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The Narrative of an Unemployed Graduate in South Africa

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July 19, 2019

One month ago, South Africa celebrated Youth Day, an event that commemorates the 1976 Soweto Youth uprising for better education. However, South Africa is still plagued by a phenomenon of unemployment that disproportionately affects its youth. 

Unemployment is a global phenomenon that plagues both developed and developing countries, with the youth population accounting for a large percentage of the world’s unemployment rate. South Africa has proven to be one of the countries worst affected by unemployment, even in contrast to other countries with high unemployment rates such as Nigeria, Brazil and Greece. Soaring to 27.6%, unemployment was declared a “national crisis” by the President of South Africa in May 2019. Youth constitute 55.2% of the 6.2 million South Africans who are actively seeking jobs. Despite a growing graduate labour force, this situation shows no sign of abating and efforts to stem the tide remain ineffective.     

April 1994 heralded the birth of the new South Africa as communities basked in and celebrated the promise of a new beginning and a better life for all. A better life for all under a democratic order meant economic transformation and growth for everyone. In that same year, South Africa reclaimed its rightful place in the global economy, enthusiastic yet heavy laden with the task of poverty alleviation, inequality reduction, and ensuring investment growth.

The first economic policy adopted by the government in 1994 was the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which was unsuccessful due to its overly ambitious approach to tackling poverty and inequality with little regard to fiscal constraints. The next two policies, Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) in 1996 and Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (ASGISA) in 2006, also failed to have the anticipated impact, resulting instead in fluctuating unemployment rates. Having observed the structural change in the labour force and demand for high-skilled workers [1], the Government’s solution to unemployment was to invest in education. In a heartbeat, 2010 saw the introduction of the New Growth Path (NGP). More than 20% of the National Budget was injected into education, resulting in The Republic becoming one of the highest spending governments on education in the world, despite having the lowest graduate labour force due to high dropout rates [2]. 

The year is 2015 and South Africa celebrates her 21st birthday. Over two decades into democracy, it is the world’s most unequal country, with more than half of the nation living below the already low poverty line. The apartheid legacy is still reflected in the education system. A legal entity NSFAS (Nation Student Financial Aid Scheme), which was established with the intent to grant the economically disenfranchised students access to higher education, has successfully reached far and wide. However, its focus has been on reaching more students rather than fully funding them. This has resulted in high dropout rates because of inadequate funds and the high cost of studies. In October 2015,, ‘born frees’ (born after 1994) from all walks of life united for #feesmustfall, a student-led protest, and took to the streets to fight for free education.

“United we stand, divided we fall.”

Being an unemployed graduate can be very lonely and an unavoidable trigger to one’s mental health. For the average South African, it is a return home to the poverty, people and  places you have long outgrown. It has the power to propel negative thoughts and emotions: fear that you might not make it, regret that you wasted time and money, and anger that your family is still not progressing economically. After having been to university -a place where the dream of economic freedom seems tangible- unemployment feels like a personal attack on one’s identity and sense of belonging. In the midst of that detachment lies a genuine longing for connectedness, for community and sometimes, relatability. 

South Africa are now 25 years into democracy and the growth of the graduate labour force is a sign that the youth are proactive, but unemployment policies are still not doing enough to fill in the gaps. This calls for the country to delve deeper and address the issue of unemployment at both preventative and curative levels [3] as opposed to just injecting money into education. At the preventative level, there needs to be a stronger collaboration between The Department of Basic Education, Universities/Tertiary institutions and employers to solve the problem of discrepancy between required skills and skills acquired by graduates [4]. The NYDA’s (National Youth Development Agency) Youth Advisory Centres and Graduate Development Programme, where young people receive career guidance and graduates have their skilled enhanced, are a great start and should have wider reach. The International Growth Advisory Panel recommended a youth employment subsidy for South Africa in 2011. Implementing this as a curative strategy to decrease the graduate unemployment rate could work to boost the economy [5]. 

In the meantime, volunteering is known to foster soft skills and develop work ethic. There are some incredible organizations such as City Year and Harambee that give one the opportunity to grow professionally and personally through mentorship and tutoring. 

The South African youth have always been the heartbeat of the country. They led the fight and conquered an oppressive apartheid regime – what is unemployment therefore, to stand in their way? A luta continua! 

“Together we stand.”

[1] Lorainne Ferrereira and Riaan Rossouw, “South Africa’s Economic Policies On Unemployment: A Historical Analysis of Two Decades of Transition”, Journal of Economic and Financial Sciences (October 2016): 807-832.’s_economic_policies_ on_unemployment_A_historical_analysis_of_two_decades_of_transition

[2] Martine Visser, Michael Cosser, Migonone Brier and Moeketsi, “Student retention & graduate destination: higher education and labour market access and success”, (Cape Town: HSRC Press,2010): 39-144.

[3] Martin Godfrey, “Youth Unemployment Policy in Developing and Transition Countries- Prevention as well as Cure”, Social Protection Discussion Paper Series,320, no.1 (2003).

[4] Precious Mncayi, “An Analysis of the Perceptions of Graduate Unemployment Among Graduates from A South African University”, Internal Journal of Social Sciences and Humanity Studies 8, no.1 (2016).

[5] Lorriaine Greyling, “Graduate unemployment in South Africa: Perspectives from the banking sector”, SA Journal of Human Resource Management (March 2015). banking_Sector