Cape Town — The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, says more opportunities need to be made available to empower the millions of young South Africans who are unemployed.
Speaking in Cape Town at the third Pan African TVET and FET Colleges Conference 2012, Nzimande said 3.7 million South Africans in the 18 - 24 age group were jobless, not in the education or training system and were trying to make a living on the margins of the economy.
This figure is a marked increase from the 2.8 million unemployed youths recorded in the 2006 Community Survey. The latest statistics, Nzimande said, were revealed in 2011 Census results, which were released on Tuesday, 30 October.
The minister felt strongly that the 18 - 24 age group was instrumental in determining the development trajectory of any country.
"This is a waste of human potential: 18 - 24 is the most critical stage for any human being. If you come from poverty, you will either make it or remain poor for the rest your life. As a department, we are treating this category as a critical one for us. We need to expand further education and training and the acquisition of skills."
Nzimande said other challenges facing the country in terms of youth development and education included the lack of "articulation" between Further Education and Training (FET) colleges and universities; an uneven FET system; negative perceptions that FET colleges were a dumping ground for those who could not get into universities, and the absence of a "second chance" for those who failed matric and those who dropped out of school.
Nzimande was optimistic that much could be done for this age group that lay fallow, and at the same time, help the country to create an environment conducive to job creation.
The minister said the unemployed youth presented a great opportunity for the country to skill and educate the unemployed, thus creating an employable labour force that possesses the requisite skills need to propel South Africa to economic growth.
Economic democracy, Nzimande said, was a very critical issue in South Africa, one that called for the production of a skilled and capable workforce in order to create an "inclusive economy".
In as much as it was important to train people for work, Nzimande said, however, that they had to become active citizens.
"Job creation is important, but skills on their own do not provide jobs. However, the two were deeply linked."
As part of its commitment to help young people acquire education and training, the Higher Education Department had allocated R313 million in loans and bursaries to 58 368 students who came from poor backgrounds in 2009.
Last year, the number of poor students who received financial assistance had jumped to 114 000, while the financial support had grown to R1.43 billion.
The department had also budgeted an amount of R5 billion to improve infrastructure at and supply training equipment to FET colleges. Targeted interventions had also been made.
"We are trying to define the challenges we face. We are a department that must respond to the challenges for those who've left school, also for those who've not completed grade 12 or never been to school."
In addition to FET colleges, the department was contemplating developing community colleges. The 2006 Community Survey had shown that 500 000 of the 2.8 million youths who were unemployed and eking out an existence had not advanced beyond primary school.
"These community colleges can lift the base. That's a challenge facing many developing countries," said Nzimande.
But he warned students to take the opportunities available to them because South Africa had "a problem with students who don't want to work hard".
He added that he would change the names of FET colleges to Vocational Colleges because that is what they were.