Johannesburg - University students have grabbed the headlines in recent weeks with their demands for free tertiary education, but their hardship represents just the tip of the iceberg of youth trapped in poverty, according to the SA Child Gauge 2015, released this week.
More than half of South African youth live in income poverty, have low levels of education, face high levels of unemployment (44 percent including those who have given up looking for work) and restricted access to the social grant system, it says.
This poverty is transmitted in various ways from one generation to the next, with the result that being born into poverty can mean it is almost impossible to break out of it. This is illustrated by the negligible gains since 1994 for the so-called born-free generation, who find themselves in depressingly similar circumstances to their parents.
Among African youth between the ages of 15 and 24, 64.8 percent lived in households with an income under R620 a person per month (the upper-bound poverty line) in 2011, compared to 68.8 percent in 1996 – a drop of just four percentage points, despite the government’s pro-poor policy orientation.
The figure increased among coloured, Asian/Indian and white youth – to 40.4 percent, 15.4 percent and 4.4 percent respectively – resulting in an overall increase in those living in poverty of one percentage point, from 57.4 percent to 58.5 percent between 1996 and 2011.
Rural youth, especially in the former homelands, suffered even greater levels of deprivation when other dimensions of poverty, including education, health care, living environment and economic opportunities, were taken into account.
In education – one of the key “channels” by which poverty is transmitted – 2007 data showed 41 percent of rural Grade 6 pupils were functionally illiterate, compared to just 13 percent of their urban counterparts.
Stellenbosch academic Nic Spaull noted in a chapter on education that educational inequalities between wealthier and poorer pupils – whose schools were characterised by wasted learning time, incomplete coverage of the curriculum, weak subject knowledge among teachers and low-cognitive demands placed on pupils – were already firmly entrenched by the age of 8.
Once children fell behind in their grasp of the curriculum, it became almost impossible to catch up, because knowledge in later grades was built on that acquired in earlier years.
By Grade 3, children in the poorest 60 percent of schools were already three years’ worth of learning behind their wealthier peers and, by Grade 9, they were five years behind.
The result was that just 40 percent of pupils who entered school in Grade 1 would end up completing matric.
“We can say that 60 percent of South Africa’s youth have no educational qualifications,” Spaull said.
This is where the technical and vocational education and training colleges and other skills programmes are supposed to come into play, but there is a huge mismatch between the need and the capacity of the system.
Among the 20 to 24-year-olds, only 12 percent were in a post-school education institution (university or college) in 2011, according to census data, 21 percent were employed, 16 percent were still in school and 51 percent were neither furthering their education nor employed – a condition likely to continue for years for the majority and forever for some.
In 2012, this translated into just over a million university students, 773 267 college students, 315 068 in adult education and training and 2.94 million not in education, employment or training.
Their plight is compounded by the loss of access to social grants at the same time, making it harder even to search for a job.
Poor health, depression, low-self esteem, exposure to violence and substance abuse, among others, feed into and reinforce the poverty trap.
The Child Gauge authors noted the government had placed strong emphasis on finding ways to break this cycle of intergenerational poverty, lauding, for example, the holistic approach of the National Youth Policy 2015-20.
However, the authors argued that co-ordination across sectors and departments was poor, with youth desks expected to ensure its implementation.
“Unless the line departments that will deliver these services incorporate these goals into their own strategic plans, the commitments in the (policy) will remain a wish list, rather than a strong, well-articulated approach with clear mechanisms for successful implementation,” the authors said.
It is not, however, all doom and gloom, with youth themselves showing surprising levels of optimism about the future and a strong sense of self-reliance.
Despite low levels of participation in formal politics and even resentment of the tag “born free” – given its poor correlation with their lived experience – they remain socially engaged, with high proportions reporting having offered to help a neighbour (79.1 percent), being involved in a social group (67.4 percent) and being active in religious activity (64.9 percent), according to a 2012 study.
However, University of Cape Town academics Justine Burns, Janet Jobson and Buhle Zuma noted in a chapter on youth identity that in the absence of opportunities to participate fully as active citizens, the wish to escape their circumstances “may manifest as a tendency towards individualism and consumerism where youth seek satisfaction through the consumption of demonstrable goods”.
“Many young South Africans are still looking for a new identity,” one youth was quoted as saying.
“They don’t want to be defined as heirs of apartheid, but as shapers of the future. Defining that new identity starts with us, but if older people want to help, they should change the way they talk about us.”
To this end, the authors argued, youth needed to be consulted on and given meaningful agency in programmes aimed at helping them.
They suggested that while the deep-rooted structural hurdles must be addressed as a necessary condition for progress, “quick wins” were possible in the form of “programmes that build a sense of collective identity to overcome isolation, that build a real sense of capacity and power, that support young people to craft their own narratives, that provide rituals and affirmation, and that also form bridging relationships into further opportunities.