The South African Federations of Trade Unions (SAFTU) remembers the struggles young people have waged in the 1970s and 1980s. They have sacrificed their lives to ensure freedom and democracy prevails, and to achieve a better life for all.

Many years into the hard-won democracy, conditions of the working people have remained dire with record unemployment, poverty, and inequality. The life is not better for all. It appears that the fruits of freedom are enjoyed by the upper classes — the traditional colonial bourgeoisie (white monopoly capital), the comprador bourgeoisie and the cronies in government.


Basic education today


The manifestation of the separate development in education was the two-tier schooling system, which fed black children inferior education on the one hand and gave white students a superior education on the other. This system was carefully planned to keep black people in perpetual oppression and inferiority complex.


28 years into democracy, have we eradicated the two-tier education system that gave white students R644 and black students R54 annual allocation? Are schools and other essential infrastructure for learning developed? Has the teacher-to-learner ratio that is conducive to learning?


Unfortunately, the two-tier education system has remained, only this time, it has adapted its form: carrying out exclusion based on class and not on race. The well-resourced schools which have retained fee model structure are built for the children of the rich, whilst the poor schools that lack infrastructure and basic equipment are bungled by the state for the children of the working class.


For the past five years, treasury has allocated budget increase that are below inflation to the Department of Basic Education (DBE). The average expenditure for the next three years is planned to grow only by 2%, 3.2% less than the forecasted inflation in the same period, which is predicated to grow at an average of 5.2%.


The underfunding of basic education perpetuates the apartheid crimes of 1976 in the period of liberal democracy. Schools lack infrastructure, have insufficient learning and teaching material (LTSM), and are grossly understaffed.


Because of lack of infrastructure and understaffing, many schools cram up to 60 – 70 learners in one classroom. Beside its similarities to 1976’s conditions, it is way above their ideal teacher-to-learner ratio of 1:35/1:37 today.


In addition, reports cite that 20 071 of 23 471 schools did not have laboratories in 2018. In the same year, 18 019 did not have library, 16 897 did not have internet, 4 358 used illegal pit latrines, 1 027 did not have parameter fencing and as many as 239 did not have as basic a necessity as electricity.


The effects of these backlogs amid irregular and wasteful expenditures in the department, manifest in real terms and are adverse.


  • There is no conducive learning in classrooms since overcrowded classrooms are generally uncontrollable,
  • School teachers cannot exploit digitalisation for classroom lessons because of lack of or limited access to internet,
  • Children have been drowning in pools of faeces in pit latrines at schools in rural areas despite countless promises to eradicate pit latrines in schools,
  • Schools or any institution, depends on electricity for almost everything. It is difficult for schools without electricity to give effective learning and assessment programmes, let alone conducive environment for educators and staff,
  • Schools without internet connection are also disadvantaged from exploiting the advantages of digital technology to differentiate their teaching and assessment methods,
  • In the absence of libraries, effective reading clubs cannot exist and thus compound the serious problem of “reading without understanding”, which causes massive failure in schools’ lower grades.


In these unconducive learning conditions, young people are opting out of school before reaching matric. Reports puts the rate of this cohort, “drop-outs”, staggeringly at an estimated high of 40% today.


Not in any form of Education, Employment and Training (NEET)


Because of the problem of high rate of dropouts in the basic education, the number of those who join the “working-age group” without employment is increasing at an alarming rate. In 2021 alone, 578 000 young people joined the working-age group.

Combined with those who are financially and academically excluded from the universities and colleges, the number of young people who are not in any form of employment, education, and training has increased dramatically. Thus, the NEET group of the youth between the ages of 15 – 24 has increased to 9.2 million.

Unfortunately, reflective of the education problems of “drop-outs” in basic education and “exclusions” in higher education, only 9.6% of the unemployed have tertiary qualification. 52% (over 3.7 million) of the unemployed have no matric, and 37.7% (2 714 400) have basic matric.



Social crisis of the youth

In the context of capitalism, where to survive one must generate a form of income to be able to buy essentials of life which are sold as commodities, the young people excluded out of tertiary institutions, 40% of those who drop out of schools, and scourged by unemployment, have but limited means of survival.


High levels of crime trace their roots nowhere but from this political-economic crisis of capitalism in this country. The 53 cash in transits heists, 10 292 shoplifting, 10 787 common robberies and 5 402 of carjackings in the 1st quarter of 2022 are arguably a direct result of the alarmingly high number of those NEETs in this country.


Institution of higher learning have played a catalytic role in society as agents that challenge narrow stereotypes for young people. Most youth get radicalised in university spaces because of knowledge they access in universities’ libraries and debate forums, both formal and informal. It is in those spaces that many youths admit having changed their stereotypic prejudices on gender, sex and race.


The exclusion of the overwhelming number of youths from the higher learning Institutions is not only disadvantaging them from attaining qualifications that could increase their prospects of employability, but is also holding society back in the backward beliefs and stereotypes of gender, sex, and race that births bigotry and violence.


Youth struggles today


In 1985, Oliver Tambo acknowledged that 1976 & 1977 “propelled into the forefront of the struggle millions of young people.”


In 2015/16/17, reckoning that the institutional culture of racism still persists, and had now mutated into a sub-category of “class apartheid” (the true expression of a partially deracialised capitalism), the FeesMustFall youth waged a battle against the political establishment and higher education institutions as microcosms of a patriarchal, racially and economically unequal South Africa.


The FeesMustFall generation waged a war that brought some of the concrete gains in higher education, and beyond.


SAFTU salutes the FeesMustFall activists for tying the knot with the youth of 1976 and call on students and unemployed youth to engage in struggle against austerity and for real jobs. They must join with trade unions and community organisations to fight against neoliberal capitalism that underspends on education, keep the youth out of education, creates no sufficient employment and throw the youth into poverty and violence.


The enemies of the working class shamelessly use tendering and patronage to win the bright minds of the youth, whose desperate position of unemployment and consumerist culture render them vulnerable; but we use ideas. The youth must invest in intellectual development, take their rightful place in community organisations and the trade union movement.



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