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Unemployment and the Skills Myth in South Africa

Unemployment and the Skills Myth in South Africa

Siyabulela Mama | 19 August, 2019

The majority of South Africans are young with two-thirds of the population less than 34 years of age.  To date,  the South African labour force is made up of 16.3 million people who can be employed but of whom over 6 million people (even if you only take the estimates made by government) are unemployed. If you take a broader estimate that includes those who have given up looking for work, then there are over 10 million people who are unemployed.

In 1994, while 63% of the labour force was constituted by Black Africans, and 21% by White, in 2014 73% of Black Africans constituted the labour force, while White South Africans remained at 21% of that labour force.

Given the conditions under racial capitalism in South Africa, one can understand why Black Africans constituted only 15% of those classified as the skilled workforce, 42% of the semi-skilled and 43% of low skilled. However, it is revealing that in fact in 1994 – 42% of Whites were skilled, 55% of them were semi-skilled, and 3% of them were unskilled, while in 2014 their skills level increased to 61% skilled (increased by 19% since 1994), the semi-skilled decreased to 36% (decreased by 19% since 1994) and the unskilled stood at that 3% in a period that was supposed to address their apartheid atrocities. Paradoxically, in 2014 the number of Black South African who were classified as skilled increased by the paltry figure of 3% to 18% while 48% (an increase of 6%) were semi-skilled while 34% remained unskilled.  Clearly racial capitalism has laid a foundation for Whites to continue to be privileged even in the 21 years since democracy in South Africa.

You cannot understand South Africa’s status quo at face value and need to look at her history as this explains the challenge of unemployment, poverty, and inequality and its pervasive effects on those who were directly affected by apartheid colonialism. Only then would it be possible to create genuine mechanisms to overcome these inequalities and deal more fully with the atrocities that were caused by the former racist capitalist government.

Youth unemployment and TVET graduate unemployment

Unemployment is especially high amongst youth and this is rising as more young people join the labour force (StatsSA, 2014). Internationally, Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) literature emphasizes the role of TVET in development. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO’s) 2015 recommendations propose that vocational education can contribute to sustainable development by enabling individuals, organizations, enterprises and communities by raising employment and decent work through lifelong learning.

The often-cited statistic of TVET graduate unemployment is 33%. A recent tracer study conducted by the HRSC LIMP shows that the unemployment rate amongst Business and Engineering graduates is 47%. This statistic is particularly worrying as the study concentrated on those students registered in exit-point NATED programmes (N3 & N6).  These newly developed programmes are supposed to address past problems of poor artisanal development and to lay the foundation for artisanal training and development to resolve skills needs in areas such as carpentry, joinery, boiler making and energy. According to the study, the chances of finding employment with a National Certificate Vocational (NCV) qualification remains very low, and those who do find work earn less than R3000 a month which is below the new national minimum wage of R3500. Moreover, 25% of TVET College graduates work in community and social services, compared to 4, 3% in mining, 7.7% in transport and 8, 8% in construction.

Work preparation for TVET College students holds significant challenges. There is a lack of practical training, work-based experience and situated learning at TVET Colleges which is intended to build the experiential learning for the transfer of knowledge and skills in TVET to the world of work. Although the NCV curricula recommend work experience, it is not a requirement, which means that many students simply do not get it. This is the case despite all the talk about skills required for the economy. Even more troubling is the fact that TVET Colleges are in dire need of resources and pedagogical capabilities amongst lecturers that are essential to enhance readiness for work.

Similarly, students enrolled in the NATED programmes have hardships in accessing apprenticeships. This problem is caused by the continuous relationship between TVET Colleges and business and industry which has shaped the work of TVET colleges in a way that is heavily reliant on private capitalist business and its needs to the exclusion of other needs in society as a whole. Whilst the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) emphasizes this relationship ––business has failed to provide that necessary access to situated learning that could adequately address this problem. Furthermore, the lack of work-based and work-integrated learning hinders the conceptualisation, design and use of mentorship programmes that are integral to the transfer of capabilities to the work environment. And this is the case even if such work is solely for the capitalist labour market.

Against this background, an alternative to the very conceptual categories and the evidentiary data used to shape the policy perspectives of governments that support corporate interests to the exclusion of other social considerations must be developed. Together these can inform the analysis and interpretations on which the policies and practices of the state and the educational plans and strategies of TVET institutions can be built to shape the lives and the subjective predilections of the students themselves.

