Participants at the Business and Human Rights Dialogue in Sandton, Gauteng, on Tuesday. PHOTO: Mel Frykberg/ANA

Johannesburg - As the country struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, thousands of social work graduates trained at a huge state expense are languishing at home without work.

The number of these unemployed youth, who should be absorbed by the Department of Social Development, looks set to jump from 3 800 to 8 600 this year.

This big increase was expected to rise when 4 840 social work students with bursaries from the department complete their studies. 

Social Development revealed this problem on at least two platforms this month. The first one was an investigative hearing of the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and another was a briefing of Parliament’s portfolio committee on social development. 

“We have more than 3 000 social work graduates who received scholarships from the department that we’re unable to employ,” acting director-general Nelisiwe Vilakazi told the SAHRC.

“We have more than 4 000 who are finalising their studies this current financial year. Those are the issues.”

Minutes from the portfolio committee show that the failure to absorb the graduates was raised as one of the major concerns engulfing the department, headed until recently by Bathabile Dlamini. 

The department revealed to the committee that it had employed 566 graduates in provinces, thanks to a grant of R181 million from Treasury. 

This money went to salaries “as there was no additional money from Treasury” to be allocated, according to the minutes. 

Some of the graduates took to a social workers page on Facebook to express their frustration.

Those who funded their own varsity studies also decried their unemployment. “I feel like I wasted my time… 4 years in uni to be unemployed. This degree is a curse,” posted Nikiswa Didishe.

Patricia Mokase posted: “... Why should they treat us like we studied for 2 years? Why why why? I wish I can reverse time and study for something else.” 

Siphesihle Khuzwayo, who graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal last year, on Sunday told The Star their situation was depressing. 

“There is no reason for us to be punished in this manner while we have qualifications. I’m not suffering alone emotionally. There are many of us,” he said. 

Nokuzola Capa, chairperson of the social development committee, said she was concerned by this growing problem. 

“Politically, we’re very worried because these are young people. We’re all attached to making opportunities available for them to acquire such important essential skills,” she told The Star. 

“Secondly, we have this scourge of teenage pregnancy, youth unemployment and drug abuse. This requires more centres with social workers.”

Capa said the committee believed there were not enough social workers, hence it supported the funding scheme. “But we think the state machinery has not  recognised there will always be an unhealthy society as long as there are no social workers.”

The department was not funding new students this financial year, but Capa was not in favour of dumping the bursary programme. 

“We should not stop training them because we’re not absorbing them. The need is always there, except that the budget cannot be stretched to that level,” she said. 

Capa urged “creativity” in dealing with the issue. 

“There’s no need why Social Development should appoint a social worker for prisons. Prisons need these social workers, so they need to open up and have vacancies themselves,” she said.  

Vilakazi said the department remained hopeful the problem will be resolved. “Treasury has supported us in a way that we’re not in a position to cover all of them. But the department is very much positive… that this area will get the attention it deserves.”

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The Star