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Young, black and angry - can SA's economy transform?

Oct 21 2015 13:28
Buhle Ndweni, Lameez Omarjee and Shandukani Mulaudzi

University students protest (Mpho Raborife, News24)

The country faces major challenges, particularly weak economic growth, high unemployment and a large proportion of marginalised black South Africans.

Further, these factors are responsible for driving the scramble for limited resources, often with very violent consequences, as the recent xenophobic attacks have illustrated.  

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 52% – or 1.38m – South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed, based on government’s narrow definition that only includes people who are actively looking for work, or are not receiving any education.

The broad definition, which includes those who have given up on looking for work, shows a massive 65.1% – 2.4m people – are not working or receiving any kind of education or training. Add another 3.1m young people between the ages of 25 and 34 who are neither employed nor in training.

After more than two decades of democracy, black South Africans remain much more likely to be marginalised than their white counterparts. Using the broad definition, 70.4% of black youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are neither working nor in training, compared to 21.7% of whites.

For coloureds, the unemployment rate is 55.3%, and 39.7% for Indians, according to a recent report by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR).

While a large number of black South Africans have moved into the middle class over the past two decades, 85% of blacks remain poor, while 87% of whites are in the middle or upper class, according to a Goldman Sachs report released last year.

“Unless the government changes its policy trajectory, and policies are implemented that grow the economy and empower people, South Africa is unfortunately sitting on a ticking time bomb,” says Mienke Steytler, the SAIRR’s head of media and public affairs.

“The time for apathy from middle income groups is over. This is each and every person in South Africa’s concern, and there is reason for concern as these flare-ups of violence and racist incidents will occur again unless pressure is put on government to reform policy.” 

The Presidency reacted to the SAIRR’s report, which looked at the status of SA’s “born-free” generation – those born after 1990 – by saying that government has made a number of policy proposals to ensure that young people are provided an enabling ground for upliftment and development.

Stuart Wilson, executive director at the Socio-economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri), shares the view that economic policies need to be revisited. Government should be investing in a meaningful industrial policy that will grow labour-intensive industries and create jobs in the long term, he says.  

“Because of the economic policy choices we have made, growth is low and wages are diminishing relative to the cost of living. It is often difficult for people who are experiencing this squeeze to appreciate that they are suffering because of specific economic policies. They want to know who to blame. When our political leadership tells them to blame foreigners, xenophobia, from a small minority, is the likely result,” he says. “People look for ways to mobilise and divide the pie in a way that is going to secure their share.”   

This, combined with SA’s deep-seated legacy of violence from apartheid and colonialism, has fuelled the flames of xenophobia, Wilson says.  

“The general point is that, where there are high levels of structural inequality and poverty, ambitious economic policies are required to address this. The state has to take the lead in developing these policies. It also has to be a role model of compassion and restraint in dealing with the most vulnerable people in society, such as foreign nationals.”  

This excerpt is from an article that originally appeared in the 14 May 2015 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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