In 2015, the Republic of South Africa ratified its National Youth Policy 2015-2020 (NYP). One of the policy’s four primary objectives is “to strengthen the capacity of young people to enable them to take charge of their own well-being through building their assets and ultimately realising their potential to the fullest” (Presidency, 2014, p. 12). This is a crucial objective, given that about half of the country’s unemployed workers are youth ages 15-24 years (Statistics South Africa, 2015).
Two-thirds (66%) of South Africa’s population is less than 35 years old (Statistics South Africa, 2014). To reap a demographic dividend from its “youth bulge,” the government’s strategy entails investment in human capital development, particularly in education.
This paper examines South Africa’s progress in building young people’s human and labour-market capacities through education. Longitudinal data from Afrobarometer and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s (IJR) Transformation Audit indicate that the South African government has succeeded in increasing access to education for the current generation of youth. However, an analysis of unemployment data and trends in higher education participation rates paints a less rosy picture for the prospects of South African youth, particularly Black youth.
Although the NYP clearly indicates that the government considers young people to be one of South Africa’s primary assets, a majority of South African children and youth still attend under-resourced schools with poorly trained teachers (Spaull, 2013). Furthermore, the loss of pupils in the school pipeline contributes to low levels of post-secondary education, exacerbated by limited vocational skills training (Lolwana, 2012).
Despite government efforts, inequalities in educational attainment persist across races. Our results suggest that further investment in public education, including upskilling of teachers, is key to creating a generation of productive and fulfilled citizens. In addition, given the high proportion of young people who fail to complete secondary education, vocational training is an untapped resource for increasing employment and growing the economy.