Reducing South African youth unemployment

How can the church help?

Given the immensity and complexity of the crisis, the issue of youth unemployment should, at the very least, be on the prayer list of each South African church congregation. We bring unique gifts and graces to every challenge, and prayer is one of those unique graces we can and should bring to this crisis, acknowledging that it will require more than human ability to solve it.

If we begin to pray about it, we give it a certain prominence because we have spoken about it to God, and we will then have no choice but to act on it.

Prayer is also one of the factors that give the church confidence to deal with multiple and often converging crises. We gain our confidence from a relationship with someone who says “I will be with you always, until the end of time” and from Scriptures that proclaim that “for human beings it may be impossible, but for God it is possible”. When it becomes clear that other agencies are not going to – or simply cannot – deal with this and other crises any time soon, the Church has no choice but to stand in the breach as young people are part of the special concern of the church and also part of the marginalized and the voiceless or the unheard.

Step 1: Prayer

Here is a suggested prayer that can be said by those who are not youth, at least once a month (perhaps on the 16th of each month, since Youth Day is June 16) or even once a week or more.

A prayer for adults:

Creator God
You have created each of us with tremendous creative abilities
And you desire that these abilities be nurtured and used
for our common good
Forgive us where we have stifled the creative abilities of young people
Where we have not sufficiently cared for the soil that would help the seeds to grow
And for the times when we have placed blame and responsibility on them:
Give us the necessary wisdom, guidance and skill
To create the conditions in which young people
Not only survive, but thrive
And fully reflect your glory,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. One God, for ever and ever.

Here is a suggested prayer for young people (whether employed or unemployed)

A prayer for young people

Creator God
You want only the best for us
And we also want the best for ourselves
And for our societies, communities and the Earth
Guide us to discern the creativity within us
So that we may use it to become the best we can be
And to nourish our families and communities
So that we all may reflect your glory
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who came not to be served
But to serve.

Step 2: Then what?

Having prayed, we cannot simply leave it to God to sort out. This would deny everything about the Christian faith, that believes that God became human so that humans may reflect God’s divinity. It would deny the unity between God, humanity and the Earth and the partnership that God desires with humanity. As Christians, we can simply draw from that deep well of love and unity in which we were created.

Start with ourselves: What can a congregation do for its own young people?

Even if there are very few young people in a congregation or parish, the likelihood is that the adults have children or grandchildren who are struggling and unemployed. Many parents have given their children a good education and yet the child is unemployed, not for lack of trying, but simply because there are no employment possibilities for that particular person at this time in a particular field.

It is important to help the young people and everyone else to understand that “it is not their fault”. Youth unemployment (as it is defined by some) has become systemic and is as a result of policies that have been adopted by those in power. Eventually we must think through what can be done to change those policies, but the initial steps must be to encourage and support the young people and give them a menu of options and even a toolkit to experiment with the options.

While “starting with our own” is a good start, it is not a good end. We therefore need to broaden our imagination and our space for grace to include all young people.

But first we must understand what we are talking about and see what the underlying narrative and assumptions are about employment and unemployment and whether we agree with this narrative.

Step 3: Think critically and creatively

What is employment and unemployment?

First, we must try to understand what employment is. What counts as employment? Is care-giving, for example, employment? For many years and in some cultures, mothers stayed at home to care for the children and the “breadwinner” would come home at the end of a week, hand over a pay-packet and the household would be managed from there. Is the marriage contract or understanding that existed between that husband and that wife an implicit agreement that the wife would therefore not feature on the unemployment statistics? These are the kinds of basic questions we would need to reflect on as we navigate our new context, which is very different from what it used to be.

Care-giving is an interesting example to begin with since most homes require a certain level of care-giving, whether it be for children or for older people or those who are sick. Most care-giving is done by women and the injustice of this needs to be reflected upon and stopped. If the families remunerate all who do care-giving (and not simply see them as unemployed and therefore of little use or of no need to be remunerated) then the approach to this might change and official statistics might begin to reflect a different picture.

From a cash economy to a debt-economy

The above scenario happened mainly in a cash economy. What banks and other financial institutions have done, is to move society away from this cash economy (crime being one of the reasons given as justification) and they created instruments of debt that would keep families in debt for many many years. This would require a different article, but people have recently begun to question why it is possible to get a R500 000 loan for a car over a period of five years but a home loan for the same amount is pushed towards 20 years, something which most consumers simply accept or feel they have to accept. For the banking industry to sustain itself and sell its products, it has changed society and this has made people think very differently from before. The first thing young couples therefore do even before they get married, is to get themselves into a debt-trap and this leads to other traps. One of the questions that the church could help society to reflect on is: Can this be reversed so that we do not encourage the next generation to simply worship “Mammon” which leads to corruption and consumerism.

Restoring our link with creation

As human beings have begun to destroy creation because of what I have described above, it is probably past time to think about what the alternatives might be. Are we really going to ask the next generations to simply accept and live the unhealthy lifestyle that we have created? The covid pandemic gives us a good moment to reflect on this. The many “market crises”, especially since 2008, makes it clear that the current economic path is unsustainable. The new South Africa was born at a time when communism was dying and therefore the only way we could imagine our society was through a neo-liberal lens. In the process, we lost the imagination to think creatively while young people in other societies are enjoying social democracy (such as in Germany and Norway) and other young people are imagining what democratic socialism in the USA might look like. The climate crisis now makes it clear that humanity is on its way to destruction especially as we continue to rape the earth and replace forests, the lungs of the earth, with hotels. Deserts have therefore grown and soon coastal communities will be uprooted as the sea-levels rise. We have to think comprehensively or ask the young people to help us think.

