TESSA DOOMS: Leadership - not money - will solve our youth unemployment problem


In his 2020 supplementary budget the Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, announced an allocation of R19 billion to the newly established Presidential Youth Employment Initiative. This initiative is a project of the Presidency as a priority response to the country `s longstanding and rapidly growing youth unemployment challenge. Even before COVID-19, Statistics South Africa reported that youth unemployment was at a staggering 58% mainly for the 15- to 24-year age group. In light of the pending economic fallout of COVID-19 and the lockdown, it seems prudent that such an allocation would be made to help facilitate youth economic activity, even though the youth unemployment figures are not a result of no similar efforts. While a wide range of efforts are being made across various sectors to address the matter of youth unemployment, there is a fragmentation and fluidity to these interventions and, in certain cases, an inability to recognise novel and innovative opportunities to get youth working as partners and leaders in the South African economy.

Research commissioned by the National Planning Commission (NPC) assessing the efficacy of youth employment support programmes found that in 2016/17 government allocated approximately R17 billion to youth specific employment programmes. These funds included public employment programmes, internships, entrepreneurship funding and TVET skills programmes. All of these efforts are over and above Treasury’s Jobs Fund programmes - the YES initiative touted by the president in 2018 and up to 4,000 other programmes led and funded independently by businesses and non-profit placement programmes. Resources are being spent in a bid to reduce youth unemployment, yet the figures indicate that the country is not experiencing a clear return on these investments in the form of sustained economic activities by youth. South Africa can no longer afford to pump money into initiatives unless we are clear about an outcome that is effective, measurable, strategic and serves the interests of youth.

The NPC study and position paper on youth labour market transitions provides insights and recommends ways to augment existing programmatic approaches with sharper focus. The study explores the nature of youth unemployment, examining the multifaceted drivers of this phenomenon. Further, it explores the institutional landscape of youth employment enablers. Utilising a nexus of desktop research, key informant interviews, youth focus groups and organisational surveys, data was triangulated to paint a textured picture of the state of youth unemployment and the opportunities for resolving this challenge. The Commission further consulted a range of government, private sector, academia, civil society organisations and youth formations in June 2019 to validate the findings and provide practical inputs to the approach to youth labour market transitions this paper proposes.


It is not money but leadership that will improve the prospects for success in reducing youth unemployment. To date, South Africa does not have a clear strategy for enabling youth to transition successfully from education to economic participation. The wide range of societal efforts are happening void of an end goal and clear measures of success. Currently, programmes can approach youth employment support through employability skills, short term placements or funding without a shared understanding of what counts are a successful outcome for youth. A strategic approach would involve a national vision that clearly defines the problem, defines success, rethinks the approaches and consistently monitors and evaluates outcomes.

The paper argues for a pathways approach to youth unemployment, where the heterogeneity of youth is acknowledged and the spectrum of opportunities for youth’s economic participation is broader and nuanced. While formal sector jobs remain a pathway to youth employment this can no longer be the focus of youth economic participation. More pathways into entrepreneurship and the social economy are needed to provide more opportunities for successful transitions. In a time of crisis like COVID-19 self-employment must not only be encouraged but supported in both its formal and informal guises. What President Cyril Ramaphosa rightfully signals as an opportunity for a new economic structure must, at its core, value small and micro enterprises contributions to the economy and jobs differently.

The social economy is another distinct opportunity during turbulent social and economic times. Now more than ever work in the social sector and businesses that seek to solve for social ills must be encouraged and promoted. South Africa has a longstanding tradition of community service and volunteerism, where particularly young people add great value to the country but have little to show for their efforts in the form of careers. Social work is work. Not only the work of professional social workers but people in the care economy, doing arts and sports initiatives, violence prevention and victim support. Youth assisting the elderly and supporting the vulnerable need to have their efforts valued as they too enhance the human capabilities needed for the economic participation of others.

A pathways approach is more than a programme, it can be a useful tool for reimagining many government and private sector and NGO approaches to increased youth economic participation and empowerment. Young people are different. Not all youth aspire to formal sector employment or formalised entrepreneurship, yet we continue to recreate programmes that one-dimensionally define success in these ways. Youth also come from diverse backgrounds and starting points. They come to the world of work with various levels of education, psychosocial challenges, competencies, and access to networks. Any youth labour market transitions strategy in South Africa must develop a deep understanding of the way these differences can be accommodated in all pathways that youth pursue toward economic participation. Many current programmes focus on getting youth ready for the world of work; perhaps it is time for the world of work to adapt to who youth are and make provisions for absorbing youth from all backgrounds and with their unique contributions into productive activities.


  1. Understanding the need for an integrated approach, the NPC highlights recommendations crosscutting interventions that would strengthen all pathways for youth labour market transitions. First, there is a need for co-ordination, monitoring and evaluation of all programmes based on a shared understanding of success as youth in sustainable economic opportunities rather than simple metrics like placements or funding provided. We must better track youth outcomes and ensure that the investments made make a meaningful change in the fortunes of youth.
  2. The profile of youth seeking to participate in economic activity should be disaggregated for background, competence, interests, and aspirations. Different initiatives are needed to meet youth at the point of need that they have rather than expecting youth to conform to one standard youth descriptor. Responding to the psychosocial needs, economic status and education outcomes are a good starting point for recognising that different youth will need different support on their path toward economic participation.
  3. Build youth agency in efforts to increase their will and determination to self-determine. It is important to support youth by acknowledging and addressing trauma, self-worth, life skills, interpersonal skills and the inevitable culture shock that comes with the transitions into economic participation and the world of work. A society like South Africa characterised by poverty, inequality and violence undoubtedly contributes to youth who carry many of the burdens of those experiences into their economic pursuits. Part of youth development is the development of personhood that can respond well to the responsibilities, pressures and expectations of society. Key to that is personal development that compliments economic opportunities.
  4. Create an enabling environment. Getting youth economically active requires young people to be ready to work but also requires an environment that enables their efforts. The NPC argues that there are issues particularly related to the development of economic infrastructure which if not addressed, will hamper youth labour market transitions regardless of the model. These structural enablers included affordable and accessible public transport, spatial transformation that allows for greater economic opportunities to be formed closer to township and rural residential settlements, affordable and reliable connectivity, and innovations in recruitment modalities. Many of these enabling factors have contributed to a high cost on job-seeking and barriers to entrepreneurship that have hampered young people’s efforts even when they have the will to determine their own paths into the economy.

Tessa Dooms is the Commissioner for Youth in the National Planning Commission. Follow them on Twitter on @tessie18.

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