It’s time for SA’s young people to remember their agency

There is a generation of unemployed people in South Africa, who are not in education, employment or training (NEETS). File photo.

There is a generation of unemployed people in South Africa, who are not in education, employment or training (NEETS). File photo.

Published Jun 17, 2024


By: Sylvester Mokubedi

As we celebrate Youth Month this year, 30 years after the birth of democracy in South Africa, it is a poignant time to recognise how far we’ve come and where we need to go to uphold the freedom and potential of the youth of South Africa.

On paper, the numbers don’t look good. There is a generation of unemployed people in South Africa, who are not in education, employment or training (NEETS). The gap keeps growing as the levels of unemployment keep increasing (36.35% in 2004 and 50.47% in 2023).

However, there are glimmers of hope and progress that should not be overlooked. And there is a generation of young people who need to remember, and recognise, that they are important, they have agency and they have the potential to turn the page and write a new chapter in their story.

The challenges, as we know, are many. However, the required solutions to the prevailing problems are not complicated.

When we talk about systemic changes and big bucket solutions, we tend to (unintentionally) dehumanise the lived experiences of many young people who are locked out of the economy. The millions of young people who are NEETS represent real lives with broken aspirations and disillusionment.

While we try to solve the problems of the millions, we must recognise the individuals who make up the scary numbers. If we put the young person’s lived experience front and centre, we will solve the most pressing challenges with them. Not for them, but with them.

Some of the highest barriers to employment include a lack of access to transport, so young adults are not able to look for employment, and attend interviews, or gain valuable in-person work experience. Another issue is a lack of work-seeking support and limited access to relevant, quality skills development and training.

I believe that the public and private sector can co-create employment and self-employment opportunities that are curated for young people who are looking to transition from economic exclusion to inclusion.

The foundational skills, generically required by the economy of today and the future, are also often lacking. These include basic numeracy and literacy, as well as digital and social skills. When we think about solving this issue for a generation of young adults, it seems impossible, but if we look at it from the perspective of one person at a time it is achievable. And it must be achieved.

In recent years, there have been some fundamental, and positive, shifts in policy and advocacy in South Africa. These include the removal of barriers to entry in work experience requirements, the creation of a national minimum wage, as well as giving young South Africans the ability to learn while working, through programmes such as Learnerships, for example.

However, more needs to be done, to not only implement the policies and standards more consistently and coherently, but also to carve out new frameworks that support our youth in their learning and career goals.

I would argue that it’s not stricter enforcement of regulation that is needed, but rather a drive from inspirational, intentional leadership who aim to connect employers to a greater cause for the success of our country, inspiring them to remove barriers and assist young people to enter our economy.

While opportunities for the majority of young people in South Africa are constrained, it is still those who stand out from the rest who have a higher chance of rewriting how their story continues.

Matric results and post-school education still matter, but beyond the grades, young people can hone the following skills for a greater chance of success. I urge young South Africans to:

  • Learn to communicate effectively, clearly and with confidence. Verbal communication skills may be enhanced through peer-to-peer coaching and role-playing.
  • Be curious, and demonstrate this curiosity through the information you consume and how you spend your time. Keep on the pulse of current affairs and information specific to the career or industry of choice.
  • Have a positive attitude and be relatable. While there is doom and gloom around us, it is those who can rise above the challenges who demonstrate their agency and can-do attitude.
  • Practice being able to learn and assimilate knowledge in a short period of time (rate of learning and speed to competence). Ask questions, do extra research and try your best.
  • Go to your local library or computer centre and try to gain foundation computer and digital literacy skills, such as doing basic research and compiling information.
  • Know you are enough. You are capable, and you have the ability to learn and grow. There are opportunities out there for you as an employee or as someone who is self-employed.

This Youth Month, I urge us to take a moment to realise that while the problems persist, so do the solutions. Not all is broken, and together, as the public and private sector, we need to work with young South Africans to understand their challenges and move forward with the solutions.

* Sylvester Mokubedi is an education expert and the Head of Sales & Marketing at Optimi Workplace, a division of the Optimi Group, one of South Africa’s leading names in the education and training industry.