Swiss development agencies and private companies are working hand in hand to defuse a social time bomb in South Africa.
Officially, more than 51 per cent of young South Africans are unemployed. But the rate is in fact much higher among black people.
“This job has restored my confidence. I had lost all my self-esteem. I used to just let the days go by, trying not to think of tomorrow,” says Lucky Letsobe, aged 24.
At least since last June, when the happy radiant young man began work at the City Lodge, a three-star hotel in Sandton, the swankiest district of Johannesburg.
Was it his name that swung it for him? He certainly needed some luck, in a country where almost 70 per cent of the black population fail to find a job after leaving school.
It was a tough experience for Lucky.
“For a while, I followed a course of training in a technical school. But I couldn’t afford the fees or the travel costs and I had to give it up.”
In 2009, after several years of hardship, the young man was offered the opportunity to enrol in a practical course in the tourism sector, in preparation for the forthcoming football World Cup, which is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to South Africa in June and July.
The project was set up by the Swiss South-African Co-operation Initiative (SSACI), an agency sponsored jointly by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and about 15 mainly Swiss companies.
For nearly ten years, the SSACI has funded practical training courses for more than 5,000 young people, in fields as varied as construction work, electrics, precision engineering and carpentry.
After completing their apprenticeships, these young people generally have no difficulty in finding work, as the skills taught are geared to the needs of the local economy.
“The drama of the South African economy is that unemployment is at catastrophic levels among young people, while companies are cruelly short of qualified labour,” says SSACI director Ken Duncan.
In 2009, because of the global crisis, the South African economy shed one million jobs, largely affecting 18-26 year olds.
At the same time, the lack of qualified labour featured for the third year running as the primary concern of South African employers, according to a survey conducted by the auditing company, PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Aids and crime
A social time bomb, the lack of employment for South African youth could also endanger the fragile equilibrium achieved in the post-apartheid years.
This is borne out by the re-emergence of rioting in disadvantaged districts, often the lead story in television news broadcasts.
Aids and crime are the two most visible and dramatic consequences of this mass unemployment.
“A young person who is working will be far more disciplined and organised. And certainly less likely to be involved in risk behaviours”, SSACI’s Duncan points out.
“Unfortunately, one young person in five who joins our programme is HIV-positive. In ten years, life expectancy has dropped by ten years. The demographic impact of the disease will have dramatic consequences for the South African economy in the years ahead.”
During the four-week course preceding his 16-week practical training, Lucky Letsobe was made aware of these problems. Then, thanks to financial support from the SSACI, he was able to learn the basics of working in a hotel.
Setting an example
The young man has since found favour with his employers, who offered him a permanent job in the hotel’s café.
“The post-training recruitment rate is lower than it would be in more technical fields, but tourism provides countless opportunities for young people who are not highly qualified”, says Duncan.
Although the vocational education and training systems inherited from the apartheid era are woefully lacking, it is not the SSACI’s task to take over the role of the South African government.
“South Africa has a great abundance of natural resources, but is short of skilled labour. In Switzerland, the opposite is true.
“We hope that the work we have done on a small scale can serve as an example for the South African government,” says Duncan.
Samuel Jaberg, swissinfo.ch in Johannesburg (adapted from French)
43% of the population in South Africa lives on less than $2 a day.
The official unemployment rate is 24.5%, but in actual fact it is estimated to be at least 40%.
Last year, about 260,000 jobs were cut, affecting notably young black men with temporary employment.
13 million people in South Africa depend on welfare payments.
The average monthly income has risen by 37.3% for black South Africans since 1995. White South Africans saw their income increase by 83.5% on average.
50% of the South African population live in conditions of a developing country, while 13% enjoy a standard of living of an industrialised country, according to the World Bank.
37% of the population have neither access to fresh water nor to electricity, one in four has no primary school education.
Life expectancy has dropped by ten years over the past decade. On average people die at the age of 50. 18% of people aged 15-49 are HIV positive.
Public Private Partnership
The Swiss-South African Cooperation Initiative (SSACI) was set up by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and ten private corporations in 2001.
The private sector now includes companies such as ABB, Bühler, Ciba, Clariant, Credit Suisse, Holcim, Novartis, Schindler, Swiss Re, Swiss International Airlines and UBS.
So far, about 5,000 young people have enrolled for training in 50 projects. More than 90% of the trainees have graduated and more than 70% of graduates have found work, according to SSACI.
The companies investing in social projects such as those set up by SSACI receive bonus points necessary to apply for public tenders.