A few weeks ago, I argued in this column that South Africans should sit up and pay close attention to events taking place in Tottenham, Athens and Cairo, as the position of youth in this country is no better than it is in such places.
In fact, I argued that it might well be worse, owing to the fact that the domestic problem was compounded by racial disparities. The figures show that a total of 53,4% of all young black Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 unemployed, which is three times worse than the 14,5% unemployment rate among young white South Africans.
It was, thus, somewhat encouraging to see Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe acknowledge that the 2.8-million young South Africans between the ages of 18 and 24 that were currently unemployed and not registered with an educational institution represented a "ticking bomb".
Speaking at the sixteenth National Economic Development and Labour Council's (Nedlac) annual summit, Motlanthe appealed for organised labour, business and community groupings to work with government to find solutions to the current low levels of labour participation generally, but youth unemployment in particular.
He said that the social partners needed to set aside their differences to address both the lack of appropriate skills among young people, as well as their depressed living conditions. "The above statistics represent the ticking bomb that threatens to inflame pent-up emotions within the youth if not urgently addressed."
However, he made no direct reference to the controversial youth wage subsidy, which had been mooted by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, leading to an outcry from organised labour.
In fact, it became clear at the summit that labour and certain community organisations were ready to fight tooth and nail against the proposal.
Nedlac labour convenor Bheki Ntshalintshali slammed those blaming South Africa's progressive labour laws for the country's growth and employment under performance. "We have fought these reactionary proposals in the past and we will continue do so," he said.
Any moves to limit collective bargaining, to introduce a two-tier labour market and, therefore, the current youth-wage subsidy proposal would be opposed by labour, he cautioned.
Congress of South Africa Trade Unions' Tony Ehrenreich indicated that labour was acutely aware of the threat posed by youth unemployment. But he said that the focus should not be a subsidy that could lead to companies swapping experienced workers with younger, cheaper workers. Instead, greater attention should be given to further leveraging apprenticeships and learnerships to prepare young people for a role in the labour market. These individuals should also be exposed to a career path that should emerge once skills have been secured.
Community constituency convenor Thulani Tshefuta also raised its objections to the youth-wage subsidy proposal. He said such a subsidy would only serve to entrench intergenerational poverty by luring youth out of educational facilities to pursue low-paying and insecure work opportunities.
In other words, while there is consensus that there is indeed a serious problem, there is little or no common ground as to the possible remedy. This is worrying, particularly in light of the scale of the scourge and the potential for it to turn volatile.