Young people account for 60% of the national unemployment rate! Instead of loitering our streets, an undocumented number of young people all over South Africa have taken to the transport sector for a living—but more could be done.
The transport sector could represent or absorb some of the unemployed and unengaged youth in meaningful ways. With the right programmes it could at least absorb 20% of the 3.3 million aged 15 to 24 who are not employed or engaged in education and training. Official statistics indicate that the transport sector currently holds 900 000 jobs, down from 995 000 last year.
Whereas, the South African National Taxi Council (SANTACO) presented that the taxi industry employed approximately 600 000 people (direct and indirectly) in 2014 to the Portfolio Committee for Transport. The South African Bus Operators Association estimated that the industry employed 34 200 people, and created 171 000 indirect jobs.
I don’t want to mention aviation, railways and other sectors—but I want to focus on creating engaged work for young people based what they are already doing at neighbourhood level.
Streets that work
In our neighbourhoods, we see boys run newspaper stacks, buckets of juice, and biscuits between the dotted lines; others bend their fingers to hang toys, cell phone accessories, fruits, vegetables and other items at intersections.
We see young and old women occupying parts of our roads to sell leather or tyre ottomans, vases, piles of clothes in addition to fresh food, fat cakes and miracle juices.
They roam and settle at taxi ranks, bus terminals and train stations selling breakfast packs, power banks, and airtime through the misty morning windows till the late afternoon shadows—changing stock as the market does too.
Some treat the intersection retail market with rolling windows, others open doors to catch the fresh oranges or unripened avocados. In public transport, an early bus means little time to eat at home, an evening train means bringing seshebo home bought on the way back.
The so-called “informal” food sector accounted for R360bn in sales, or 40% to 50% of the market in 2019, these owner-operated retail spaces could provide as much as 70% of low income households with something to eat—critical for food security even in COVID19 as Marc notes.
Even within these contrasts, some homeless youth navigate between the criminal elements behind the wheel and guarding cars for coins and paper; washing taxis throughout the day; and pushing trolleys between retail outlets, parking lots and public transport facilities.
Others spend their day learning to fix engines in the scrapyards, or in their neighbourhoods with mentors—creating a dignified life, instead of seeking for one.
Lower hanging fruits to streamline work opportunities youths have created
These professions can take a young person through their teenage years into adulthood, I have seen it with my own eyes, surely many of us have. Yet, for some reason or another such platforms for employment are yet to be absorbed in the mainstream, and scaled up to a level that is self-sustaining for the youth involved at a national scale.
Think of the car guards, who are territorial and know who-works-where: shopping complexes and city leaders could encourage a basic standard “minimum R5 parking tip”, or even R10. Or will we be caught playing policing over livelihoods by asking them if they are registered with the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority? I heard one utterance “so we do open a criminal case against them and go with the police and arrest them because they don’t have valid registration”!
No, streamline the work because recent research shows that real incomes in car-guarding are declining, but for some it is above the hourly minimum wage for domestic workers.
Or how intersection retailers, could wear branded florescent shirts at a fixed monthly fee paid by the advertisers on the shirts. Why not offer entire outfits for the dancers and theatre-makers who encourage compliance with road rules when they take que from the yellow-light turning red to perform.
It would be much easier to highlight how some cities in South Africa have gone from supporting street retail, to “sweeping the streets” in violent and largely illegal ways—but giving birth to legitimate voices for these public spaces. I will just quote Chen and colleagues on this:
“yet cities around the world, which have the mandate to regulate public space, do not typically recognize the need – much less the right – of urban informal workers to use public space to pursue their livelihoods”.
These are lower hanging fruits to provide sustainable incomes for trades living on our streets, serving many and saving many more lives each day. Cities and towns certainly need warm bodies who will actively engage with and use their street skills to create inclusive spaces, that’s a local government opportunity.
These are symptoms of a youth tired of looking for jobs, and taking their talent and work ethic to our streets and creating good opportunities. While 73% of employment is informal work in urban areas in Africa, transport only accounts for 9%; in South Africa
For the good opportunities, we need to create pathways to streamline these poorly understood professions into dignified and sustainable work, without imposing—and with a vision for potential avenues of growth.
A network of opportunities on the horizon
In reality, young people in our streets and in the digital world are tapping into working scenarios where they access multiple opportunities for multiple sources of income.
It is this level of decentralised fluidity to move between careers, sources of income and platforms to do so that is as quick as switching between social media platforms. We see this in the entertainment industry where an actor appears on multiple programmes, and secures endorsements on social media, while being part of other projects (i.e. alcohol, shoes and cosmetic product lines).
I believe strongly in the impact of technology to empower young people in the transportation sector, but I also believe that there many things technology can not do.
Looking at ride-hailing, food delivery services, and social media retail – it is clear that the future of e-commerce in South Africa will be driven by youth. They can switch in some instances between multiple platforms, maximise their incomes and choose their best ways, days and times of working.
Our car guards, washers, street retailers, trolley pushers and street theatre artists are part of a decentralised “gig-economy”, there’s no app to consolidate potential clients; there’s only street wisdoms to move between professions throughout the day to maximise income.
Which is why it is rather clear that we need to embrace avenues to channel work for youth in transport in a manner that can (a) streamline the existing services; (b) create opportunities for the mainstream fixed employment work; and (c) embark on leveraging the flexible opportunities young people already lean on.
Most importantly, creating dignified work opportunities for young people in the transport sector involves trade-offs between the short-run and the long-run costs of doing so.
A future with private and public sector vis a vis technology and people
For private services, dignity is not cheap, and financially stretched transport users tend to buy services based on affordability.
In the public sector, dignified work for youth in transport is packed in the form of low-skilled short-term employment, or tied to infrastructure projects.
Whereas, students and graduates could be channelled in masses to plug into transport planning initiatives; community building programmes (safety and mobility); and stakeholder engagement initiatives within transport departments at local government level.
These are not new ideas, they have just not made the mainstream headlines, or are treated in passing as “special projects” instead of as initiative-templates worth spreading nationally! Most of which could be co-financed by the private sector—no budgetary excuses necessary.
Then again, technology is rife with opportunities for dishonesty. It is a matter of managing and protecting the relationships and transaction between everyone involved in a manner that is ethical, empowering, secure, fair and well communicated.
Even in the public sector, these efforts could easily become a bloated local government programmes with irregular appointments, and poor management processes in place to drive and lead initiatives to deliver much needed skills to stakeholders our transport sectors.
While technology can truly enhance youth employment, and engagement in communities from a transportation perspective, are transport policies oriented toward enhancing broader business opportunities?
Is local government agile enough to navigate and leverage on young people’s active contributions to society, if not creating pathways for them to engage at an official level (not informally or on an event-by-event basis)?
Really difficult and ambitious deeds to do.
The Good Hood Stories from the South African Cities Network showcase how 34 such projects for youth and with youth are possible anywhere in the country, but they take time, trust, funding and consistency.
Look at OpenStreets CapeTown which has in one instance created a safe environment for children to play in the streets without fear, for the first time in gang-stricken communities (they even have guidelines for how to do it in your neighbourhood too).
What needs to happen? What could you and I do? Although it may be difficult, starting with small initiatives that focus on good-fit partnerships that attempt to solve a transport problem (or any issue really) could help.
A few of us, one community organisation (say a Taxi Association), someone in local government (say a Director or Councillor) and one business focused on one idea could the first of many starts.
Thank you for reading!