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Youth activists protest during the national unemployment campaign march. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/LAIRD FORBES
Youth activists protest during the national unemployment campaign march. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/LAIRD FORBES

Six years ago Julian Brown wrote The Road To Soweto: Resistance & The Uprising of 16 June 1976. In a 2017 review, Toivo Asheeke wrote that Brown “successfully expands our understanding of the Soweto uprising as an event marking the culmination of numerous non-linear actions that created a space for new forms of resistance to apartheid”.

It also emphasised the fact that South Africans were not waiting passively for the ANC and Pan African Congress to “save them from abroad, but actively created their own forms of protest inside the country to challenge the daily injustices they faced”, Asheeke wrote.

There was still a long walk to freedom from 1976 to 1994. The achievement of the 1994 negotiated settlement cannot be overstated despite the lamentable loss of life, especially in the prior four years. Several difficult questions now plague us though: what has been achieved since 1994 in material terms and would those who sacrificed their lives be satisfied with the prospects faced by young people in SA today?

While an empirical answer to the latter may be impossible, some data is useful to hint at answers to the former. In 2000, when SA first started recording youth unemployment data, the percentage of the youth workforce (aged 15-24) who were unemployed was 53.5%. By 2020, that figure had risen to 59.4%. The latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey (first quarter 2022) puts it at 63.9%. Of those aged 25 to 34, the unemployment rate in the same quarter was 42.1%.

The labour force participation rate — the proportion of the working age population either employed or unemployed (not “discouraged” or otherwise not part of the workforce) — for the latter is 69.5%. The 42.1% figure is therefore of serious concern, as the participation rate for the lower age group (15-24) is 24.9% — as one would expect, not many 15- to 18-year-olds should be trying to find work. They should instead be enrolled in educational activities equipping them either for employment or to create employment opportunities themselves.

These figures should be located within the overall context of largely jobless economic growth. SA’s economic growth since 1994 has been anaemic, and we are now facing the prospect of stagflation — a stagnating economy with rising inflation. Economists employ the language of “capital deepening” to essentially indicate choices employers make to invest in technology at the expense of labour. Capital deepening in the SA economy has meant a significant reduction in labour absorption, especially of unskilled labour.

This is only partly attributable to a complex industrial relations landscape; there is, for instance, a certain point at which it is not feasible to send rockdrill operators 3km underground if that unsafe work could instead be executed by a robot. The state should therefore already be partnering extensively with the private sector to ensure the education system is fit for purpose, delivering skills required for a hi-tech future.

But the education system — the very thing South Africans shed their blood for in 1976 — has failed young people in this respect. The SA Institute of Race Relations records that in 1982, six years after the Soweto uprisings, the apartheid government spent an average of R1,211 on education for each white child, and only R146 for each black child. Teaching quality also differed substantially —  a third of all white teachers had a tertiary qualification and the rest a matric certificate, while just 2.3% of black teachers had a university degree and while 82% had not attained matric. More than half had not reached what is now grade 10.

Academics Tim Heaton, Yaw Amoateng and Mikaela Dufur produced extensive research in 2010 that showed persistent racial inequality in educational attainment. Their regressions show that a substantial share of the disadvantage is attributable to “family background” — in other words, having relatively poorly educated parents (or parents who were largely absent from having to hold down long-hour jobs) negatively impacted educational prospects. “These results imply the need for more effective education policy that should address both issues of racial inequality and disadvantaged family background.”

In 1980, the share of the population above age 25 that had attained upper secondary school completion was 11.3%. By 1985, the figure had dropped to 8.2%. By 2019 the figure had risen to 69.7%, a phenomenal achievement. However, as demonstrated by Brian Levy, Robert Cameron, Ursula Hoadley and Vinothan Naidoo in 2018, there is not much substantive cause for celebration. SA children perform poorly in international benchmarking tests. The authors call this a crisis of “schooling without learning”. A significant lack of parental participation remains an achilles heel.

Functional bureaucracy without participative governance is a necessary but entirely insufficient condition on which to improve educational impact. Moreover, allocating more money towards the problem is clearly not going to solve it, as the structural problems will persist without a clear strategic plan. What was fought for in 1976 has still not been materially achieved. The democratic moment of 1994 ushered in a new era of civil liberties that should never be taken for granted. However, in that context we expected labour-absorptive, inclusive growth and a reversal of the dismal Bantu education system that had been a millstone around South Africans’ necks.

A substantive part of the reason for why we have not achieved what the class of ’76 would have expected is attributable to the country’s poor governance record since 1996. At Good Governance Africa we developed a “governance coefficient” to quantify the relationship over time between good governance and GDP per capita. Good governance can be defined in myriad ways, but one of its outcomes should at the very least be reflected in two measures relatively independent of each other — government effectiveness, and citizen voice and accountability.

These two should work together to ensure that states deliver an enabling environment for businesses to thrive while citizens grow in power to institutionalise constraints on states’ power. This should create what economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson term a “narrow corridor” in which economic dynamism can flourish.

On both governance scores SA has deteriorated. In 1996, the country’s GDP per capita was $3,494, among the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa (but obviously racially skewed). Twenty-six years later that figure has only risen to $5,090. Botswana, by contrast, grew from $3,221 in 1996 to $6,711 in 2020.

Without a dynamic, labour-absorptive economy —  itself a function of radically improved governance — SA will continue to edge towards chaos. Growing youth unemployment, combined with narrowing economic prospects, is a time bomb. Many have said so and they would be right. There is potentially no more urgent problem to solve, if only to honour the class of ’76 and what they stood for.

• Dr Harvey is director of research & programmes at Good Governance Africa.

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