Written by Percy Moleke (Deputy Director-General, Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation) for the SDG Bulletin South Africa (June 2018)


In this article, Percy Moleke provides an overview of the most important data on challenges South African youth face. She also outlines important responses that are being implemented to respond to these challenges.


The challenging situation of South Africa’s youth

Internationally, youth are defined as those between age 15 and 24 years. In South Africa the definition of youth is expanded and includes those aged between 15 and 35. According to Statistics South Africa, there were approximately 20million young people in South Africa in 2017.

According to the Department of Higher Education and Training, 985 000 young people were enrolled in public higher education institutions, 737 000 were enrolled in public Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges and 283 000 were enrolled in community colleges in 2015. The number of youth participating in Post-Secondary Education and Training System (PSET) did not change significantly in 2017.

In addition to these formal PSET institutions, there were approximately 200 000 young people who are enrolled in learnerships and/or skills programmes managed by the Sectoral Education and Training Authorities (SETAs). These figures show the relatively small number of young people who are enrolled in PSET compared to the population of young people.

According to Statistics South Africa, about 4 million young people aged 15–34 were unemployed in South Africa, an unemployment rate of about 39%. The unemployment rate for people aged 15-24 was about 56%, and older youth – 25 – 35 forms a significant proportion of the discouraged and Not Employment, Education or Training (NEETs). More than 50% of young people above the age of 22 years are not in employment, education and/or training.

Of the 10,3 million young persons aged 15-24 years, about 30% were not in employment, education or training. About 40% of young people (7.7 million) aged between 15 and 34 fell into the category of NEET – not in employment, education or training.

Based on the youth numbers presented above, South Africa clearly faces a huge challenge of including young people. The magnitude and nature of youth unemployment are relatively higher, and somewhat unique. Moreover, there has been insignificant changes in the past years. The proportion of youth who are NEET is significantly high and requires urgent attention.

It is therefore not surprising that President Ramaphosa stated during his 2018 State of the Nation Address that “our most grave and most pressing challenge is youth unemployment”. He further reflected in detail about the challenges we face as a country to create opportunities for young people and ensure they are included in the country’s economic agenda. To do this will require interventions that address the challenges faced by many young people.


The particular challenge of youth not in employment, education or training (NEET)

Many young people have a substantial disadvantage that results in their exclusion from the mainstream. The extent and level of disadvantage that exists and experienced by the majority of the youth is evident in their profile.

Most NEET youth are from poor, grant-dependent households or financially stretched and indebted extended families of a single low-wage earner. They are predominantly urban or moving between urban and rural areas. Although most have some form of education, most of them attended poor schools where the quality of education received doesn’t translate into acquisition of basic communication, literacy and numeracy skills, used by many employers to screen for hiring low skilled labour. Typically, one out of every two have young children of their own.

Most live in households where there is no adult with at least a matric qualification. A significant proportion of them is the only adult in the household. They are generally not in or eligible for existing PSET institutions. Many have already attended some form of tertiary schooling but have dropped out before graduating, usually for financial or other socio-economic reasons. They are unlikely to get jobs through their social networks and fall out of other social networks to connect them to opportunities.

Outside their individual circumstances, there are other structural factors that entrench the disadvantage. It is estimated that the cost of job search for most youth is close to a thousand rands, with major cost drivers being about R558 for transport, R380 for printing CVs and job adverts, as well as internet access. The high transport costs, further impact on job retention for most of them, especially if it accounts for more than 30% of their take home salary (a case for many low skilled workers). This was strongly evidenced in studies undertaken by Harambee, which found that the most highly reported reason for a young person rejecting a job was due to distance and travel costs.


How can we achieve our development agenda and vision for SDGs?

The youth employment challenge is a stubbornly persistent reality. Addressing it requires a dynamic and strong social partnerships between government, private sector, labour and communities or non-state sector to identify and develop relevant solutions that respond to the atypical needs of different categories of young people.

Through these partnerships the country need to build and establish institutions and processes that will assist young people transition into economic activity.

Over the years, government, private sector and civil society at large, have been pre-occupied with creating opportunities for youth. But the initiatives do not sufficiently cater for young people who are disengaged and/or disadvantaged. In addition, there has been minimal impact, partly because of poor coordination of these initiatives. Thus most of these are targeted at those who are likely to succeed in the mainstream. They also tend to offer interventions that do not directly address the needs of and circumstances faced by many young people.

