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Key findings
  • Unemployment is the most important problem that South African youth want their government to address, cited by 54% of 18- to 35-year-old respondents as one of their top three priorities.
  • On average, South African youth are more educated than their elders. More than nine out of 10 young citizens (94%) have secondary or post-secondary schooling.
  • But youth are also more likely to be unemployed: 47% of young South Africans say they are looking for a job, compared to 35% of the middle-aged and 10% of older citizens.
  • Almost half (45%) of South African youth describe their personal living conditions as “fairly bad” or “very bad.”
  • About nine out of 10 young South Africans say they own a mobile phone (92%) and a bank account (88%).
  • Only about one in 10 young people give the government a passing grade on its efforts to create jobs (11%), reduce crime (10%), provide electricity (12%), and fight corruption (10%).

In June, South Africa celebrated its annual Youth Day and Youth Month under the theme “Accelerating youth economic emancipation for a sustainable future” (South African Government, 2023). Key to meeting this goal is the creation of decent and meaningful jobs (Lee, 2023).

The country’s unemployment rate has been stubbornly high for decades; a recent Ipsos South Africa (2023) survey found that South Africa was “the world’s most worried nation on this issue.”

Youth are especially hard hit: Unemployment among 15- to 34-year-olds rose to 46.5% in the first quarter of 2023, compared to the national average of 32.9% (Statistics South Africa, 2023; Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, 2023). Forecasts from the International Monetary Fund’s (2022) World Economic Outlook suggest that even tougher times lie ahead, as the country is set to experience the highest joblessness rate in the world. Estimates project that total unemployment in South Africa will surge to 35.6% in 2023 (World Economic Forum, 2023).

Economic participation is one of five principles anchoring South Africa’s National Youth Policy (2020-2030), joining quality education and skills, physical and mental health promotion, nation building and social cohesion, and effective and responsive youth development institutions as pathways toward holistic youth development (United Nations Population Fund, 2021).

The 2020 Global Youth Development Index ranks South Africa 131st out of 181 countries when it comes to promoting youth education, employment, health, equality and inclusion, peace and security, and political and civic participation, well behind other regional powers such as Mauritius (No. 54), Botswana (No. 108), and Namibia (No. 119) (Commonwealth, 2021; Bhengu, 2021).

The most recent Afrobarometer survey provides further insights on the situation of South Africa’s youth. Findings show that in a list of concerns that includes crime, electricity, and corruption, unemployment is the most important problem that young South Africans want their government to address. While youth are more educated than middle-aged and older citizens, they are also more likely to be unemployed.

Like their elders, youth are overwhelmingly critical of the government’s efforts on job creation, crime, electricity, and corruption, and few approve of the performance of their elected officials.

But survey findings also suggest that young South Africans are not taking full advantage of political and civic avenues to make their voices and priorities heard.

Asafika Mpako

Asafika is the communications coordinator for Southern Africa

Mikhail Moosa

Mikhail Moosa is a researcher.