What do we value? How do we determine value?

It does therefore require conversations about what we value. How do we value service? Do we all want to be business owners and CEOs? Or can we value service – even the service of cleaning the road or the area, in a different way? South Africa needs to be cleaned up, so there is therefore no lack of “work”, there is only lack of how we understand or value the work that needs to be done, how we understand our service to the community, and how that is valued and acknowledged.

If we leave the debate about employment and unemployment to economists, government and businesspeople, we will arrive at one particular conclusion. If we broaden the space for creative and critical thinking and add our values to the conversation, we will probably arrive at a different conclusion.

What is the difference between employment, income creation and a sustainable life-style?

Is “getting a job” or “starting a business” the only ways in which to create a sustainable life and income? If all one’s daily needs are cared for (you have a roof and a bed, you have community, you have something to do every day, and you have enough to eat each day), how would life be different?

The story about the fisherman and the businessman, as told by Paulo Coelho, might be instructive here:

There was once a businessman who was sitting by the beach in a small Brazilian village.
As he sat, he saw a Brazilian fisherman rowing a small boat towards the shore having caught quite few big fish.
The businessman was impressed and asked the fisherman, “How long does it take you to catch so many fish?”
The fisherman replied, “Oh, just a short while.”
“Then why don’t you stay longer at sea and catch even more?” The businessman was astonished.
“This is enough to feed my whole family,” the fisherman said.
The businessman then asked, “So, what do you do for the rest of the day?”

The fisherman replied, “Well, I usually wake up early in the morning, go out to sea and catch a few fish, then go back and play with my kids. In the afternoon, I take a nap with my wife, and evening comes, I join my buddies in the village for a drink — we play guitar, sing and dance throughout the night.”

The businessman offered a suggestion to the fisherman.
“I am a PhD in business management. I could help you to become a more successful person. From now on, you should spend more time at sea and try to catch as many fish as possible. When you have saved enough money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish. Soon you will be able to afford to buy more boats, set up your own company, your own production plant for canned food and distribution network. By then, you will have moved out of this village and to Sao Paulo, where you can set up HQ to manage your other branches.”

The fisherman continues, “And after that?”
The businessman laughs heartily, “After that, you can live like a king in your own house, and when the time is right, you can go public and float your shares in the Stock Exchange, and you will be rich.”
The fisherman asks, “And after that?”
The businessman says, “After that, you can finally retire, you can move to a house by the fishing village, wake up early in the morning, catch a few fish, then return home to play with kids, have a nice afternoon nap with your wife, and when evening comes, you can join your buddies for a drink, play the guitar, sing and dance throughout the night!”
The fisherman was puzzled, “Isn’t that what I am doing now?

As we reflect on this story, it will be important that we think creatively about what it means to have a job, to have an income, to care for each other and to live a sustainable life.

Step 4: Develop short, medium and long-term options

Various options

It is important to develop and then look at the menu of options available and what we choose to implement. Here are some examples, although many can and should be added:

  1. How do we move young people back to the land, the soil, the earth? This would require a certain love for and understanding of bio-diversity and of agriculture, and this can be inculcated at schools. Government and private schools can choose to make this part of the curriculum and not simply a voluntary option at school. An understanding of what healthy soil is and how it feeds our immune system, would be important for children to know. If they could grow carrots at school and learn to eat it there, it would help them think differently about nutrition, health, etc. If they leave school with skills on how to keep and make soil healthy, they would have been given a hand-up for the rest of their lives. Every pre-school and primary school could have a few cows that the children can milk as part of their daily activities.
  2. While this is being considered (and there will be many who would need to be convinced and who will have to withstand various lobbies) a basic income grant simply to keep young people alive is probably necessary to implement as a policy option. This could be linked to a project. The issue is not whether the grant should be given: the issue is what will happen to the money that is given: will it simply be spent on existing supermarkets or fast-food outlets that will expand more and more into townships, or will it be spent on seeds and soil-strengthening materials? If it is the former, the grant will unfortunately not make any significant difference to our life together.
  3. A very senior judge was asked by some VYLTP young people about what he would do to counter youth unemployment. One of his first answers was: “Expand the military”. We have to think about the wisdom of this. One option that might be more acceptable, and that is working is what Chrysalis academy is doing. Every district municipality and metro could have a similar academy for young people. Some of those who qualify from these academies would go into the military and other security forces, while others would not.
  4. We all know that the first 1000 days of a child’s life is the most important. If some of the unemployed youth could be trained in basic skills to assist children in the first three years of their lives to stimulate their brain either through games or reading or both as well as give them enough excercises, this could be a way to think 20 years ahead when that same child graduates, their brains and body having been given the right kinds of stimulation from birth.
  5. Would the Dept of Education be open to allow young people to be “teachers assistants”? This may not be possible and where possible, will have to be handled with great care, but it is an option worth thinking about. Young people who are good at sports could assist at schools with that aspect since most teachers do not want to do it after school.
  6. Could government engage in a massive public works programme at schools? For example, if a decision is made to build a swimming pool at each school, young people could be asked to build it and then to teach the children how to swim.
  7. Some of this is already happening, but more companies can be given subsidies to employ young people who have finished matric or university/college.


It might be worth thinking about each congregation as a beloved community, or even as a monastery. When we do this, we begin to change the conversation about what we believe in and what we value, how we show hospitality and gratitude and what we do to support our young people who are both the present and the future of the church.

Also read:

Basic Education calls on unemployed youth to apply for education assistant placement for phase II of the Basic Education Employment Initiative

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