A large portrait of a bright-eyed young woman draped in a black graduation robe looms over a spotless, tiled lounge in Protea Glen, a suburb of Johannesburg’s Soweto township.
It is a constant and gnawing reminder of potential that has gone unrealised for 10 years.
“It’s like you go to school, you go to school… and then once you are qualified you sit with a whole stack of certificates that you can’t actually use,” 36-year-old Kgomotso Sebabi said.
Armed with qualifications in wealth management, she migrated in 2008 from the small, central city of Kimberley to South Africa’s financial hub, Johannesburg, in pursuit of opportunities.
To date, the holder of two bachelor’s degrees has failed to find a job in her field.
She has since acquired three more post-graduate certificates in a bid to enhance her chances, but all she has managed to secure is a part-time job at a call centre.
“Initially I wanted to see myself grow within the financial sector, maybe become a manager… a finance chief executive or something. But it didn’t go as planned,” she told AFP.
A quarter of a century into democracy, South Africa has an official unemployment rate of 27.1 per cent.
Among people under 35, the rate is about 53 per cent – among the highest in the world.
Causes of unemployment in South Africa are many and complex, the biggest factor being a slow-growing economy which has failed to produce jobs at the pace at which new graduates enter the market.
The government repeatedly vows, especially on the elections campaign trail, to create desperately needed jobs.
According to chief labour statistician Malerato Mosiane, unemployment remained stubbornly high even as the population grew rapidly.
Media graduate Tswelopele Maputla, 22, completed her journalism studies in November 2018 at Rhodes University, but has been nowhere near a newsroom. She mails out job applications whenever she can.
“It’s been incredibly difficult and demotivating,” said Maputla as she finished cleaning her mother’s house in Daveyton township east of Johannesburg.
“I have the skills and it’s just disheartening that I can’t get that one break that I need to prove myself.”
Votes for jobs
As South Africa heads to the polls on May 8, the promise of jobs has once again become election bait.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed that his African National Congress (ANC) will create “many more” jobs. The party has been in power for 25 years and will, according to all polls, win the majority vote yet again.
“We will be able to create up to 275,000 additional jobs each year,” Ramaphosa said at the ANC’s election manifesto launch in January.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, meanwhile recently told supporters in Johannesburg: “I have a dream of putting a job in every home.”
And Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has warned that South Africa “cannot postpone the jobs question”.
But the promises are up against a lacklustre economy.
The International Monetary Fund in April lowered South Africa’s projected GDP growth rate for 2019 from 1.4 percent to 1.2 percent, citing policy uncertainty which with high levels of corruption and recurrent electricity blackouts, has harmed investor confidence.
The massive unemployment rate is seen as fuelling apathy among many young voters.
The electoral commission has recorded a 47-percent drop in registered voters aged 18 and 19. About two-thirds of the nine million eligible voters who did not bother to register are under 30 years old.
“I’m not voting,” said unemployed agriculture graduate Xhanti Ndondela, 26, who qualified in 2016. “Why should I vote for a government that I will never work for?”
With the dawn of democracy, access to higher education has improved, with the number of graduates from public universities more than doubling from 92,874 in 2000 to 203,076 in 2016.
But there are just not enough jobs to go around.
The government’s target is to cut unemployment by half, to about 14 percent by 2020, but this is “unlikely to occur”, says the World Bank in a 2018 report.
“Overall, since 1994, a growing economy created many jobs in South Africa, but not enough to significantly reduce unemployment,” said the bank.
The former statistician-general and now Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative consultant, Pali Lehohla, has warned of a self-perpetuating crisis.
“We are caught in that process where unemployment, poor education and poverty itself are reinforcing one another. There is going to be a tipping point no doubt,” he told eNCA television news network.