For example, driven by an expansion strategy, significant amounts of resource are spent by government in particular channeled through the PSET system to increase the number of those participating. However, the conversion rate at each level of the system is a serious concern, with high drop-out rates and throughput rates. In addition, the output from the basic education system is itself low, further constraining the pool available to participate in PSET.

On the demand side, the focus is largely on assisting youth gain some work experience in order to improve their entry into the labour market. Interventions such as the Youth Tax Incentive and Youth Employment Service are aimed at this, alongside the learnerships, which have both an element of training and work experience. However, the participation in these programmes is also low, and to a large extent these interventions exclude the majority of young people who are currently NEET and requires different interventions to mediate their disadvantage.

On the other hand, there are fewer interventions that recognise the disadvantage experienced by many young people who end up NEET and respond to their needs. This is evidenced in the proportion of spend on Active Labour Market Policies relative to spend on PSET, which currently accommodates a smaller proportion of youth compared to those not able to access it.


Innovating with breakthrough solutions

Although funded on an ad hoc basis, the private sector and government are already exploring solutions that facilitate the inclusion of disadvantaged young people in the economy. Critical amongst these is the need for interventions that manage and facilitate work readiness and job placement, particularly focusing on lower level skills jobs and youth with lower levels of education and from disadvantaged backgrounds.

  • Work Readiness Programmes primarily aim to prepare individuals for the world of work by providing the knowledge, skills and attributes required to make the transition into the work place. Programmes such as Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator has played a particularly important role in the past five years in providing insight into what this, at minimum, means for entry level jobs for young people. They have shown that employers are less interested in “skills” for entry level jobs, but rather in attitudes and behaviours. Therefore, a critical component of a work readiness intervention is to ensure that young people are able to cope with the specific requirements for a job.
  • Job placement interventions work to ensure young people move into contracted opportunities such as a job, a learnership or an internship. Many of the private placement agencies focus on higher level occupations, whilst the Department of Labour placement services as well as a range of initiatives supported by the Jobs Fund through the work seeker window (such as Harambee and Mr Price Foundation) focus on young people with limited formal qualification and often no experience and assist these young people to access employment. Critical to the success of such programmes are strong relationships with employers and ideally, a process, which “matches” candidates with opportunities in which they are likely to succeed.
  • Breakthrough innovations in skills upgrading programmes that do not require long formal tertiary qualifications. Empirically, there are a growing number of jobs in growth sectors of the economy, such as the digital economy, coding, logisitics, etc. that do not require a tertiary education, but that do require some upskilling intervention over and above schooling (especially given the poor numeracy, science and English outcomes of the SA education system). These programmes should be focused, fit-for-purpose and demand focused work-related-skills interventions to close functional competence and work-readiness gaps, and grow specific skills areas (e.g. coding, logistics). These interventions can be delivered by private, public and social sector entities in a cheaper, shorter and more fit-for-purpose way that traditional formal education.

Public and private funding needs to be directed to funding work readiness interventions that find the shortest, simplest way to “close the gaps” that young people have and to transition young people to these opportunities, and which don’t incentivise endless training, but rather, the conversion from training to employment.



Addressing the problem of youth exclusion from the labour market requires collaboration, coordinated effort, and bold initiatives that build common-purpose plans which are data-driven, evidence-based, and practical with degrees of risk-taking. These interventions need to be scaled up in order to massify the absorption and retention of young people. This could only be achieved through a spirit of compacting among all social partners through deliberate planning, provision of resources, as well as the will and the intent to scale up initiatives.

The numbers presented above, indeed reflects the enormity of the challenge. The magnitude of the youth who are NEET indicate the magnitude of exclusion faced by many young people. The policy responses, unfortunately, have not been adequate to advance inclusion of youth. Most of these largely focused on medium to high level skills, excluding the majority of young people who are disadvantaged by different circumstances, including their education status.

Responding appropriately requires investing in understanding the lives of young first-time workers to understand the challenges they face and the solutions required (for example, that not all have three meals a day and transport can be both expensive and at times dangerous). Understanding the interaction of these is critical to ensuring there are targeted interventions that respond to the different categories of youth.