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Striking miners react to a speech in Rustenburg Aug. 18, 2012. Youth joblessness in South Africa is estimated at about 50 per cent.


To the rhythmic beat of a drum, punctuated by whoops and cheers from the crowd, dozens of young recruits in khaki uniforms kick up dust as they march around a military parade ground.

Watching the graduation ceremony at an army base on the edge of Kimberley are high-ranking officers, government officials and proud parents. But this is no ordinary military passing out parade – rather it is a core element of a pilot program intended to help tackle South Africa's massive youth unemployment.

It might boast the Africa's largest and most developed economy, but youth joblessness in South Africa is increasingly described as a time bomb, with estimates putting it at about 50 per cent.

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The Marikana mining industrial strife, in which 45 people have died, has sharpened the focus on South Africa's social and economic challenges, of which youth unemployment is considered among the most critical. It is an issue that is particularly urgent in impoverished rural areas and the youngsters graduating at the military base are part of an initiative – the National Rural Youth Service Corps – run by the government's rural development department in the hope of improving the job prospects of thousands of young South Africans.

"We want you to change the face of our rural areas," Gugile Nkwinti, rural development minister, said at the ceremony. "If we do not take responsibility for our children … then we are not building a future for our country."

South Africa's youth unemployment problem is partly a symptom of the legacy of decades of apartheid when the education system deliberately discriminated against the black majority, with most non-whites only able to access basic skills. Post-apartheid governments have spent heavily on education since the first democratic election in 1994, but it remains in a dire state.

The issues are exacerbated by poverty. About 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line of R418 ($50) a month, and of the roughly one million pupils leaving school each year, 65 per cent do so without a high school certificate, according to the National Planning Commission. A consequence is that an individual's age is an "unusually large contributor to inequality in employment in South Africa, more than for many other middle-income countries with the odds increasingly stacked against the youngest workers," a recent World Bank report said.

The magnitude of problems caused the governing African National Congress to propose the introduction of a compulsory national youth service at a party policy conference in June. If the ANC does pursue the initiative, the experiences of Narysec, which targets 18- to 35-year-olds with no formal employment, could feed into any new model.

Launched in late 2010, it recruits youths in rural areas, puts them through a "character development" program and two years of skills training, either via partnerships with technical colleges or industry.

The training is followed by a two-year "incubation period" under which the youngsters will be supported in their search for work, either through the private sector or more likely through government infrastructure programs in rural areas.

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"With the state of the economy in South Africa, formal employment is scarce and the likelihood of large numbers of the youth finding employment is very limited," says Anton van Staden, program director at Narysec.

The military plays its role with the character development element – the more than 900 graduating at Kimberley spent five months at the army base running, doing pushups, drills and first aid to learn discipline and "patriotism."

"Definitely it has changed me, now I look at life differently than before," says Moses Loots.

The 25-year-old grew up in the small town of Cookhouse, left school without a degree and moved to Port Elizabeth in search of work, where found a job as a security guard. But then he fell into bad company, his job ended and he returned home to a town that has one factory, a service station, a handful of shops and few job opportunities, he says.

"Most employment is on farms, but it's for one or two months and then people sit at home," Mr. Loots says. "People just sit around and do nothing – drink."

Now he receives a R1,320 monthly stipend and hopes to study an engineering course to become a mechanic.

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He is one of more than 10,000 youths who have entered the program, a figure that should reach 15,000 by the end of March next year. Army officers acknowledge they will face challenges if the program is scaled up further.

Yet improving the national training and education systems are the most crucial issues facing South Africa, experts say. Ann Bernstein, at the Centre for Development and Enterprise, a think-tank, says youth service is worthy of investigation.

"But it has to be a on a massive scale, if you look at the numbers of young people who are unemployed, to do something worthwhile that will change the reality and the politics of this issue. How would we do this on scale? That's the big challenge," she says. "What we have to do is fix the training and education systems. Something in isolation raises more questions than answers."

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