It is only when we recognise the power of the dominant capitalist system in shaping the education and training system to its narrow requirements that we can better understand the lack of responsiveness of the education and training sector to the requirements of the society while it concentrates on its economic role to the exclusion of all else.. Understanding this will also clarify the question of who has the real power in modelling education and training policy, whose interests are served and who is ignored as a result of this and the real ‘beneficiaries’ of the structural constraints, ideologies and the policies shaped by them. It will enable us to take on the real challenge we face in determining an alternative approach to the role of TVET Colleges.

The need for an alternative way of looking at the problem

It means that we need to develop an alternative approach to the role of TVET institutions from which alternative policies, strategies and projects might be implemented to turn around a system which is pointed in the wrong direction and which persists in imposing more and more failure and hopelessness on the recipients of a knowledge system that deepens social inequality and poverty, makes it improbable that any real changes can happen in the levels of unemployment in society and condemns young and old to exclusion and penury.

This is so because in reality South Africa has been flooded with a number of retrenchments recently with capitalist enterprises like ArcelorMittal South Africa, Hulamin, Group Five, Basil Read, MultiChoice, Sibanye-Stillwater, Tongaat Hulett, Standard Bank and Absa and others shedding jobs. Amongst those who are retrenched here are highly skilled workers with no jobs to go to in the foreseeable future and this shows that in the current system, even skills cannot protect you from unemployment and poverty. Yet the explanation of why this is happening hides the real causes of it because the acute problem of youth unemployment (including graduate unemployment) which is supposedly one of the biggest priorities in the country is usually and falsely assigned to a lack of skills and work experience which is also blamed for poor economic growth.

There is broad consensus that youth unemployment in South Africa is critical, with latest figures confirming that one half of young people (15–34 years old) are unemployed by the broad definition. The situation is increasingly viewed as a national emergency, as the high level of youth unemployment is expected to lead to an increasing sense of exclusion among young people and to heightened ‘levels of frustration and impatience’. Indeed, prolonged periods of unemployment among young people have profoundly negative effects on their physical and mental well-being and feed the vicious cycle of exclusion and poverty. Yet the causes of this are misrepresented in all the talk about skills and training.

Structural factors such as the length of time spent in unemployment and joblessness have a considerable effect on the individual. Thus, over 9 million human beings, of whom the majority are young women and men, now languish without any realistic likelihood of gainful employment. They have entered the realm of the permanently unemployed with very limited prospects of any change to their reality. And there is a beginning to be a trend that shows the increasing phenomenon of precarious work structured into the economic system now apparent everywhere. Every day, thousands of workers must deal with conditions of employment which are insecure relative to tenure, lowly paid, with little employment security or benefits and dependent on the will of their ‘broker.’ It is a phenomenon of global proportions leaving no employee secure at whatever level of the enterprise – including at managerial levels.

In the current economic system unemployment is, therefore, a permanent reality – one which countless agreements, strategies, consultancy reports, ‘affirmative’ laws and ‘active labour market policies’ will not resolve because the phenomenon of unemployment is intrinsic to this economic system.  That is why we must test ideas about work and learning and livelihoods that exist outside conventional economic categories of capitalist production systems. The hope that the TVET system, as it is, will resolve the disaster facing it and play a large part in resolving the crisis of unemployment in the current economic system is just unrealistic.

We need to respond to the question of how – in addition to the broad and multifaceted purposes of learning for social justice and citizenship, education and learning can support the development of useful livelihoods and income generation, based on collective and cooperative work that is socially useful and necessary for sustaining and reproducing societies and protecting the environment.

The alternatives we talk to in the conversation about solidarity economies, cooperatives and its related concepts, raise questions about how these radical approaches to learning and work can be taken forward to make a real impact on the very nature of power and the structures that deepen the socio-economic and political crisis faced by South African society.

This is the challenge that faces the communities and organizations of the urban and rural working-class and socially marginalized.

Siyabulela Mama is an Ecosocialist and Permaclturerist. He is co-researcher at the Centre for Post-School Education and Training. And an activist at the Assembly of the Unemployed.  
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One comment on “Unemployment and the Skills Myth in South Africa
  1. Henriette van Zyl says:

    an example: In Makhanda (Née Grahamstown) the university has roads and pedestrian crossings all over the place; the private schools have PEDESTRIAN TRAFFIC LIGHTS so that they are never delayed; and the College: not one pedestrian crossing on the way to it.
    The students are at the mercy of DRIVERS and traffic. SO WRONG.

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