The latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey results continue to show that youth employment has not returned to pre-Covid-19 levels yet and remains a crisis.

The few employment opportunities being generated — particularly in the fast-growing global business services sector — are very unequally distributed. While efforts continue to make opportunities more visible and accessible to young people through digital platforms like – a data-free and free-to-use employment network that helps South African youth find jobs and learning opportunities in their local areas – the system remains rigged against those without the most basic form of access in a digital age: internet connectivity.

Although load shedding remains a challenge, there is some news worth celebrating. On 13 February, then minister of co-operative governance & traditional affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, signed draft by-laws for the deployment of electronic communications facilities. This was a watershed for unemployed young people, especially those in underserviced areas of South Africa. Until then, they had been locked out of internet access and, as a result, employment opportunities, due to the byzantine regulations that made it difficult for even well-intentioned companies and municipalities to bring broadband access to excluded areas.

Operation Vulindlela, an initiative led by the President to accelerate structural reforms in the economy, was the catalyst for the development of by-laws that will massively accelerate the rapid roll-out of an electronic communications infrastructure, and ensure uniformity of access across municipalities nationally. The by-laws were formally promulgated and phase 2 is now under way to test their success, with a phased implementation plan targeting municipalities with higher youth employment needs and opportunities.

A lack of access to the internet not only excludes young people from even the most inclusively designed work-finding platforms and apps, but also keeps them from doing digital work. Research by Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator and the Digital Council Africa suggests that digital work can unlock over 66 000 jobs for entry-level youth.

Rapid deployment

Although digital infrastructure has grown steadily in spite of convoluted regulations, these by-laws seek to ensure rapid deployment to marginalised communities. Building fibre networks required telecommunications companies to apply to relevant municipalities for wayleaves — the right of way that each individual landowner in the path of a broadband network must grant. South Africa has more than 250 municipalities, all with different systems for wayleave approvals. Many are difficult to navigate even for the most well-intentioned of service providers. In addition, each municipality has a complex set of regulations around the construction work required to create the necessary infrastructure, as well as differing timelines.

Such admin-intensive processes made it tedious and cumbersome for telecoms operators to apply for all the permissions to do what was necessary. Ultimately, the complexity of these systems has made broadband expansion into South Africa’s more remote areas commercially unattractive.

Since its inception, Harambee has been working to break down barriers that keep young people out of work. Operation Vulindlela provided the opportunity to break the digital barrier.

Both Harambee and the Digital Council Africa played an active role in representing young people and the private sector during the very detailed process, which included engaging operators as well as local government and national government to find a way to streamline processes.

The draft by-laws were promulgated in a mere 15 months, showing that working together can bear extraordinary results. The new bylaws govern access to municipal land and cover the activities necessary to build broadband infrastructure anywhere in South Africa, including trenching to lay cables and erecting mobile towers and masts. With one standard system for operators to use, this breakthrough will enable the quick deployment of broadband infrastructure.

A strategic partnership between government, the private sector and social enterprises allowed us to break through bureaucratic bottlenecks to promote inclusion and efficiency. The areas with the greatest need for jobs and job creation are first in the queue for infrastructure building. This, together with the inclusive employment-focused Broadband Access Fund – designed to launch soon – will have a significant impact on infrastructure enablement for digital jobs.

Pervasive broadband infrastructure will allow more of the country’s youth to engage in the digitally enabled jobs of the future. Research shows that each broadband-enabled job creates between 2.5 and four additional jobs across industries. It also spurs additional self-employment and enables new opportunities through digital platforms.

Digital work, and digital work-seeking, are here to stay. We need to be sure that systems are designed for inclusion. Recent successes with the broadband by-laws suggest that a combination of the scale and reach of government, the efficiency of the private sector, and the inclusive lens of social enterprise can break barriers to digital and digitally-enabled jobs. Together we can go fast, far and wide.

Source: The authors are Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator CEO Kasthuri Soni and Digital Council Africa CEO Juanita Clark. Published 12 April 2023.

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