JOHANNESBURG – The statistics are in, and it’s official. With more than 10 million South Africans unemployed – using the expanded definition of the term – and growing, Mzansi’s joblessness is no longer a crisis.
No, it’s a national emergency eclipsing everything from crime to ruling party infighting.
But there’s a solution, a solution that has its roots in that most incendiary of terms: white privilege.
And for those arguing that it didn’t exist, white privilege was tangible in everything from the Group Areas Act to the Bantu Education Act.
White privilege still echoes through our country today in everything from generational wealth to the Black Tax that’s alien to those with a lighter skin.
But growing up white under apartheid wasn’t unalloyed ecstasy for all.
There was the small matter of national conscription – in addition to living under a system that many knew was inherently wrong.
The Defence Amendment Bill of 1967 made nine months conscription mandatory for white males, eventually increasing to a compulsory two years in the South African Defence Force or South African Police by 1977 – along with camps of 30 days annually for eight years.
Refusing conscription meant a theoretical six-year jail sentence. But many white males were vehemently opposed to conscription, with organisations like the ECC (End Conscription Campaign) enjoying massive support. But now we’re a quarter of a century into democracy.
And with second quarter unemployment data just released by Statistics SA, showing that we’re shedding jobs like leaves in autumn, with the joblessness rate officially (this is only officially!) rising to 29 percent, South Africa faces an enemy arguably as ominous as apartheid.
It is, of course, unemployment – and we now have more people out of work than does the US and Germany combined. Worse than that, the joblessness rate among our youth is horrific, and StatsSA says 8.2 million out of 20.4 million young people aged 15 to 34 are neither employed nor in any institution of learning. And that’s just the official figures.
An academic degree is no panacea either. Unemployment among South African’s graduates – many with soft degrees in humanities or similar – is endemic.
And while President Cyril Ramaphosa promised some 275 000 jobs a year in the ANC’s election manifesto, now that he has a clear mandate to implement his New Dawn, precisely where these jobs will come from appears nebulous – other than attracting investment.
Worse, the International Monetary Fund expects our economy to grow by just 0.7 percent in 2019, half of what it forecast in January.
So clearly the time for talk shops and flowery promises is over.
What Mzansi needs is mandatory conscription, but certainly not the sort of conscription that we had in the era of “white privilege”.
No, what I – and I’m not the first to propagate this view – propose is a one or two-year period for all citizens between, shall we say 18 and 25 years old, where they’ll use and hone their existing skills or education, so gaining the experience employees seek.
Alternatively, they’ll learn what in the UK are termed “dirty trades”, presuming they have the aptitude.
It’s common cause that to build this nation we’re going to need to roll up our sleeves.
We’re going to need electricians, fitters and turners, machinists, technicians – as well as, of course, skills needed to embrace the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution, skills such as programming and robotics.
There’s a precedent for this, too: the New Deal implemented by Franklin D Roosevelt, perhaps the greatest of the American presidents.
During the darkest days of the Great Depression – when the US had an overall unemployment rate of 24.9 percent, a figure sadly shaded by our own statistics – radical measures were employed to kickstart the country.
Among them, the Works Progress Administration to provide employment in projects such as building bridges and post offices and dams.
Something that could also be done under this new form of conscription in South Africa, which would not only provide training, but help unify different colours and creeds living and working together for those one or two years. And where would the money to implement all this come from?
Well, our fiscus is strained to the limit, and beyond.
So I’d propose a wealth tax on the country’s richest top 10 percent individuals and companies, the details of which would need to be fine-tuned – as well as using Lotto funds.
A small price to pay to counter a burgeoning national emergency.
Indeed, Mr Ramaphosa if you’re reading this, don’t write me off as a wild-eyed visionary – instead let’s talk about assembling a Star Chamber to oversee what will be the most monumental project of your legacy.
A project that takes one of the less favourable aspects of our apartheid past and reimagines, reinvents and repurposes it for our youth, so pulling South Africa back from the brink.
Meyer Benjamin is an car industry veteran and commentator. He is the director of the Ipop (In People Our Passion) Motor Group, which includes four Suzuki dealerships, a Mazda dealership, a Haval dealership, and six used-car outlets. He is also actively involved in the upliftment, improvement, and betterment of Rosettenville, Johannesburg, where Ipop is headquartered.