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We desperately need immediate, bold, and radical solutions to slash our 2 500km youth unemployment queue, writes Mmusi Maimane

In November, StatsSA released its Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for Q3:2023, which read like a brochure of bad news for South Africa’s young people. It again confirmed that the government is unable to make any substantial inroads into youth unemployment—with three in every five young South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 years old unable to find a job.

At least 4.5 million young people are now unemployed. If every young unemployed South African stood in a single file queue, it would stretch for almost 2 500 km. The queue would run from Johannesburg to Mombasa, Kenya, through Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania.

No other country in the world boasts a youth unemployment rate of this startling magnitude.

The unemployment line is growing due to the stagnant nature of unemployment in South Africa. The number of people who have been unemployed for a year or longer has gone up in the last ten years from 3.2 million in 2012 to 6.1 million in 2022. Once someone struggles to find a job after school, they are likely to stay unemployed for an extended period of time.

It took me some time to wrap my head around the magnitude of what that means for South Africa. It made the arduous task of queueing at Home Affairs or SARS seem quite joyful. But, more importantly, it reminded me that the greatest challenge South Africa faces is how to slash our exponentially expanding youth unemployment queue.

Youth unemployment is a ticking timebomb waiting to implode at any moment. It facilitates the growing inequality between the “haves” and “have nots”, while allowing poverty to thrive. And it disproportionately affects our young people. Economist Ann Bernstein from the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) estimates that since 2008, at least 563 young people have joined the ranks of the unemployed each day.

A job produces so much more than just an income. It brings order, meaning, and value to an otherwise chaotic existence. In the words of former US President Bill Clinton, “I do not believe we can repair the basic fabric of society until people who are willing to work have work. Work organises life. It gives structure and discipline to life.”

Clinton’s words ring true for us today. Creating work for the 4.5 million young unemployed South Africans is the primary mechanism through which we begin to undo the legacy of our painful past and begin Building One South Africa. Everything we do as a government should ask this question: “Does this help create work for those without a job?”

If we are to be honest, the ANC in government is unable to solve our jobs crisis. Despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s infinite talkshops, summits, and imbizos, the unemployment rate has continued to rise unabated. We desperately need immediate, bold, and radical solutions to slash our 2 500km youth unemployment queue.

Over 100 years ago, Danish mathematician A.K Erlang proposed what is now termed the ‘Queuing Theory’, which is the mathematical study of the congestion and delays of waiting in line. The goal was to find ways to ensure that the time spent waiting in a queue is minimised to as short as possible. It goes without saying this increases productivity and customer satisfaction, and contributes to the overall well-being of all involved.

Today, Erlang’s theory is used all over the world by industrial engineers and project managers when designing buildings, office blocks, restaurants, shopping malls, hospitals, and other service-related structures.

It is high time we found our own ‘Queueing Theory’, and BOSA has a plan to radically reduce the youth employment queue through our 10 Big Ideas.

This requires three things: a vibrant private sector in the cities, townships, and rural areas that is free to create vigorous economic growth, supported by a public sector that exists not only to create jobs for the well-connected, but that employs only the best people whose passion is to deliver excellent services to the people of South Africa. Then, an education system that adequately equips our young people.

Several initiatives will contribute to this.

The immediate creation of Township Special Economic Zones (TSEZs). These will be funded from the sale of listed shares owned by the government’s Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), currently valued at R200 billion. The government doesn’t need to own shares in big companies. Rather, township economies need to be stimulated and funded to uplift communities, create new jobs and wealth for disadvantaged citizens.

Establishing a vastly expanded public works programme. Any person of working age who is unemployed will have the opportunity to enrol in a variety of community service projects near their homes. These will be privately or government-run, and range from general clean ups to community patrols, and assistance on infrastructure repair or construction projects.

These projects will pay wages at the current public works rate of over R100 a day and create an opportunity for at least one day of paid work per week for every unemployed individual. We know this is not a lot, but it is a realistic start to giving millions of people the opportunity and dignity of earning an income to supplement what they receive from government grants.

This initiative would cost the fiscus in the region of R30 billion per annum and will be expanded to more days per week, at higher wage levels, as the theft of public money is eradicated, and government revenues increase, freeing up more Rands to be spent on public employment. In parallel to this initiative, we propose a complementary private sector-led initiative that can create the opportunity for unemployed people to accept employment from a private employer under similar wage and health and safety conditions as those of the public works programme. If we want the private sector to employ more people, we need to make it easier for them to do so, and we will.

We also propose the introduction of a voluntary National Civilian Service year that bridges the transition from school into the working world. This year will allow matriculants to enter into work-based training in community healthcare, basic education, civil service or community policing, gaining valuable work experience while earning a small stipend.

Current empowerment policies must be overhauled since they serve only established elites. It is unacceptable that empowerment creates a few billionaires while millions of black people continue to live in shacks.

We will introduce new empowerment policies that focus on helping poor people get into the middle classes by rewarding companies that contribute to the hard quantitative measures of new employment creation, employment maintenance, tax payments, and export contributions, as well as financing public works schemes, school vouchers, and university grants, and low fee home loans and health insurance.

We will ensure the establishment of a Jobs and Justice Venture Capital Fund to which businesses will contribute empowerment funding and which will be administered by public finance professionals, and not politicians. The fund will ensure real empowerment by supercharging Kasinomics, through distribution to real empowerment initiatives which bridge the gap between power and potential.

To undergird this, the basic education system requires a number of interventions.

A Student Performance Grant for the critical STEAM subjects to incentivise young people to obtain critical skills for school leaving success.

A School Voucher Programme that returns the power back to the learner’s parents to decide which school a child attends.

A new collaboration schools’ model that will see struggling public schools converted to collaboration schools with private financial assistance.

An independent education ombudsman to adjudicate school standards, teacher excellence, and complaints.

Salary increases and incentives for well-performing teachers and retraining poor performing teachers.

If we begin tomorrow, we could begin to roll back the destructive tide of unemployment and place our country back on the path towards inclusive growth, increased prosperity, and a shared future.

Mmusi Maimane is a South African politician, businessman, and leader of Build One South Africa (BOSA).