Living life as an unemployed young person in South Africa

Living life as an unemployed young person in South Africa

By Nontsikelelo Khunju

Faced with unemployment young people are resorting to sex work and engaging in transactional relationships, which at times leave them vulnerable to gender-based violence, or the acquisition of life-threatening STIs, some turn to crime to survive, while others seek comfort in the abuse of alcohol and substances to escape the harsh reality of living as unemployed young people with no access to alternative avenues of economic participation.

This is the picture of the devastating state of affairs in relation to the national crisis of youth unemployment in South Africa. According to media reports and the experience of Sidumisile Msimanga, who works directly with young unemployed youth in the city of Johannesburg. This situation, like religious activities, has become a normal extension of the lives of South African youth. Disgruntled voices and unsatisfied whispers echo in various parts of this country, with seemingly very few people having the ability to respond to the question: where to from here?

Sidumisile Msimanga of the women’s advocacy group called Young Urban Women Active Citizens, engaged us on this sensitive subject as a person with a vested interest and passion for Economic Justice, youth development, and empowerment.

‘’The crisis of youth unemployment is upsetting and dynamic, because of the vast factors that influence its progression. I think the subject is broader than just the unemployment of youth, I think the subject is about employment period, because even with employment opportunities emerging, when they do, we still need to engage in whether offered opportunities are decent work and do they fairly remunerate?’’

Sidumisile further explains that decent work is that which is productive, exists in spaces that value equity, gender equality, and security for staff in the workplace, has policies that protect labourers as per South African labour laws, and provides a fair income. So, first, let us start by unpacking the why. In December 2022, statistics reported South Africa’s highest unemployment rate among youth aged 15-24, with shocking figures sitting at 59.6%. Responding to this Sidumisile argues that, ‘’the first injustice starts with the design of our education system. There is a massive disconnect between what we are taught in school and the reality of what the workforce seeks. Our South African education system does not adequately prepare school leavers for economic participation.”

“A prime example can be made with China, one of the world’s most populated countries, however, has a very low rate of youth unemployment. This is because their education is practical, where Chinese scholars are capacitated with practical skills that will be utilized in various industries post-school. Not only is our education system largely theory-centred, but some themes also are not even relevant and will never be applied when you finally start working. This design for me is really a serious barrier because employers are not solely looking for candidates with qualifications, they also seek relevant work-related skills’’, Sidumisile adds.

It is clear that having no means to provide for oneself or their family poses a serious threat to young people’s mental health. ‘’Job search fatigue has displayed itself in a lot of young unemployed people through stress, depression, and anxiety, which at times leads to the ideation of suicide. Nothing is as painful as not knowing where your next meal will come from.’’

Having established the various gaps that perpetuate this social and economic challenge, it is just to ask if there is any hope at all for South African youth.

Sidumisile believes that the answer to this question is having a multi-disciplinary approach to engagement, practical implementation, and the development of accountability systems.

‘’The truth is that, as thoroughly dissatisfied as we are with our government, we cannot ignore that we need to engage them and hold them accountable for promises made’’.

She believes that government alone does not have the capacity to create jobs, but as a structure of authority and administration in this country, the government needs to facilitate the process of creation of opportunities for young people. She further echoes the need to involve the private sector in these conversations and explore what skills, qualities, and qualifications the job market seeks so that as a country, we can ensure we adequately align young people, through training and skills development, to meet those needs and requirements.

‘’Lastly, we need to have activists and advocates, standing in to represent the communities deeply affected by unemployment, who will hold the government and the private sector accountable for the execution of plans that will address this challenge, and ensure that no corruptive activity takes place to sabotage these efforts.’’ She explains that economic participation is not limited to employment and stresses that the lack of entrepreneurial skills, opportunities, and funding requires attention so that the country can empower young people to shift from a mindset of being employees to the great possibilities of being employers.

It seems that feasible solutions to this challenge are there, all it requires is for all parties involved in making a difference, to come together and commit to making this right, for the youth of this country, and for the progression of South Africa’s economy.


Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator:

Afrika Tikkun Services:


About the author:

Ntsiki Khunju is a member of ACTIVATE! Change Drivers writers hub, she is a content creator, narrator, and spoken word artist.

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