I once heard what sounded like an urban legend – that wealthy Afrikaner business people and politicians were in conversation a few years after 1994 and saying: “If only we knew that the only thing blacks wanted was to vote, then we would’ve ended apartheid a long time ago.” This was premised on the view that the economic and social lives of the white minority, the direct beneficiaries of apartheid, had dramatically improved under democracy, as some may have expected would happen. This was then generally followed by the assertion that despite the promises of a “better life for all”, the lot of black people had generally not changed very much.
Of course, none of these views is absolutely true. Many white people lost the privileges carved out for them under apartheid, such as job reservation, free housing in leafy suburbs, virtually free education, and the like. It goes without saying that, indeed, the lives of black people, in the main, are a lot better than during apartheid. There is possibly no better time to take a moment to celebrate on this “urban debate” than in a few days’ time when the “new SA” turns 25.
This is a major milestone and an opportunity not only to reflect but to get this 25-year-old ready for what awaits her in the next quarter of a century.
In most circles, SA is still considered a young democracy facing an uncertain socioeconomic future, mainly due to its chronic race-based inequality and the impact of this on socioeconomic stability and tolerance. Granted, many South Africans who have a lived experience of what this country was like before 1994 will see April 27 as a reason for celebration and, indeed, their “Freedom Day”. They will remember the emotive release of Nelson Mandela from prison, they will recall the numerous violent states of emergency, and they will recollect their feelings when they saw a lifeless Chris Hani in a pool of blood. With the images of winding lines of millions of voters imprinted on their memories, they truly identify with the election 25 years ago that officially ushered in a democratic SA.
I am one of those.
However, people born in 1994 may not share our joy – mainly because many are unemployed. These 25-year-olds are at the centre of the single biggest challenge SA has faced since 1994: unemployment. According to StatsSA, the youth unemployment rate is higher than for any other age group, irrespective of education levels: 52.2% of people aged 15-24, and 35.5% of those aged 25-34, are unemployed – and these figures exclude the young people who have given up looking for work and have become a burden on their parents and siblings, or have simply turned to criminal activity.
These are the real 25-year-old South Africans. Young, black and unemployed.
StatsSA also tells us that the private sector has created more jobs than the government since 1994. Despite what politicians tell us when they want our votes, governments should never be seen as job creators. Politicians have created a brand promise they have no ability to meet.
Research by the SBP SME growth index – based on a survey of about 500 firms employing fewer than 50 people in manufacturing, business services and tourism – shows that smaller firms are stagnating in both turnover and employment growth, thanks to the tough economic environment.
Just as small businesses have become the lifeblood of economies around the world, it is estimated that in SA, SMEs employ 60% of the labour force, make up 90% of formal businesses and contribute roughly 34% of GDP. It stands to reason that small business support must be front and centre of the sixth administration that will emerge from the 2019 elections.
That, or we will look back in another 25 years and nobody will recognise Freedom Day any more.
This article first appeared in the Business Times section of The Sunday Times on 21 April 2019