subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Unemployed graduates apply for internship vacancies at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, January 25 2021. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ALET PRETORIUS
Unemployed graduates apply for internship vacancies at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, January 25 2021. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ALET PRETORIUS

A recent Business Day editorial spoke of an “unacceptably high level of youth unemployment” and how it “is now probably the biggest threat to SA’s stability” (“President must assemble a wartime cabinet”, February 7). Since then Stats SA’s labour force figures for the fourth quarter of 2022 revealed that this figure has increased still further, to an eye-watering 61% of those between 15 and 24 years old.

While it is easy to validate the assessment of the threat this poses to SA’s stability, the implications are difficult to confront. Brazil’s unemployment rate is second only to ours among Group of 20 countries, yet ours is twice as high. Worse still, our official youth unemployment rate substantially understates our extreme outlier status. 

The more telling metric is the portion of our young adults who will be unemployed for so long that they become permanently marginalised. Nearly all of our currently unemployed young adults will eventually fit this description due to our low growth trajectory.

Those who are unemployed two years after leaving school still offer youthful adaptability. After another, say, half-dozen years of continued unemployment, this group becomes far less attractive to employers than younger cohorts. Aspirations give way to coping. Pervasive damage becomes permanent. 

Accepting the implications of our youth unemployment crisis should jolt our economic sensibilities as much as the Gupta email leaks revealed how we had been politically duped. Insights from scholars and journalists helped us then to accept how wide of the mark our perceptions had been.

Will we now accept that mineral wealth does not allow us to reject 21st-century development drivers? Will we appreciate that many democratic movements have been vanquished by authoritarianism amid mounting economic grief? 

While the French Revolution still inspires, its governance innovations were unable to quell the social unrest that then beset France.

While the French Revolution still inspires, its governance innovations were unable to quell the social unrest that then beset France. Rather, dissatisfaction was soon exploited by Napoleon Bonaparte to create a military dictatorship. 

If, while making national emergencies seem routine, the ANC continues to dominate the Union Buildings after the 2024 elections, is it reasonable to presume the constitution will survive for elections to be contested in 2029? Have the ANC’s leaders not made clear that they prioritise their party’s interests ahead of the nation’s?

We can be certain that our youth unemployment crisis will intensify — with powder keg effects — as the ranks of the permanently marginalised bulge. Yet, notwithstanding how easy it was to provoke social unrest in July 2021, many expect the ANC to root out corruption for the next several years and then accept its being dispatched by 2029 voters. Is this realistic?

All functioning governments avoid significant youth unemployment for fear of forfeiting political stability. Is the ANC  more a violence-prone patronage network than a constitutionally committed political party? Would many of its members welcome a transition from democracy to authoritarian rule? 

Suspending the constitution would spark international condemnation — mostly among Western countries. But by aligning with anti-Western nations the ANC can reframe the blowback risks. Does this help explain the ANC’s increasing tilt toward Russia and China?

A 2029 transition to a coalition government dominated by well-meaning, competent politicians seems alluringly plausible. But there are equally realistic scenarios in which the country’s social cohesion breaks down before then. As five years of a hard-left, ANC-dominated coalition national government would ensure continued low growth, most of our young adults would feel marginalised and cheated.

Alternatively, percolating economic agony could make next year’s election a turning point. Yet our economic discourse has lagged. Instead of focusing on powerful solutions, the ANC has succeeded in framing our employment challenges as a moral dilemma between fiscal rectitude and compassionate subsistence payments. This reflects meagre political accountability that traces to social justice emotions having been systematically exploited. It also involves isolationist impulses being indulged despite global integration being central to this economic era.

Globally determined success drivers are then ignored to favour vested interests. The belief persists that investment-led growth is viable despite policies that undermine both exporting and domestic growth. When our dissimilar leaders advocate investment-led growth they are saying their interests must be prioritised. This is termed “trickle-down economics”. Our global rankings for inequality and youth unemployment confirm that SA is among the world’s worst countries at trickle-down economics. 

Our socially destabilising unemployment and poverty trace to inward-focused economic policies amid a deeply integrated global economy. Corruption and incompetent execution are more visible yet, ultimately, less debilitating. We must aggressively pivot to achieve employment-led growth through far greater global integration. This is difficult but doable, whereas the alternatives threaten unacceptable outcomes.

• Hagedorn (@shawnhagedorn) is an independent strategy adviser.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.