Over Half Of Youth Unemployed In South Africa

May 28, 2012
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Now to South Africa and the problem of high unemployment. The situation is especially severe for young people. As Anders Kelto reports from Cape Town, the jobless rate has caused widespread protests and calls for radical economic reform.


ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: At the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, hundreds of students gather in an outdoor courtyard. They hold signs demanding jobs and free education, and sing apartheid-era protest songs.

Mbalintle Hinana is a 23-year-old senior. She's studying management, but says she's not optimistic about getting work when she graduates.

MBALINTLE HINANA: The opportunities are just so small. So it's impossible for you to get the job that you are studying for.

KELTO: And she says the government isn't doing much to help.

HINANA: They're not doing anything. They're not creating any jobs. They promise us every year that they're going to create more jobs, but they don't.

KELTO: Another senior, Solomzi Nyezi, says things haven't gone well for most of his classmates.

SOLOMZI NYEZI: Because many of the people I studied with have graduated already. And most of them are still looking for jobs.

KELTO: South Africa's official unemployment rate is 24 percent. But nearly three out of every four unemployed people are under the age of 35. Haroon Bhorat, a professor of economics at the University of Cape Town, says that makes the youth unemployment level might be as high as 60 percent, which doesn't compare favorably with other emerging countries, like Brazil or India.

HAROON BHORAT: In the emerging market, that makes South Africa the country with the highest unemployment rate.

KELTO: Bhorat says South Africa's schools are part of the problem. But it's not just uneducated young people who can't find work. According to a recent government report, roughly half of all college students will be jobless for at least two years after graduating. Bhorat says that's largely a reflection of South Africa's two-tiered society, one of the legacies of apartheid. For South Africans who don't go to top schools, the majority of whom are black, the outlook is bleak. The government has struggled to find solutions to the problem. The Finance Minister recently introduced a youth wage subsidy that would encourage businesses to hire more young people. But so far, it's been blocked by trade unions.

Patrick Craven, a spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, says the subsidy is a bogus solution.

PATRICK CRAVEN: It's a proposal to subsidize employers who take on young workers. But it does nothing to prevent those same employers getting rid of an equal number of older workers so they can keep getting this subsidy.

KELTO: Debate over the subsidy has even sparked violence. Earlier this month, the Democratic Alliance - the country's main opposition party - held a march in support of the bill. But they were forced to leave when union supporters hurled stones and bricks at them, injuring several people.


KELTO: While the debate over jobs rages on, unrest among young people has grown. At the University of Cape Town, a lecture hall is packed with supporters of the ANC Youth League, the youth wing of the ruling political party. Ronald Lamola, the deputy president of the youth league, says young people must do whatever it takes to gain economic freedom.

RONALD LAMOLA: You must never despair. You must never surrender. You must fight for economic freedom because this is a generational (inaudible).


KELTO: He says they're demanding radical economic policies, including a government takeover of South Africa's mines and farmlands, most of which are owned by whites.

LAMOLA: They took our land for free. They enslaved our forefathers. We must be given back the mines. We must be given back our land.

KELTO: So far, the youth league's calls for nationalization have been largely ignored by senior ANC members. But youth played a big role in electing President Jacob Zuma in 2007, and are expected to have similar influence at party elections later this year. With Zuma having made little progress on poverty and unemployment, especially among young people, their call for a more radical leader might be finding new support.

For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto in Cape Town. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.