Sunday Times

SA is no longer the promised land for our youth


Ican still remember the conversati­ons people held as we lingered outside the polling station on election day in 1994. The rules were a bit more relaxed than they are now. You could vote at any station most convenient to you, and not necessaril­y the one you were registered at. Before and after voting you could just hang around, waiting for friends and relatives — as long as you did not interfere with the voting.

We were young, excited and with time on our hands. And so we moved around stations like election monitors, touring one area after another to see how everything was going. Subconscio­usly, I guess, I was preparing myself for a life as a political journalist in a free and democratic South Africa where elections are held every five years. My memory of the day is that most of the conversati­ons — whether involving young or old, political activists or apolitical individual­s — were about what it would mean to be free. There were many views expressed, some crazy — like the man who disrupted the peace at a voting station not far from my home by angrily demanding that his wife and children go home with him because voting was an unChristia­n activity.

Then there was the man who caused a mini stir under a tree when he told his drinking buddies that voting for Nelson Mandela was a bad idea because he’d ruin the country like Robert Mugabe was destroying what he insisted on calling Rhodesia.

When one of his friends asked him what he knew about Zimbabwe, since he had never ventured beyond the boundaries of Durban and its surroundin­gs, he proudly stated that his employers had moved to South Africa from the then Rhodesia in 1980.

But other views were more serious, with many talking about their aspiration­s and fears. The recurring theme in most of these conversati­ons was jobs.

Our area, a mostly working-class township just 20km from the Durban CBD, was among the hardest hit by the growing unemployme­nt phenomenon of the mid- to late1980s and early 1990s.

Every other household had an aunt, uncle, mother or son who was unemployed. Yet, since influx control had long collapsed, more people from rural areas were freely flocking into townships like ours in the hope of getting jobs in the city. Hence when political parties promised that a vote for them would mean job creation, the message resonated.

I recall how impressed one of my elders, a then unemployed former textile worker, was when — in his televised debate with FW de Klerk — Mandela asked him “Where is your plan?”, while dangling a copy of the ANC’s “Ready To Govern” document in front of him.

Mandela had a plan to create jobs. It was all in the reconstruc­tion & developmen­t programme (RDP), the elder was convinced. Since that election, job creation has been the recurring theme of every poll. A million jobs a year, decent work for all, millions of job opportunit­ies ahead — all you need to do is to vote. Promises, promises.

For a while the unemployme­nt rate did improve, albeit too slowly, but the situation has now become so dire that even a good university degree won’t necessaril­y save you from being conscripte­d into growing the army of the unemployed.

Trained doctors sit at home without work, LLB graduates take piece jobs at call centres as they cannot get articles, qualified teachers spend their days toyi-toying outside government buildings demanding to be hired.

Joblessnes­s is the single most pressing crisis facing our country today, one that threatens to ultimately unravel the entire democratic project.

Political parties seem to acknowledg­e as much. Otherwise why would each and every one of them, in their election manifestos, make such grand promises about jobs?

Just yesterday, President Cyril Ramaphosa — in his capacity as ANC president — promised to create some 2.5million jobs if he and his party are returned to office on May 29. Although one is yet to read the ANC manifesto, issued yesterday, in detail, there was no attempt on his part to explain what happened to the jobs the party had promised in the previous election, and the one before that.

The point, however, is to move from promises to practical action.

It cannot be that, 30 years after ending apartheid and starting a new journey towards a better society, job creation is treated as a political slogan to win votes, with little commitment to delivering on the pledge.

As a citizen, it pains me to hear growing numbers of those born after 1994 — democracy’s children and Ramaphosa’s Tintswalos — talking about their desperatio­n to move abroad because their prospects are limited here.

I have travelled enough in the developing world, especially on our continent, to know that any country where young people in their masses look abroad for job opportunit­ies is doomed to fail.

And that is not what any of us wants for this beautiful republic.

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