Writes reporter Shirley le Guern

Statistics don’t tell the whole story – of young people who go to bed hungry, of the hopelessness, emptiness and frustration experienced by the next generation of South Africans who are anything but born free from the burdens of poverty and discrimination.

But what they should be is a wake up call for decision makers who could make a difference – if they weren’t too busy making promises they cannot keep and unwise policy decisions that have seen business confidence among would-be employers and investors plummet.

This week’s disclosure by Statistics SA that unemployment in South Africa was now the highest on record at 26, 7% during the first quarter of 2016 has drawn concerned comments from business but a stony silence from government.

Ironically, it comes just weeks after our South African president claimed that government would use infrastructure development to create jobs. It’s telling that the latest Statistics SA release shows that government remains the biggest employer and had actually grown employment to 26, 7% during the first quarter of 2015 from 24, 5% – the highest since Statistics SA began reporting on unemployment in 2008.

The real tragedy is that government’s job creation strategy is completely unsustainable and unstable – much like a table with just three legs. As businesses struggle and retrench even skilled employees who contribute to a shrinking pool of tax payers, the funds that would have sustained these projects are diminishing.

The much talked about ratings downgrades to junk status as well as the volatile politics of our land means that new investment is negligible. Who is going to pay for mega projects such as government’s nuclear programme, massive upgrades to roads and harbours if it is expensive and difficult to borrow?

Instead, many of those projects have stalled with no restart dates. The Durban Dig Out Port, for example, has been delayed with no new date given. It would have created thousands of jobs.

The sustainability issue goes beyond that. Construction projects are limited and create jobs only for the duration of the project. That’s possibly why, during the first three months of this year, the construction sector shed 77 000 jobs.  In a stagnant economy, you build less and less.

These days, most government contracts have a clause that requires contractors to employ from local communities. That’s all well and good but, when they move on to the next project, the so-called locals are replayed by others from that project’s neighborhood.

What happens to those left behind? Are the skills gained (if any) marketable in an economy where unemployment is rife and desperate job seekers are prepared to kill for a wage? I can only think that this is a very temporary plug in the bottom of a bucket with an ever growing hole.

The only sustainable solution is in growing manufacturing – but it is manufacturing that is hardest hit by the current economic disaster that is seeing more jobs lost than gained. According to Stats SA, this segment of the economy shed 100 000 jobs in just one quarter – and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist or an economist to see that there’s more to come.

The opportunities are there – a weak rand and plenty of raw materials to turn into finished goods. Right now, the government is talking about promoting manufacturing and black industrialists but there is nothing tangible to show for it. The Special Economic Zones that were to offer massive incentives to both local and foreign investors have failed to get any meaningful traction.

Our economy, plagued by over regulation, policy uncertainty, labour unrest and corrupt and inefficient state owned entities such as Eskom, SAA and the Post Office amongst others – is growing at a paltry 0,6% this year.

According to the World Bank, our economy needs to growth by more than 7% to reach target’s put forward in the President’s lofty National Development Plan – reducing unemployment to 14% by 2020 and 6% by 2030.

What would you think if you were an unemployed young person – even if you could decipher statistics despite an inadequate education? It doesn’t bear thinking about, really.

The most telling figures here are not yet available and probably due for release next month. If last year’s figures are anything to go by, the situation is particularly dire for our young people.

According to Statistics SA’s Youth Labour Market Report in June 2015, during the first quarter of that year, more young people had given up the hunt for jobs. When these “discouraged work seekers” were counted into the overall number, a staggering 63, 1% of South Africa’s youth is unemployed.

Discounting the disillusioned, this is still an unacceptably high 49, 9%.

In contrast, the unemployment rate among young people in the United States in March 2016 was just 10, 4%.

To make it a little more real, this same report shows that, of the approximately 19.7 million working-age youth (aged 15 to 34 years), 9.8 million were not economically active (in other words have given up hope of employment), 6.2 million were employed and 3.6-million were unemployed.

The scales are tipped in a scary direction – one that suggests more social ills and crime and an even more unsustainable situation. How a cash can strapped government deal with this, let alone upgrade schools and healthcare?

It would be easy to just give up and let our young people stay as statistics. But we can find solutions if we just think out of the box. So many non-profit organisations are doing what they can against the odds. AS businesses and as individuals, we can support them as they courageously take on what many might think is too big for them.

We can speak up when troubling figures make their way into the media – not simply forget and throw away the newspaper the very next day.

Remember, every effort counts – and, thankfully, statistics don’t tell the whole story!

One of these non- profit organisations is Careerlinx Empowerment Solutions NPC – www.careerlinx.co.za Lets Help them address an almost insurmountable task.