As we started the new year, millions of young people flocked onto the streets to look for opportunities. Those who had just received their matric results were standing in long queues to secure limited spaces at universities or colleges, while those who had graduated were updating and sending out their CVs to possible employers, and those who remained unemployed were trying their luck again.

In the midst of seeking improved livelihoods, millions of young people find themselves closed out of opportunities. So who represents the aspirations of young South Africans?

With 36% (20-million) of the population under the age of 35, children and young people lie at the heart of SA’s untapped potential. Yet, more than 30% of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 are not in any form of employment, education or training (NEETs); 46% of 25-34 year olds fall into the same category. This equates to approximately 7.9-million young people out of work, education or training opportunities.

At the start of every new year, youth unemployment spikes to epidemic proportions. This is mainly due to new entrants into a labour market that is not creating enough job opportunities. Among graduates between the ages of 15 and 24, the unemployment rate was 31% during this period in 2019 compared to 19% in the fourth quarter of 2018 — an increase of 11 percentage points quarter-on-quarter. 

Young people have a tough relationship with employment —  youth unemployment is now at 56.4%, the highest globally, and 63.4% of the total unemployed population are young people. 2019 recorded the highest number of retrenchments and unemployment rates in 16 years. 

The government can no longer sweep this crisis under the rug. Some legislative and policy instruments, such as the National Youth Policy (2015) and the Youth Employment Service (2019) brought hope, but they have not implemented many of their intended resolutions. In his first state of the nation address in 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa recognised youth unemployment as our “most grave and pressing challenge” as South Africans. The year 2020, must be a year where we take action in tackling this crisis.

Many researchers have proven that a pool of young people who are not in employment, education and training are more prone to be caught up in crime, drug abuse, poverty and violence

About 17-million South African live on social grants. In 2017 alone, social grants received by people under the age of 35 increased by 11% and continues to grow at that rate. The exclusion of young people from opportunities is building a huge population of citizens highly depended on the government.

The Mail & Guardian newspaper recorded that 89% of matric learners who wrote the 2019 exams are grant beneficiaries. Most of them will be turn 18 soon and be cut off from even this income. University of Johannesburg research showed that a person spends more than R500 a month just looking for a job.

More and more young, functional people are pushed out of opportunities and depend on the government for their livelihoods. The government was projected to spend R193.4bn in 2018/2019 to R223.9bn by 2020/2021, and to grow by an average of 7.9% annually. This is money that could be redirected to other needs, such as health, housing and education.

Many researchers have proven that a pool of young people who are not in employment, education and training are more prone to be caught up in crime, drug abuse, poverty and violence. SA has been experiencing high levels of violence in the recent past.

This has moved to almost every part of society. Gender-based violence in SA is now five-times the global average; drug abuse  three-times; and murder, mental illness, violence in schools and rates of suicide keep on increasing yearly.

Youth divisions of the three biggest parties have been found wanting in the past few years. The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) has been in disarray since the expulsion of its former president, Julius Malema in 2012. The DA has not been at the forefront of issues facing the youth. Only the EFF seem to have a “legitimate” claim on youth issues, but the party has been more entangled in corruption allegations, the VBS Mutual Bank scandal and internal leadership fights that has seen many young party members being expelled. 

Major sectors of SA society are still occupied by senior citizens. The average age of an MP is said to be 66 and the average age of a farmer is 65. This, of course, is seen in most sectors of out society. This might be justified by the lack of experience among young people, yet the gap shouldn’t be this big due to the diminishing number of senior citizens and the rise of young graduates. This is not to say old people must be replaced but it shows that more spaces specifically for young people must be created.

A country that doesn’t invest in its youth will fail at solving its immediate and future challenges.

It is evident that young people do not know where to go. In 2019 the Independent Electoral Commission recorded a 47% decrease in youth voter turnout. It is time for young people themselves to put this crisis at the centre of national dialogue. This will require united campaigns and action from all young people across the country.

• Mthunz is a Wits University mathematical science graduate and social justice activist.

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