Every year, South Africa remembers and marks the Soweto youth uprising of 16 June 1976. It is a significant day in the country’s calendar because it serves as a reminder of the power and potential of South Africa’s young people as the future of the country.

Now, 45 years later and against the backdrop of the pandemic for the second consecutive year, it is more important than ever to commemorate this day – and month – to look at the challenges and opportunities that youth in South Africa face.

“While the country’s young people faced challenges such as high levels of unemployment and poverty before the pandemic hit – and those challenges remain – the pandemic accelerated and added obstacles that make it difficult for South Africa’s youth to spread their wings,” says Nkosinathi Mahlangu, portfolio head for youth employment at Momentum Metropolitan Holdings (MMH).

Unemployment still tops the list of issues that hits young people hardest: the official unemployment rate among youth between 15 and 34 years was 46,3% in the first quarter of 2021. That increased from 43,2% in the first quarter of 2020 – showing that youth unemployment is a growing challenge, with almost one in every two young people in the labour force without a job.

Most vulnerable are youth between 15 and 24, with an unemployment rate of over 63%, an absorption rate of about 7,6% and a labour force participation rate of 20,6%. Even university graduates are struggling with employability, with an unemployment rate of 9,3%.

“However, despite the seemingly bleak picture, it remains true that every crisis and challenge brings opportunities,” says Mahlangu. “With the changes that the pandemic has brought to the way people work and learn, these opportunities are in helping identify the jobs of tomorrow, introducing young people to the skills needed in the workforce of the future, and making opportunities around these skills and jobs visible and accessible.”

A digital foundation for the future of skills and work

These skills and jobs are increasingly digital. There is a growing shift to digital technologies and rising demand for people with digital skills, especially in the face of the move to remote working and learning prompted by the pandemic.

“We need to equip our young people with that foundation, and make opportunities around skilling and employability more visible and accessible to them,” says Mahlangu. “As a case in point, we have a partner programme with WomenThinkCode, which works to close the digital skills gap in South Africa by upskilling young women in a male dominated space and collaborating with a network of partners to provide their students with a path to employment.”

Coding has grown as a critical skill in numerous areas including software engineering and web development – which have been identified as the most in-demand skills and roles by the 2020 Harambee Mapping of Digital and ICT Roles and Demand for South Africa Survey.

The key now lies in demystifying this learning path and making it attractive and accessible even to young people with no knowledge or experience in the field. WeThinkCode does this through their two-year training programme, recruiting young people with varying degrees of knowledge, and teaching them coding and web development, as well as problem-solving.

They also help with internships at sponsor companies – like Momentum Metropolitan Holdings – to help support South Africa’s young talent on their employability journeys, which cover the spectrum from finding jobs to pursuing entrepreneurship and becoming job creators.

“Of the first cohort of 15 interns that we brought into Momentum Metropolitan Holdings as part of our partnership, six have been permanently employed with the business,” says Mahlangu. “This speaks to the need to equip young people with critical skills, and then open up access to opportunities and support for them.”

Support can cover both monetary and non-monetary interventions, which include mentoring, shadowing and networking. “South Africa’s young people are hungry for opportunities, so it is vital that we collectively help them identify, find and co-create solutions that will empower them on their employability journeys,” says Mahlangu.