class children are expected to excel with minimal support, and those who do are shown off as the exception. If Sipho from Soweto who lives with his granny in a shack can get distinctions, then so can you.
The real question is, why should children need to experience that kind of structural trauma? And why hasn’t government stepped in with necessary resources?
South Africa loves talking about the youth, but hardly ever puts that love into tangible effort.
Get an education they said
The mantra we’re often fed is that key to unlocking your future and eradicating the cycle of poverty is getting an education. However, once young South Africans manage to make it to matric, there are barely any support systems in place to help learners from disadvantaged areas succeed. Career fairs and Life Orientation classes only go so far in giving information. There are plenty of steps to navigate when making definitive choices about one’s future. Coming from a disadvantaged area means you’ve already seen what happens when you don’t make it.
Working class youth either drop out to support their families or do so once they’ve received their matric. And so the long, tedious job search begins, which requires capital to begin with.
Earlier this year, the City of Cape Town announced that the MyCiti bus services would be offering free bus rides to unemployed people in and around the city. This would alleviate the stress of needing taxi, bus or train fare to get to the city centre and hopefully ease the job search process. Patrons can obtain a MyCiti card for free and this would allow the prospective job seeker to travel between 10:30am and 3:30pm. It’s been punted as one of the way the city is actively helping unemployed youth and recent graduates.
But what’s the fine print? MyCiti services have expanded to other areas beyond the city centre, like Atlantis, Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha. However, there are still plenty of outlying areas that are nowhere near the MyCiti lanes. The earliest concerns about this bus service was that it was expensive to use and didn’t service the areas that needed it most. Will job seekers incur extra costs trying to get to a MyCiti bus stop or will the routes expand? How will they obtain cards and will they have pay a fee to do so?
While the initiative is a step in the right direction, there is more to be done. Searching for a job requires a variety of resources. Unemployed youth and recent graduates need facilities available to them and, most importantly, there needs to be enough jobs. Young graduates need access to PCs to compile their CVs, access to the internet to begin to search for jobs and money to print out said CVs. It’s increasingly problematic that some internship programs don’t even pay their interns, which means those who can afford to work for free are the ones who matter. Thus, getting job experience isn’t even accessible or economically viable and hinders progress for so many.
The way out of unemployment is not simply alleviated by free bus rides on a service provider not easily accessible to the masses.
Youth Month could be an ideal opportunity to launch sustainable programs that help unemployed youths, struggling graduates and school learners navigate their respective situations.
South Africa entered a technical recession this year, putting more pressure on unemployed youths to somehow perform in tough circumstances. Students who continue to fight for lower fees, free education and want to contribute to this economy need more active support from municipalities and government initiatives.
Youth Month is not just about honouring the struggle heroes who paved the way for future generations, but also ensuring that young people have a fighting chance to succeed.
The bland and repetitive rhetoric that gets bandied about during June and on Youth Day is uninspiring. South Africa loves lecturing the youth on what we should do, but hardly ever provides the tools to actually begin dismantling inequality.
Because the truth is that you can work hard, get your matric and still fall through the cracks. In 2017, youth activists are still fighting for the basic rights that their predecessors did and they’re tired of being lied to.
The struggle to exist is a continuous one, and Youth Month isn’t the time to sweep the truth under the rug.
Picture: Siya Mkhasibe
By Maria Douglas*
*not the author’s real name.