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Unemployed graduates apply for internship vacancies advertised by the office of the Presidency at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in this January 25 2021. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ALET PRETORIUS
Unemployed graduates apply for internship vacancies advertised by the office of the Presidency at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in this January 25 2021. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ALET PRETORIUS

With youth unemployment of 65.5% in SA, it is clear most young people will not get a formal job. Realistically, only a small proportion could potentially develop into high-growth entrepreneurs.

It is clear that our idealised notions of entrepreneurship are not the antidote to joblessness. Only a handful of people can build a fast-growing business able to employ hundreds of people. But what if we could create a million one-person businesses? We should get as many individuals earning an income as possible; participating in the economy and starting to spend, creating markets for other small businesses.

Young people with skills and grit should be taught how to apply entrepreneurial thinking to their careers. If they look to the digital economy, they don’t even need to be constrained by what’s available locally.

Instilling self-efficacy

As many SA graduates have discovered, a degree does not make anybody’s life or career magically unfold. Relevant practical skills, a flexible and opportunistic approach to making work happen, and the ability to bounce back from setbacks, are far more effective. These individuals could become confident operating as a business of one: a solopreneur.

We can have a lot more people managing themselves as small businesses and participating in the global economy. Yet the regular Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) regularly reports a relatively low degree of entrepreneurial activity among South Africans (though we are increasingly looking more favourably on entrepreneurship as a desirable career path). Does this mean South Africans are not entrepreneurial? Perhaps.

Arguably, the reason for this is deeply rooted in SA’s history and the psych of its people. Decades of systematic disempowerment have likely led to a general erosion of self-efficacy. South Africans struggle to believe they can take control of their circumstances and influence the world around them.

To solve our youth unemployment crisis the first thing we would need to do is work with young people to increase their confidence in their ability to execute their own plans. In some schools and environments this type of thinking is actively discouraged, let alone positively taught. But it is counterproductive to tell young adults what to do: what happens when we’re not around? What happens when we’re wrong?

We need to allow them to test their assumptions and own the decisions they make. We have to give our youth a space where they can make mistakes, correct their own mistakes, experience some small wins and build confidence in themselves so they can make a plan no matter what. We need to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset in every receptive young person.

To foster self-efficacy among young South Africans we need to:

  • Create safe spaces. There is a saying: do safe things in dangerous places and dangerous things in safe places. Create the latter spaces within the education framework, entrepreneurial hubs, families or church groups where young people can try out things and get feedback. Mentorships can support this; people who have been there before, giving young people feedback and encouragement and helping them extract the lessons from what they are learning.
  • Provide skills and knowledge. We have to give young people skills so they feel more competent to give opportunities a try (for example, using an online platform to find a piece of freelance work). These include technical skills, whether writing code or designing in Canva, and basic digital management principles. In addition, self-management skills — such as time and money management, costing to make a profit, making sales and negotiating — are all essential to a young people running their own careers.
  • Encourage the creation of peer-to-peer support networks. Create platforms, spaces and events for young people, and incentivise them to connect with like-minded peers. Young people who meet in productive places like entrepreneurial hubs tend to positively challenge and motivate each other. Some might even decide to partner up to secure contracts.
  • Share success stories. We should be fanatical about sharing stories of relatable young people who are blazing trails in entrepreneurship, such as Theo Baloyi, who founded Bathu Shoes, an exciting sneaker brand. These profiles make entrepreneurship aspirational, but also attainable. Young people need to know somebody like them managed to be successful and that they can do it too if they work on their skills and connections.
  • Address young people’s trauma. Most unemployed South Africans have likely experienced trauma. It is important to address this for them to master self-efficacy, otherwise they will be defined by their woundedness. The circumstances the majority of young South Africans grow up in mean they will have seen or experienced things that may have disturbed and damaged them. They are also generationally traumatised and have just been through a pandemic. If they are not helped to confront these difficult experiences and reframe how they are thinking about them, the rest of these interventions won’t work. Properly mediated, stress can be turned into a strength. SA has a lot of problems to be solved. Young South Africans need to believe they are the people who can tackle them, starting with themselves.

The expectations on SA’s young people are high. We should support them to take baby steps and realise small wins, develop their resilience and protect their mental health, apply their skills and, ultimately, make opportunities happen for themselves. One job at a time.

• Matthews is a director at Viridian, a consultancy that works with development agencies, government departments and corporates to design and deliver programmes that catalyse African entrepreneurial ecosystems.

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