Youth have to rebuild with stronger eye on the future

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Most in-demand tech jobs in South Africa. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Kuyanda Kala

Ahead of the recent, highly contested national elections, a popular mantra among the youth on social media was that “2024 will be our 1994.” Social media had become an outlet for debate for many young South Africans who had grown disconnected from the country’s politics.

The 1994 elections were a turning point in the country’s history. The transition from apartheid to democracy symbolised reconciliation and nation-building. Thirty years later, South Africa has to rebuild once more, and the youth of 2024 cannot divorce themselves from the rebuilding process.

Youth Day is one of 12 official public holidays in South Africa’s calendar year. It is one of the more cherished national holidays, often reflected in the annual, visually striking imagery of civilians, including adults, clad in school attire.

Such displays serve as remembrance of the historical 1976 Soweto Uprising, on June 16, where the youth of the time peacefully demonstrated against the apartheid regime, and its introduction of Afrikaans, as a medium of instruction.

Apartheid police retaliated with force, opening fire, killing over 170 black people, including 12-year-old Hector Peterson, whose lifeless body has become the poster image for the day.

A day that previously marked national sorrow would later be ingrained in the hearts and minds of South Africans, as a reminder of the vigour possessed by the youth of South Africa.

Today, I wonder where the youth of 1976 are and what their place is in the current South Africa. A generation comprised of so many who fought valiantly against oppression seems to have betrayed the cause for which many others died.

Iconic anti-apartheid activist, Chris Hani, cautioned in 1992 that: “What I fear is that the liberators emerge as elitists who drive around in Mercedes Benzes and use the resources of this country to live in palaces and to gather riches”.

This quote from Hani aptly captures the South African reality in 2024 which is characterised by exaggerated disparities between the haves and the have nots.

The Gini coefficient, which measures inequality from a scale of 0-1, with a higher number indicating greater inequality, shows that South Africa scored 0.63 in 2024, making South Africa one of the most unequal countries in the world.

The adverse effect of such disparities then manifests in 2024’s youth, whose main contention is the staggering high levels of youth unemployment.

According to Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), 32.9% of South Africans were unemployed in the first quarter.

Exacerbating a near despondent statistic, is the ever-rising figure of 45,5% of young South Africans who are without work. Although many unemployed individuals have an education level of matric (Grade 12) and below, graduates still make up 10% of this youth unemployment statistic.

However, Stats SA notes that a person’s chances of getting and keeping a job is greatly influenced by their level of education. Nevertheless, the number of young people not in employment, education, or training (NEET) remains alarmingly high.

The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit’s (SALDR) profile on NEETs in South Africa finds that many unemployed NEETs are new entrants into the labour market, and many have been looking for work for extended periods without success.

Additionally, extended periods of disconnect from the labour market and education or training opportunities increase young people’s risk of remaining trapped in income poverty and of suffering mental ill-health.

Addressing youth unemployment is a national imperative, not only to advance the economy but also to improve societal morale and social cohesion. The government, private sector, and civil society are key to achieving this objective.

However, the youth have not been passive despite these challenges, as evidenced by the proliferation of entrepreneurial activities in the gig economy and those who leverage the growing influence of social media to grow their businesses.

Youth activity is also evident in the phenomenon of posting one’s CV on social media, with the hopes of the post reaching a prospective employer. This is an indicator of the youth’s willingness and determination to work.

However, today’s youth have seemingly resigned to temporary jobs to survive. These temporary jobs, then, end up being permanent, with youth in these positions not having critical benefits like medical aid and a pension fund, further disadvantaging them.

This, together with broader national issues such as load-shedding, high crime levels, inflation, and a lumbering economy, paints a bleak picture for many young South Africans.

They have, in turn, showcased their discontent with the soon-to-be former government led by the African National Congress (ANC) by casting their votes in the national elections, which they deem “their 1994”.

According to Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo, the rate of representation by persons in the 18-39 age cohort has increased; this age band accounted for 42% or 11.7 million voters in the voters’ roll.

Almost prophetically, the status quo long enjoyed by the ANC ruling class has dropped below 50%, losing its outright majority and forcing the establishment of a government of national unity.

Yet the consequence of a coalition government is angst about the country’s direction – which will inevitably affect the youth most. The youth of 2024 ought to align themselves with this rebuilding period, particularly for future generations, as the youth of 1976 laid out their lives for the freedom we now enjoy.

Kuyanda Kala is a Media Studies Honours graduate based at Nelson Mandela University’s Communication and Marketing Department. 

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