Issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation on 15/06/2023

On 16 June every year, South Africans commemorate the 176 young lives lost during the Soweto Uprising, which saw thousands of students gather for a peaceful march against the Bantu Education Act and which ended in violence. This “Youth Day” asks us to recognise the immense potential of the youth – as a collective body in our society, but also in light of the many obstacles that hinder their possibilities and progress. Among these are the failure of our education system, unacceptably high youth unemployment levels and fragile family structures.

Strong families are enormously important for the nurturing of young people and the development of successful societies. However, according to the Stats SA General Household Survey 2021, only 33.8% of South African children live with both parents, whilst 43.4% live with their mothers, 3.9% with their fathers and 18.8% with neither parent. Acknowledging the profound impact of strong family units, the implications of this fragmented family structure are far-reaching. The first of which lies in education.

Education, the key that unlocks the door to a brighter future, is still characterised by inequality in access and outcome. Section 29 of the Constitution guarantees every person’s right to “a basic education” as an unqualified and immediately enforceable right. Although South Africa budgeted R298.1 billion (4.63% of GDP) for basic education during 2022/23, the quality of education delivered at the country’s 22 700 public schools was dismally poor. Despite this enormous expenditure, 3 398 schools (15% of the total) still made use of pit latrines, and 169 were permanently without electricity.

The findings in the FW de Klerk Foundation’s latest Human Rights Report Card are in alignment with the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) for 2021 released by the Department of Basic Education earlier this year, which noted – alarmingly (as did the 2016 PIRLS assessment) – that South African students are falling dismally behind international trends. In fact, it ranks South Africa’s Grade 4 learners as having the worst reading ability in the world. According to the 2021 Report, 81% of South African Grade 4 learners struggle to extract meaning from words written in any language, a significant increase from 78% in the 2016 Report.

Despite Government’s high expenditure on education, when compared internationally, South Africans also fare very badly with regard to basic maths skills. In the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which assessed the mathematics and science knowledge of fourth and eighth graders around the world, South Africa consistently scored in the bottom three of countries assessed. Although South Africa chose to administer TIMSS to Grade 5 and Grade 9 learners – making the majority one year older than many of their global participants – 63% of Grade 5 learners could not achieve the TIMSS basic threshold for maths and 72% of learners similarly could not show that they had attained basic science knowledge.

Children with poorer backgrounds are more disadvantaged and suffer from government’s failure to ensure this basic right in the public education system. The Human Capital Index for South Africa is 0,43, meaning that a child born in South Africa would be 43% less productive than a child with complete education and full health.

After overcoming these systemic education failures, our youth experience further challenges when they enter the labour market. The unemployment rate for the first quarter of 2022 was 63.9% for those aged 15 – 24 years old and 42.1% for those aged 25 – 34 years old.

Despite numerous pledges and commitments from Government, the prevailing reality reveals a lack of comprehensive strategies, targeted initiatives and robust policy frameworks to combat the pressing problems facing our youth.

When we celebrate Youth Day, we should think about the enormous problems with which our young people must contend every day of the year. We should spare a thought for the heroic role that millions of moms play – often without support – in nurturing their children, and we should share the growing frustration over the potential of young men and women that is being wasted by inadequate education and crippling unemployment. We should demand that Government implement comprehensive solutions that will provide decent education, employment and hope for the youth of South Africa.

Let’s unlock our youth’s boundless potential, fostering a generation of leaders, innovators and change-makers!

Learn more about the state of Human Rights in South Africa in the FW de Klerk Foundation 2022 Human Rights Report Card.

Image © South African History Online