One of the most tragic parts of working in some communities in South Africa is the unemployment that one encounters among the youth.

The tragedy of this phenomenon is given graphic expression when one calls a community meeting for say 10am on a Tuesday and the venue fills up with youngsters mostly around 20 or 30 years of age. They have usually come with two questions in mind: 1) Do you have a job for me and 2) will there be lunch provided? Of course nine times out of ten the answer to both these questions is negative.

It is at times like these that my colleagues and I embark on long and usually somewhat fruitless debates on how to create large-scale employment for young people who are short on skills. I mean what can a kid – often with nothing more than a grade 8 or 9 – do for gainful and decent employment? How do you even train such a person? We assume that our oft-quoted expanded unemployment rate of somewhere upwards of 35% means that there are simply no formal jobs available. So we begin looking at alternative options such as litter collection and rock crushing.

And then the question becomes – and this is arguably even more challenging for me personally: are we – as citizens of our country – simply meant to sit back and watch as these young people slowly sink into the mire of poverty; turn to substance abuse and perhaps even a life of crime? Is there nothing we can do to arrest this descent? Is there no part we can play – even if it is simply a case of “doing for one what we wish we could do for all.” 

Now, regular readers of this column will know not to use the ‘g’ word in my presence! It offends me greatly. This is because when we use the ‘g’ word we are usually shifting total responsibility from ‘I’ to ‘g’. These questions have no easy answers and if our only solution involves invoking the responsibilities of government then we have missed it. Why? Because as I have said in the past, if our democratic government knew what to do about youth unemployment or indeed any other devastating issue on our list of devastating issues, then it would probably do it. This is because results are the best way to win elections. In addition to this, a maturing democracy must see us make the shift in problem solving from the “you” (government must solve all the problems) to the “I” (I will solve all the problems alone – a disease suffered by many NGO’s in our country) to the “we” (we must work together to solve the problems). The thing that we need to get our heads around is that we – i.e. you and me – can be playing a much bigger role in solving youth unemployment than we might think. There are two things we can do immediately that would help move us into the space of the “we “when it comes to helping solve this issue:

As I have advocated before, we urgently need adults who are prepared to mentor our vulnerable young people. Mentorship – the simple act of walking the journey of life with a youngster for a short period of time – has been proven to be highly effective in causing children to go on and live happy, functional and productive lives. Just one hour a week with a caring adult is often all it takes to turn a troubled kid’s life around or keep a balanced kid grounded. Simple as that.

Secondly – and this can be done as part of your one hour a week – you can teach a young person to ride a scooter or drive a car (if the youngster you are mentoring is of age of course).

Youth Unemployment

Now, the first part – becoming a mentor – is straightforward. You can sign up to mentor a child on our Bright Stars Mentorship Programme (e-mail sandi@peaceagency.org.za or visit www.brightstars.org.za for information). The second part is even more interesting. A recent Sunday Times article totally disproved most of what we believe about youth unemployment. According to mobile recruitment start-up Giraffe, there is a serious shortage of motorcycle drivers in South Africa. The same applies to cashiers, hotel/restaurant workers, drivers and call centre staff. Who knew? Now these positions often require nothing more than practical or on-the-job training and then some assistance in getting the young person in contact with companies like Giraffe (www.giraffe.co.za). And Bob’s your auntie as they say in the classics. You have helped to reduce the unemployment rate in South Africa by one.

Now, I know what you are thinking; what difference will one make? To answer that you simply have to imagine how different your one life would have looked if you had never had a job. Imagine if no one person had ever given you – one person – a break. How different would things have turned out for you? 

Having done that, isn’t it time to pay it forward? 

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  

This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.