Sergio, who does not feel comfortable giving his last name, is 26, tall, smart and sociable. His ready smile reveals two rows of perfect teeth. He finished high school and has a talent for languages. Besides Portuguese and Shangaan, he speaks isiZulu, eMakhuwa (the most widely spoken language in Mozambique’s northern provinces) and basic English. He befriended Zimbabweans and learned some Shona.
He would be an asset as a translator for a mining firm or as a guesthouse receptionist. Instead, he whiles away his days—from 11am to 9pm six days a week—waiting for clients, earning $50 a month. What about a girlfriend? “Ha!”, he snorts. “Girls need airtime, braids and beer. Even the girls at church. I can’t afford one.”
He lives with his parents, and tries not to despair about his future. “My family is poor, we don’t have connections, it’s hard to find a job,” he says.
Sergio is in “waithood”, a prolonged period of suspension between childhood and adulthood. During this time, without education or a job, young people cannot achieve the social markers of adulthood—independence, a living wage, building a family and a home.
This phase can stretch for decades for poor youth, “a disenfranchised majority, largely excluded from major socio-economic institutions and political processes”, writes anthropologist Alzinda Honwana in “The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change and Politics in Africa”.
“Failed neo-liberal economic policies, bad governance and political instability have caused stable jobs to disappear,” she writes. “As this limbo becomes pervasive and prolonged, waithood in Africa becomes seemingly permanent, gradually replacing conventional adulthood.”
Mozambique’s high annual growth of 8% between 2001 and 2006 and 7% since then has not translated into substantial poverty reduction or job creation. More than half of its 25m population lives on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank.
Youth unemployment and under- employment are widespread. In 2012, 330,000 youth entered the labour market, but only 280,000 jobs were created in Mozambique, including mining jobs in South Africa, according to a 2014 report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Growth notwithstanding, Mozambique’s formal economy remains small and inefficient. It offers few jobs, 700,000 for a labour force of 11m in 2010, according to the International Labour Organisation.
More than two-thirds of Mozambicans work in agriculture. But most jobs offer subsistence pay or none at all, especially for women, says a 2014 labour profile by the Danish Trade Union Council for International Development Cooperation. For instance, monthly salaries for forestry and farm workers are $92, according to Joseph Hanlon, a Mozambique expert.
The artificial overvaluing of the Mozambican currency, the metical, to neighbour South Africa’s rand (one rand = three meticais) keeps South African food imports cheap. While this may prevent riots it undermines local agriculture, key to food security and rural livelihoods. Farmers who grow maize, tomatoes, potatoes and fruit cannot compete with these imports.
Most workers lack social protection. Just 13% of working-age Mozambicans earn a salary, more than half are self-employed and another quarter work at home without pay, according to the national statistics institute.
Just when Mozambique is at a crossroads—attracting huge investments in gas, coal, heavy sands and agri-business—the country can only offer “a vast supply of unskilled or very low-skilled workers”, says the USAID report.
One problem is the country’s failed education system. Among 15-24 year-olds, six out of ten have not completed primary school, according to the national statistics institute. Mozambique has the lowest average years of schooling in the world. More than half of primary school pupils drop out and just 20% enrol in high school. While access to primary education has expanded hugely, quality remains sub-standard.
At rural schools the reason is glaring: unqualified teachers, fresh out of high school, struggle to be heard by 80 kids in a stuff y mud-and-straw classroom or under a tree. In Maputo province alone, 45,000 students lacked desks and a classroom in 2013, reckoned Canal De Moçambique, a weekly newspaper.
The problem persists beyond high school. “Those with secondary schooling do not have skills that are directly applicable to industry,” according to the USAID report. “And those with technical or university training have received theoretical information, rather than the practical skills needed to respond to the demands of firms. Due to this, companies are obliged to offer additional training programmes or recruit foreign workers.”
This explains why Mozambique imports Portuguese plumbers and Chinese rice-growers.
In March last year, 270 trade union representatives, employers, politicians and academics met at a two-day conference to address Mozambique’s employment troubles. Their report concluded that economic growth has favoured a small group of people, widening the country’s social and economic inequalities. It urged government to encourage investment in job-creating sectors such as agriculture and small, medium and family businesses. It also suggested attracting foreign investment that creates jobs in labour intensive companies, instead of privileging mega-projects.
These proposals are meant to bring the number of jobs created by the giant gas and coal ventures in line with the size of their investment. The BHP Billiton Mozal smelter, for example, consumes two-thirds of the electricity generated in Mozambique but employs only 1,070 people at its plant in Maputo and 3,500 downstream, with jobs ranging from catering to sewing uniforms, according to its own figures.
By contrast, the sugar industry—with some 30,000 workers in 2010—is the largest private employer and overall the second largest after the public sector, says the national statistics institute.
With the current economic model not meeting youth’s growing demand for jobs, their frustration could turn into social unrest.
South Africa’s waves of xenophobic violence are rooted in unemployment and hopelessness. Riots in Maputo in 2010, left 14 dead and 400 wounded. They were led by youth protesting a 30% hike in the price of bread and transport. In response, the government kept bread and petrol subsidised.
New president Filipe Nyussi has promised to maintain these subsidies. Will his government also find the political will to enact measures to lift the legions of Sergios out of “waithood” and into jobs and futures that are more prosperous?
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