Resilience is a word often misused and overly celebrated. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent overlapping crises have meant many of our society’s most vulnerable have been forced to endure too much over the past few years.

This Youth Month, while we celebrate the resilience of our young people – the source of inspiration for our work at Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator – we need to understand that the occurrence of resilience itself can shed light on exactly where and how to invest to rebuild our economy.

Despite a temporary upward tick in employment figures, South Africa’s unemployment statistics continue to be of great concern. The close to 3 million young people who Harambee engages with continually remind us that everyday life for a young person in South Africa is very, very hard. And yet, despite this, they demonstrate extraordinary initiative to solve their problems.

Millions of South African youngsters may be unemployed, but they are rarely idle. In fact, they work incredibly hard and are solving some of our most pressing challenges.

Harambee’s research suggests that young people themselves offer clues as to where resilience occurs and, importantly, where we need to invest and support.

Indeed, young people have demonstrated resilience time and again with their approach to earning incomes through hustling.

Take the case of Anele Nxumalo, who identified the need in his community for a “second chance matric programme” and now runs Outstanding Finishing Centre in KwaMduku in Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal. The programme gives pupils a chance to upgrade their matric results with tutoring support in more than 10 subjects – this in a country where matric is a significant barrier to accessing entry-level jobs.

Nxumalo isn’t waiting around for an opportunity. He found a problem to solve within his community and took the initiative. He is not only earning an income from this venture, but is doing so while addressing a systemic problem in a way that has a positive impact on other young people.

Although he had the basics – passion, drive and a good idea – he needed support when it came to how to market his idea and grow his customer base. Harambee, in partnership with the nonprofit organisation Africa Foundation, helped Nxumalo with marketing strategies to grow his business, which continues to thrive.

Hustling is a form of resilience in adverse circumstances. It can provide precious resources to young people in the face of a contracting economy. It serves as a pointer to opportunities where there are unmet needs in the economy; and young people like Nxumalo have seen just that.

However, without the proper support, hustling can be precarious and volatile.

Small, micro and medium-sized enterprises contribute a third of South Africa’s GDP, yet they are the most vulnerable to shocks such as the pandemic and ensuing financial crises.

Unfortunately, South Africa’s heavily regulated environment supports the expansion of formal businesses at the expense of the informal economy. In this landscape, it is usually micro-entrepreneurs such as Nxumalo who rise to meet challenges they encounter in the system, rather than the system reconfiguring itself to meet their needs.

What if we didn’t expect Nxumalo to shoulder the resilience burden alone? What if we rewired the system to support and reward resilience, rather than it being seen as a trophy against adversity?

What if Nxumalo’s initiative could receive investment to help make it easier for him to attract more customers and earn more money sustainably? What if support and incentives met him where he is – in the heart of Hluhluwe with a small but loyal customer base?

Unless we listen to the challenges of and design solutions for the lived realities of young people, the system will continue to erect a range of entry barriers that prevent would-be entrepreneurs from spotting opportunities and engaging in these side hustles.

And if you think this is a pipe dream, the everyday work of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator’s hundreds of contact centre “guides” shows us that it is more than an abstract reality.

Every day, Harambee contact centre agents such as Andronica Phalane answer hundreds of phone calls from unemployed jobseekers.

Much like any contact centre that helps customers with their queries, Phalane and her peers answer calls and lend an ear to young people whose job search has turned desperate in these difficult times.

She has conversations that are about both listening to the lived realities and challenges that young people face, and presenting solutions, including pointing them to real opportunities on SAYouth, a platform that hosts accessible entry-level opportunities and helps young people build their career profiles. It matches them with jobs by drawing on Harambee’s decade of evidence on how to break down barriers young people face in accessing employment.

And it isn’t by coincidence and talent alone that the guides excel at their work. Many of SAYouth’s cutting-edge innovations stem from these live interactions with youth through guides who provide us with valuable, real-time feedback on how to address the daily challenges faced by young South Africans.
The guides identify where and how to modify our existing solutions to ensure that they are genuinely youth-centred and designed for the lived reality of young people.

South African youth demonstrate extraordinary resilience and a solutions-focused mind-set. This Youth Month, let us make sure we don’t leave it to their resilience and chance alone to survive the unemployment crisis. We need to listen to the challenges they face, design solutions for their lived reality and meet them beyond halfway.

As Nxumalo and Phalane show us, young people are the solution, not the problem.

Source: This article was written by Sharmi Surianarain, Chief Impact Officer at Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. Published 12 June 2022. Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

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