A large portrait of a young woman draped in a black graduation robe looms over a spotless, tiled lounge in Protea Glen, a suburb of Johannesburg’s Soweto township.
It is a constant and gnawing reminder of potential that has gone unrealized for 10 years.
“It’s like you go to school, you go to school ... and then once you are qualified you sit with a whole stack of certificates that you can’t actually use,” 36-year-old Kgomotso Sebabi said.
Armed with qualifications in wealth management, she in 2008 migrated from the small, central city of Kimberley to Johannesburg in pursuit of opportunities.
To date, the holder of two bachelor’s degrees has failed to find a job in her field.
She has since acquired three more post-graduate certificates in a bid to enhance her chances, but all she has managed to secure is a part-time job at a call center.
“Initially, I wanted to see myself grow within the financial sector, maybe become a manager ... a finance chief executive or something, but it didn’t go as planned,” she said.
A quarter of century into democracy, South Africa has an official unemployment rate of 27.1 percent. Among people under 35, the rate is about 53 percent — among the highest in the world.
Causes of unemployment in South Africa are many and complex, the biggest factor being a slow-growing economy that has failed to produce jobs at the pace at which new graduates enter the market.
According to Chief Survey Statistician for Household Labour Market Statistics Malerato Mosiane, unemployment remained stubbornly high, even as the population grew rapidly.
Media graduate Tswelopele Maputla, 22, completed her journalism studies in November last year at Rhodes University, but has been nowhere near a newsroom. She mails out job applications whenever she can.
“It’s been incredibly difficult and demotivating,” Maputla said as she finished cleaning her mother’s house in Daveyton. “I have the skills and it’s just disheartening that I can’t get that one break that I need to prove myself.”
As South Africa heads to the polls on May 8, the promise of jobs has once again become election bait.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed that his African National Congress would create “many more” jobs.
The party has been in power for 25 years and is on track to win the majority vote yet again.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, meanwhile recently told supporters in Johannesburg: “I have a dream of putting a job in every home.”
However, the promises are up against a lackluster economy. The IMF this month lowered South Africa’s projected GDP growth rate for the year from 1.4 percent to 1.2 percent, citing policy uncertainty, which with high levels of corruption and recurrent electricity blackouts has harmed investor confidence.
The massive unemployment rate is seen as fueling apathy among many young voters.
The electoral commission has recorded a 47 percent drop in registered voters aged 18 and 19. About two-thirds of the 9 million eligible voters who did not bother to register are younger than 30.
“I’m not voting,” unemployed agriculture graduate Xhanti Ndondela, 26, said. “Why should I vote for a government that I will never work for?”
The government’s target is to cut unemployment by half, to about 14 percent by next year, but this is “unlikely to occur,” the World Bank said in a report last year.
“Overall, since 1994, a growing economy created many jobs in South Africa, but not enough to significantly reduce unemployment,” the bank said.
Former statistician-general and current Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative consultant Pali Lehohla has warned of a self-perpetuating crisis.
“We are caught in that process where unemployment, poor education and poverty itself are reinforcing one another. There is going to be a tipping point no doubt,” he told eNCA television news network.
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