Expanding opportunities for youth through financial inclusion

The decisions by Agang and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to contest the 2014 general elections has set the cat amongst the pigeons for political pundits who had their predictions all worked out for next year’s national poll. Their entrance to race has added another layer of unpredictability, over and above the question of how young South Africans, many of them first-time voters, will vote. Together with the established parties they will set their sights on this youthful and numerically dominant voting segment.

For these parties and their leaders, dominated by men and women, aged 50+, the wooing of this generation will not come naturally. They are fickle, and quite often view politicians and political leaders with a sense of cynicism. A report published in 2012 by the Human Sciences Research Council titled “Punching below their weight – Young South Africans’ Recent Voting Patterns” sheds more light on the voting behaviour among South African youth. The analysis of voting data from the 2006 and 2011 municipal elections and the 2009 general election point to shrinking political interest and low voter turn-out among young South Africans between the ages 18 to 34 years – more than any other age group. The 2012 South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) Report also point to widespread cynicism of mainstream politics. According to the SARB report, about half of young South Africans (49.8%) feel that national leaders are not concerned with their views, and 49.93% believe that there is no way to make uninterested officials listen to them.

To recapture their imagination will require more than the reform of ANC and DA youth structures or superficial branding that appeals to this section of the population. The rhetoric of both the two major parties, as well as the new ones, have highlighted the question of high youth unemployment, yet very few, if any, are engaging with and trying to understand the daily experiences of being young, unemployed, unskilled, disenfranchised and so-called ‘born-free’ in a volatile economy. To do so requires a shift away from being preoccupied with macroeconomic designs that are often abstract and do not always easily translate to the ‘here’ and ‘now’ issues, which disenfranchised youth are confronted with.

Although it is important to focus on creating a facilitating macroeconomic environment, it is equally important to give young South Africans a sense of agency to become active in shaping their own future. Thus the Job Seekers’ grant, which featured in ANC policy thinking in recent years, but somehow lost traction since it was first announced following Mangaung’s elective conference, may not be as absurd as it has been made out to be by some (see Prince Mashele’s critique). To the contrary, it might well succeed to build greater rapport with the large numbers of disenfranchised youth than the more widely discussed youth wage subsidy (considering that almost 3.4m young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years are not in education, employment or training, the so-called NEET category). A youth wage subsidy has its merit, but is likely to benefit a small minority, consisting mostly of tertiary graduates, which, according to the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey, make up only 5.2% of the unemployed.The unemployment figure for those without matric or only matric, in contrast, is 30,3% and 27,0% respectively. Without the prerequisite qualifications they will be the least likely to benefit from a youth wage subsidy, which assumes an existing skills set.

Thus a more comprehensive approach is needed to include disenfranchised youth into the economy. Granted, there are a number of good, albeit weakly coordinated, programs targeting youth unemployment, which focus on widening access to information on job opportunities and/or training, career development counselling, life skills, and notably also the expanded public works- and national rural youth service corps programmes.  While these programs may be informative, they tend to rely solely on individual motivation and often seem oblivious to the impact that a lack of resources, often assumed to be present, can have on such motivation. Such resources are not merely monetary – they also come in the form of intangible social relations. It is, for example, impossible to overlook the way in which social networks determine labour market outcomes, particular within the low skills sectors where vacancies are mostly communicated through word of mouth. Labour market studies, such as those of Neill Rankin and his colleagues in the IJR’s 2010 Transformation Audit, shows that African youth in particular are disadvantaged in the low skills sectors, not only because of a lack of the requisite skills and poor education, but also because they are less integrated into household social networks that connect them to vacancies.

Just the other day, a friend asked me to distribute a notice for two vacancies within my circle of friends. As usual it required of applicants to e-mail their CVs as soon as possible. It struck me then that it did not occur to the recruiting organisation just how many hurdles an unemployed person has to cross just to email a CV – something that is just a click of a button away to some of us. The problem of living in this dual society of ours is that the distance between the different worlds makes us believe that we are a privileged majority – that everybody lives like us. Of course, the contrary is true.  This is what we are missing in our discourse on youth development – getting to grips with the daily experiences of unemployed youth, some located in rural areas, small towns, and townships, far removed from employment opportunities and actual youth development programs

Because they are often cut off from these social networks, we have to create the opportunities and provide the financial means for young people to access them. Therefore a Job-Seekers grant, although not yet fully developed in proposals, must certainly be a first step in the right direction. Not necessarily as a job creation strategy, but broadly to connect youth to opportunity, training, education and development. A number of countries have implemented variations of cash transfers that benefit youth. The Australian government has implemented an impressive assortment package of youth allowances to meet the different needs of youth at different stages of their school to work transition. In Northern Uganda, as well, the social action fund provides cash transfers to unemployed youth to invest in learning a trade or starting a business to stimulate self employment.

Rather than decry it as an unsustainable further expansion of social security, based on stereotypes of youth volatility, cash transfers to youth should be viewed as investment into South Africa’s sustainable future and complimentary to macroeconomic goals.

(See also Lauren Graham’s article featured in the 2012 Transformation Audit in which she makes a compelling case for youth assets as a  means to address poverty among youth.)

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