Colin Coleman, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and Senior Fellow at Yale University, recently wrote an article ‘SA doesn’t have a debt problem. It has a growth problem – and a solution.’ (Sunday Times, Insight, 3 Oct 2021). This sparked much needed debate about economic austerity and growth. Coleman underscores the need to refocus away from our debilitating debt and more towards opportunities for growth. Some of the examples he uses are to capitalise on the recent commodity boom that had given the JSE a healthy boost, as well as to leverage value from covid and other financial grants to the unemployed. These can be recycled into the economy to stimulate growth through social spending.However, government debt and a low growth economy is intertwined with the country’s debilitating unemployment challenge. Hence if we use Coleman’s logic of reframing the debt problem, perhaps we can use a similar approach with unemployment. ‘Reframing’ as a discourse or practice can be used to transform the mental models or perspectives that shape how we perceive unemployment and how the unemployed perceive themselves.Therefore with reframing the unemployment dilemma, we might end up with the following, ‘We don’t have an unemployment problem. We have underutilised human capital and untapped, bountiful talent!’. 

The potential outcomes from changing our perspectives and mental models on how we see the world is not to dilute the problems. The aims are to approach them with ‘fresh eyes’ and a generative mindset that searches for innovative solutions rather than drowning in the complexity of the problem. Ultimately, it aspires to alternative thinking that is underpinned by the words of physicist Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” 

The urgency to address the unemployment conundrum is in the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) and the 1st Quarter statistics of 2021 which show youth unemployment as high as 46,3%. Not only does this make depressing reading, but it shows the disconnect between the vast developmental needs in all spheres in South Africa with the large numbers of unemployed. Whilst we can concede that the structural causes of unemployment are historical, complex and contentious, creating solutions is critically important. This is about more than economic growth, it is also about developing capabilities for a functional and sustainable state. 

Generating solutions to address unemployment requires us to perceive and create a potentially different reality. It’s only when we can see our problems from multiple perspectives that we can start to make constructive plans. Through reframing, the focus can shift from a negative, restrictive perspective towards one that is growth-oriented. Similarly, the same logic can be harnessed by the unemployed to develop the following constructive mind-set, ‘I can be employable if I reskill myself, build networks, be determined, proactive and develop a positive, can-do attitude’. 

So where do we start? “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” (Theodore Rooseveldt) is a viable attitudinal shift. The over reliance on government for opportunities and financial grants has disempowered many and fostered a debilitating ‘dependency syndrome’. Yet, our ‘Covid teacher’ has shown with great clarity that being proactive, agile, persevering, resilient and collaborative are essential qualities in the ‘new normal’. 

Therefore, courageous conversations between all stakeholders – government, educators, corporates and the unemployed have to be prioritised. But these conversations need to be solutions focused; it needs to reframe the problem, fastrack the decisions and finally, resource the solutions. South Africa is blessed with bountiful natural resources, but perhaps our greatest potential wealth resides in the unlocked potential of our human capital.