– by MAWABO –
They’ve left the schools and have gathered at rallies, where maths and science, or even English for that matter, count for nothing. They’ve come to learn the real truth about how wealth is created in South Africa.
There is a tendency to perceive today’s youth as being separate from politics. Often unfairly comparing them to the generation of 1976, little attention is paid to the fact that today’s young people do not have the advantage of a clear (and common) enemy and a context of widespread limited choice, which in the case of generation 76 made resistance to the common enemy almost inevitable. Generation 76 is also given far too much credit. This is not to discredit their sacrifice but they did not act in a vacuum but within a context of actions by other larger political actors (Biko and Mandela are notable and widely celebrated examples). The confused and often polarized youth of today (with its obscene versions of consumerism, which they practice even in the most extreme poverty) is a reflection of the new South Africa and, while the accuracy of this reflection may be disputed, the youth should not be overlooked as confused, foolish or irrelevant. Some have compared the latent role of the youth in the political economy as a ticking time bomb.
Perceptions of the role of the youth have become inextricably linked to the events surrounding the ascendance of the Zuma administrations and the parallel rise of Julius Malema. Beneath Malema’s popular chorus of nationalization and revolution and its violent undertone is a question about a thousand voices that followed this man in each city. These are young people – seemingly uninterested in his actual message insomuch as, at each rally, they merely pulsate to a chaotic energy that promises change, for better or worse. Some onlookers ask if these young people have nothing better to do and, with unemployment estimated around 25% and with more than half of young people being unemployed , the truth is that most do not. A crowd for hire, a vast reserve of redundant manpower, indeed the same body from which labour brokers have mushroomed is also available for opportunistic politicians to tap into.
There is evidence, at different levels of the country’s political economy, of zealous efforts to remedy what has been deemed a crisis and, in other cases, to profit from it. At one end of the spectrum, casual employment and labour broking have emerged within the private sector as mechanisms to drive down labour costs by pitting entrants into the labour market against older workers and simply shuffling jobs around to the lowest bidders. Related to this is the call for a wage subsidy, which is supported by politicians who are eager to “solve” the problem and gain support, but this is likely to hasten the shedding of jobs from older workers, shifting them to the youth. At the more radical end of this spectrum is the call for nationalization, which is a foggy ideal, charged with so much energy and emotion, which conceal its political and material interests (reminiscent perhaps of or other amorphous ideals in history, such as promises of civilization and democracy, which served to conceal the real intensions of invading superpowers during Western Colonialism and later during American Imperialism). These three issues (labour brokers, the wage subsidy and nationalisation) have come to dominate the South African political landscape. Yet none of them address the problem at its core, the question of how the economy (free-market or nationalized) is going to create new jobs.
The roots of South Africa’s economic woes are set in the very definition of work and in the persistence of an education system that is inevitably geared to create workers (the alternative to creating workers would be to create entreprenuers). The archaic schooling system is still largely premised on a modernist worldview (fordism/tailorism): at the lowest levels it teaches enough discipline and governability to make a factory worker, while at the highest level it adds expert knowledge to make an office worker. What about entrepreneurs, who are largely hailed as the key catalysts within the post-fordist economic order? An unheeded but very alarming fact is that twenty years after the “dot-com bubble” only a fraction of students ever learn how to make a business proposal or how to secure start-up capital, while the overwhelming bulk of them barely understand how to format a CV. Yet still thousands leave high schools across the country with only a few skills but none that aid them in the tasks that lay immediately ahead of them – looking for a job or starting a business.
While the schooling system continues to churn out workers destined for factories and offices, the percentage of employment in these sectors globally has continued to shrink. Yet work continues to be thought of as pertaining almost exclusively to factories and offices, with government projects existing as a supplement. And the informal sector is thought of as an abnormality. This definition (which is largely based on European modernity and Keynesian economic models) ignores the reality that so much of the country’s work is happening in the streets – since the informal sector accounts for 20% of all employment. This number means that about 20% of school-leavers must prepared for to make a living in the informal sector and – with the right support – to create the country’s wealth from this sector.
There is a need to rethink education in South Africa to focus more on creating entrepreneurs; teaching students how to access capital and making this capital available. The real point of entry into the job market for most people is matric (grade 12) and schools must ensure that at this level graduates can start their own businesses, look for work more effectively or work in the informal sector (rather than be trapped in it). Furthermore the concept of work must be rethought. The informal sector must not be looked down upon in a naive attempt to emulate first world economies.