Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA)/Taken 24 June 2021 – A national unemployment campaign march at Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown, Johannesburg. Their demands include permanent jobs for all, creating jobs opportunities for the youth and scraping 18-35 age limit from all government jobs. For South Africa’s youth, prospects are bleak with recent official statistics recording a further increase in the youth unemployment rate, the writer says.
By Kim Heller
I was woken by an indiscreet loud hooting. I stumbled to the door to find a delivery truck outside my gate. It was just before 8am. I had not slept long for I wrote late into the night and fell asleep to the bird talk of the early morning. For South Africa’s youth, prospects are bleak. Recent official statistics record a further increase in the youth unemployment rate.
I swiftly slipped into a respectable tracksuit, smoothed my unruly blonde-grey mop of hair, and went outside to receive the package that I had ordered several days before. I was greeted by a bright eyed, energetic young black man. He seemed rather happy to see me, despite my dishevel and sleepy dispossession. “Are you the Kim Heller who wrote No White Lies,” the young man asked. “Yes,” I admitted although I felt more unbrushed artist than polished writer. “I bought your book,” he said enthusiastically.
We spent a few minutes chatting about politics, the current state of the nation, and his challenging circumstances. I learnt that he was an honours graduate in international relations. I listened to how he could not find work despite this post-graduate degree, and how he had resorted to work as a driver for a courier company. I asked him to send me his curriculum vitae, even though I knew that his fate and fortune was unlikely to improve any time soon. Youth unemployment has become the inscription of a current day government which has failed its young.
I had a similar conversation with another young black man at a coffee bar, in the last week. As he poured my cappuccino, he told me how difficult economic conditions had forced him to discontinue his law degree and seek a job well below his academic aptitude and qualifications. My passing interaction with these two very academically talented, accomplished, seemingly hard working and ambitious young men trapped in directionless, low-level jobs deflated me. It was a real-time testimony to how democracy has failed young black South Africans.
For South Africa’s youth, prospects are bleak. Recent official statistics record a further increase in the youth unemployment rate. In the first quarter of 2023, youth unemployment stood at 46.5 percent. In terms of body count, this is 4.9 million young South Africans, mostly young black men and women.
In my book, No White Lies, Black Politics and White Power in South Africa, I wrote of how political freedom has not brought economic justice or equity and how young black South Africans are yet to enjoy the milk and honey of the promised land. For most black young South Africans, there has been no pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow. Rather the pot has been mostly, if not entirely empty.
Black youth are told over and over again, by the older generation, that they must appreciate the grave sacrifices that were made in the fight for a just and free South Africa. Young black South Africans are told how fortunate they are to be part of a free and just society. They are pushed to be “politically responsible”, and to actively participate in politics and in the voting game of elections.
But it is not surprising that over 40 percent of young eligible voters under 30 years of age did not register to vote for the 2019 election and that less than 50 percent of those who did register actually went out to cast their vote.
Too little is spoken of the burden of undone transformation on South Africa’s black youth. Of an economy that is neither equitable nor accommodating. Instead of giving black youth the gift of freedom, they have been given the pretence of equity and equality. This is cruel for it places failure on the individual rather than on a system which allows not for the success of a black child.
In a powerful thought piece published in Sunday Tribune this weekend, Professor Saths Cooper wrote, “Twenty-nine years later, our youth, who constitute the overwhelming majority in our country, seem to confront an implacable cul-de-sac of hopelessness.”
There is little to inspire the youth to be politically active. With a score of politicians, including the President of the country, accused of corruption and/or constitutional violations, there are few positive role models for young people.
One of my all-time favourite proverbs reads as follows, “We desire to bequeath two things to our children; the first one is roots, the other one is wings.” The black child in South Africa’s Rainbow Nation is being told to fly, but without wings. Still taught in white languages, still working in white dominated corporate corridors of power. Still landless and hobbling at the starting line in a race set by the pacesetter of others. His and her every day is rooted not in the agile sole of black consciousness and confidence but on the uncomfortable heel of whiteness.
In a breathtakingly nostalgic and poignant article published in Sunday World this weekend, entitled Poor black kids continue to be condemned in Verwoerdian tones, by veteran journalist Joe Thloloe, he recalls the June 16th 1976 historical moment. “The kids had taken matters into their own hands. Down with Afrikaans! Down with Bantu Education! Down with the Boers! Down with apartheid! Police and soldiers in cars, vans and armoured vehicles crisscrossed the township shooting teargas and even live bullets when they saw any group of kids. It became a deadly game.”
The author then writes of how a recent study had found that 81% of grade 4 pupils cannot read for meaning. “Apartheid is dead! Long live apartheid!” Thloe continued “The children who can’t read are not from the affluent northern suburbs and their model C and private schools, they are from the no-fees schools. They are the poor, the downtrodden in our nation; they continue to be crippled and condemned in Verwoerdian tones to their future roles as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” He writes of how 29 years of democracy has been squandered. As I prepare to write tonight, in the torchlight of loadshedding, I ponder about when the black youth are going to protest and rise up against the injustice of this system as they did in 1976. Certainly, they have just cause to do so and a legitimate rage.
In his article, Professor Saths Cooper writes of how the youth in the country want to succeed and “do and be better, but all that abounds seems to thrust them into more helplessness unless it’s another protest. Then all hell can break loose, and we still wonder why. This terrible state of affairs can be turned around.” I hope it is not too late.
The past 30 years has not worked for South Africa’s youth, particularly the black youth, and most particularly those engulfed in structural and opportunity poverty. In a 10th Anniversary Celebration in Mogalakwena Hospice and Rehabilitation Centre, the EFF’s President Julius Malema said “2024 is our 1994, that is what the youth of South Africa should say, it’s a turning point where we are going to take over government and restore it into the hands of our people”.
Because of the undone business of transformation, the baton of liberation is now passed on to the current generation of youth. The black child of today who should be revelling in the free play and bliss of childhood is caught in the failure of the ANC government to deliver economic liberation and cultural restoration. It is an enormous responsibility for a youth that should be free but is not. Today’s generation of youth carry the responsibility of ensuring that the children of tomorrow enjoy the wings of true freedom and cultural sovereignty. It is a heavy burden.
Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’