South Africa’s 58% youth unemployment rate was already a crisis before the coronavirus pandemic. Economists predict dire outcomes for the current lockdown generation who will face disrupted education and greater obstacles in the search for work. We must act to keep young people from falling further into poverty and being permanently locked out of the economy.

The most conservative estimate is that Covid-19 will strip 1-2 million jobs from South Africa’s economy. Early in lockdown, Harambee partnered with industry associations across a range of sectors to survey 2,500 organisations and develop an understanding of their needs and challenges, particularly around loss of revenue, post-lockdown employee reintegration, and security and safety. The survey identified the need to support small businesses in particular as they tried to navigate and access a range of support services and assistance measures.

The safe reopening of the economy, in a way that can be sustained, is our best chance of curbing even more unemployment than is currently predicted. This is why a broad coalition was formed to launch Return 2 Work – a comprehensive portal of all the tools a business needs to assure that it can reopen and stay open safely. This includes clear roadmaps with one-touch access to all the relevant regulations, sample checklists and draft communications that can be used in the workplace. So far, more than 40,000 businesses have taken up the offer to help them safely return to work. But we can’t just reopen the economy, we must reimagine it as President Cyril Ramaphosa has called on us to do. We must identify opportunities that put inclusive growth at the centre of our strategy, creating an economy more premised on fairness, empowerment, justice, and equality. One clear area where this is possible is the digital economy – where we are all more reliant on being connected online than ever before. This means taking seriously the fact that South Africa has some of the highest data costs on the continent. The call for the price of data to fall is urgent. Young people tell us they are eager to learn but that data costa are a barrier. Because they have limited cash, they purchase smaller data bundles even when the price is higher than bulk data bundles. They spend an average of R360 per month on data (and some as much as R1,800) for job searches, online applications, social media, research and academic work. Expensive data costs force them online after midnight when data is cheaper, whereas more affordable data allows them to be productive during daytime hours, offering healthier psychosocial benefits and giving them access to online communities when they most need it. By lowering – or even removing – data costs, young people are more readily able to access information, seek learning and job opportunities and engage with others. While South Africa’s formal sector remains our critical engine for growth, we recognise that work will become more informal in the months ahead as people hunt for opportunities to earn in a much tougher economy. Our response to Covid-19 can open up new opportunities for young people to support their communities in reopening and rebuilding. The crisis highlights the critical importance of the informal sector in income generation, especially for unemployed young people. As informal work becomes the new formal work, it is as critical to innovatively support and sustain the informal sector as it is to keep the formal sector afloat. Informal businesses need proper support to thrive, such as access to platforms and market linkages like Gauteng’s SMME portal for preferential procurement and the Informal Business Permits Portal. As our youth become more economically excluded than before, innovative community-based programmes for them need to be coordinated and scaled up through partnerships with government and civil society. There are many examples of how useful these are, like that of Njabulo who participated in a programme that helped him identify an income-earning opportunity in his Volksrust community. He recognised the surge in demand for connectivity during lockdown and used his wi-fi router to sell internet connectivity. This is likely to become a sustainable income for him. Another example is Thabang who has a textile business in Durban, and was able to procure a sewing machine and generate more than R3,000 of income by making cloth masks. More partnerships with civil society are needed to roll out interventions like these to enable young people to generate income quickly. During lockdown, Harambee and its partners have reached five million young people and our Youth Voices Report tracks what they are sharing as they manage the pandemic. Sixty-three percent of young people we surveyed do not have an income and many youths are using their childcare grant to support themselves as they struggle to make ends meet. We must continue to lift up youth voices to ensure resilience and recovery, and to provide young people with the opportunities to build their skills and stay positive. If we amplify their voices and act on what they are saying, they will become part of the solution that leads us out of this crisis. _____ This article was written by Maryana Iskander, CEO of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. The article was originally published on 9 June 2020 on the Daily Maverick website. Access the original article here: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-06-08-prospects-of-work-for-the-lockdown-generation/#gsc.tab=0 

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