World Youth Skills Day: South Africa Fails to Skill its Youth

Issued by Christina Teichmann on behalf of the FW de Klerk Foundation on 13/07/2023

The 15th of July marks “World Youth Skills Day” and provides each country with an opportunity to reflect on how well it prepares its youth for the working environment of tomorrow, thereby increasing their prospects of finding decent work, making a living and contributing to an inclusive economy.  

The foundation for any skill, be it manual or technical, is laid at school, where pupils learn how to read, write and count. If these basic skill sets are lacking, any other form of skills training later in life will be severely restricted. While the workplace can provide further training in specific skills, employers and companies have neither the means nor the time or mandate to compensate for the failures of the basic education sector.  

However, our basic education system is clearly not laying an adequate foundation for further skills development. The latest results from the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), published in a media statement by the South African Human Rights Commission, reveal that in 2021, 81% of South African Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning in any language. This is up from 78% in 2016. According to the report, South Africa was ranked last out of the 43 countries and experienced the largest decline of all the countries participating.  

When it comes to numerical literacy, South African learners also perform poorly. In the 2019 Trends of the International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which assessed the mathematics and science knowledge of learners around the world, 63% of Grade 5 learners in South Africa could not achieve the TIMSS basic threshold for maths and 72% of learners in the country similarly could not show that they had attained basic science knowledge. South Africa consistently scored in the bottom three of all the countries assessed. 

While the Covid-19 pandemic might well have made the situation even worse, it is evident that the South African basic education system does not fulfil its mandate and leaves learners poorly equipped for further education, training and skills development.   

The problem is not a lack of money. South Africa’s expenditure on basic education compares favourably with equivalent-sized economies. R298.1 billion (4.63% of GDP) will be spent on basic education during 2022-23, representing an expenditure of R22 213.16 for each of the 13 419 971 learners in the public school system.  However, this expenditure has not resulted in a better standard of education. So, what are the reasons for South Africa’s dismal performance?  

They range from poorly trained teaching staff, a shortage of qualified teachers and inadequate infrastructure to corruption, maladministration and last, but not least, a lack of political will. All this impacts negatively on the economy and political stability, but its main impact is on the personal lives of millions of young South Africans, who are left behind with hopes and aspirations that cannot be fulfilled.

Above all, it means that most young South Africans are effectively locked out of the job market. According to Statistics SA, youth aged 15 – 24 years record the highest unemployment rate of 62.1% in the first quarter of 2023 (Q1/23). This means that only 10.4% of this age group have been absorbed into the Labour Market.  

Q1/23 data further show that 36.1% of young South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 are not in employment, education or training (NEET), a slight decrease of 0.9% from the year before. 

In an annual update released on 29 June 2023, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU), which has been running an annual analysis of Quarterly Labour Force Surveys data, notes that “NEET youth are among the most vulnerable youth in the country: extended periods of disconnect from the labour market and education or training opportunities increase young people’s risk of remaining trapped in income poverty and of mental ill health. The situation feeds an endless cycle of exclusion that comes at a high cost for the individual young person, his or her family, and society at large.” 

Similarly to what was observed in 2022, the majority of youth who reported being NEET in Q1/2023 are unemployed. It is noteworthy that quite a high proportion of NEET youth have matric, suggesting a potentially lower protective function of the matric certificate than 10 years ago. It can be speculated that if the decreasing protective function of a matric certificate has anything to do with the low passing requirements that allow learners to obtain a certificate with an average score just below 50% across all subjects.  

These statistics indicate that South Africa has failed to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal 8, Target 8.6, of substantially reducing the proportion of NEET youth by 2020. Failing to act decisively on this issue also puts the country at risk of failing to meet its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

Let World Youth Skills Day remind us all that we must not fail South Africa’s youth by not providing them with skills, and thus sabotaging the future not only of the individuals, but also of the country.


Image © The Herald