South African Youth on the Brink: Survey Shows Growing Concern and Desire for Change

May 22, 2024

South Africa is at a turning point for youth, as they are increasingly concerned – but not yet pessimistic – about the future of their country. PSB Insights recently conducted a comprehensive study into the perceptions, aspirations, hopes, and dreams of South Africa’s youth on behalf of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation. This research, tracking trends since 2020, provides timely insight into the mindset of young South Africans as they prepare to cast their votes in the upcoming elections and mark 30 years since the end of Apartheid.

The report uncovers a generation deeply concerned about the future direction of their nation. Nearly three-quarters believe that South Africa is heading in the wrong direction, a sentiment that has surged 24 percentage points since 2020. Alongside this, there is a growing pessimism about the country’s economic direction, with over seven-in-ten saying the economy is headed in the wrong direction – a rise of 10 points since 2022. Moreover, we have seen a sizable rise in the proportion saying that they are ‘concerned’ about the future of their country – 48% now say they are ‘concerned’ compared to 33% who said the same just two years ago.

However, this sense of disillusionment has not yet descended into outright pessimism, demonstrating that youth see the upcoming election as a turning point for the country and that they are looking for leaders to make bold changes to address their key issues.

Unemployment emerges as a critical issue for the youth in our study, and an issue that will be top of mind as they head to the polls. The study finds that over three-quarters of youth are dissatisfied with government efforts on job creation and fighting unemployment and a similar proportion say that it is difficult to find a new job in the current economic environment. This is backed up by recent data from South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey, which shows the proportion of unemployed youth now sits at 44%, with overall unemployment levels at 32%. Taken together, it is unsurprising that over four-in-five say they are ‘very concerned’ about the lack of employment opportunities and that creating new, well-paying jobs is a key priority for progress.

Alongside this, corruption is another major concern highlighted in our study. Concern about corruption has hit an all-time high, with nearly nine-in-ten youth expressing dissatisfaction with the government’s efforts to tackle it. Levels of concern about corruption are high across all facets of society including national governments, local governments, and the police and security services. And these concerns are not just limited to the state – a similar proportion are worried about corruption in both international and national businesses and companies. In fact, corruption is seen as the top barrier to finding employment among South African youth, with over half citing it as a significant obstacle.

Despite concerns about jobs, the economy, and corruption, most youth describe their standard of living as fair or good. However, there is a growing sense of stagnation regarding future improvements. The expectation that their standard of living will remain the same over the next few years has increased, reflecting a sense of frustration, stagnation, and uncertainty about the future. This sentiment is further reinforced by low satisfaction levels towards a range of public services including energy availability and electricity, water and sanitation, and roads. These findings are particularly poignant given the ongoing energy crisis and severe water shortages in South Africa, which have significantly impacted the lives and livelihoods of its citizens.

Looking ahead, the data suggests that South Africa’s youth are yearning for change. They envision a nation where corruption is curbed, employment opportunities are abundant, and basic needs and services are adequately met. However, they are frustrated with their current situation and are looking for action from their government to better it. Unless these challenges are addressed, we may see an increasing number considering emigration – nearly half of South African youth already say that they would consider moving to another country in the next few years, a figure that has risen 13 percentage points since 2022.

As South Africa stands on the brink of its elections, the message from its youth is clear: they seek a government that can redirect the nation towards a more promising and equitable future. Their votes will reflect not just their current frustrations but also their hopes for a better future.

Questions? Reach out to Cole Ryan [email protected] or read the full report here.

Methodology: PSB Insights conducted 1,046 face-to-face interviews with South African youth aged 18-24 years old with an even split by gender. Interviews took place in six provinces in South Africa with three interview locations in each province, and five separate districts within each interview location. Fieldwork took place in January 2024. Results for historical data are drawn from the 2020 and 2022 African Youth Studies, each of which included 300 South African youth aged 18-24.

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