South Africa

When did we stop valuing our artisans?

Dr John Wentzel 1
Chief Executive Officer
Adcorp Group
3 mins

South Africa’s unemployment crisis is an open secret. Under the expanded definition, which includes those who have given up on the hunt for a job, unemployment is now 43.2%. More staggeringly, youth unemployment under the expanded definition is 74.7%, which means that only one in four school leavers who are 24 or under have a job in the formal economy in South Africa. As a country, we cannot find this acceptable, and yet the numbers keep growing.

The bigger problem is that there are solutions that could add real, tangible value, if they were not viewed so negatively in South Africa. One such solution is artisans. 

According to the NDP (National Development Plan), for South Africa to stop poverty, reduce inequality and ensure that all citizens have better working and living conditions by 2030, we need to produce over 30 000 qualified artisans a year to meet labour demands. Currently, the country produces about 15 000 a year. 

On top of this, the average age of artisans in the country is about 55 years, which means we have a shortage, but we’re also not attracting youth to this sector – despite a 74.7% unemployment rate. Where are we going wrong?

At the Adcorp Group of companies, we are trying to do our bit with Adcorp Technical Training. Our goal is to develop artisans to provide much-needed skills and to help alleviate the single most significant problem we face after Covid, which is youth unemployment. And yet we cannot bring enough youth into our programmes.

Consider the landscape: We have university graduates battling to find gainful employment whilst we criticise a shortage of artisans to meet industry demand. 


The critical role of artisans

Artisans are an integral part of all communities, whether rural or large cities. The artisanal sector is a crucial driver of economic growth and job creation and the second-largest employer in the developing world, behind only agriculture.

As a sector, it generates incomes and provides important and unique skills development — particularly to women. Artisanal businesses help expand opportunities by diversifying and stimulating local economic activity and creating new jobs that can help families and communities thrive. Technical artisans are critical to the delivery of infrastructure and support across every type of industry.

So why is there such a negative perception around working as an artisan in a technical trade in South Africa, despite the immense contribution of artisans?

In this, as in many of the ills our country faces, we must look to our past.


We must encourage our youth to embrace TVET

During the apartheid era, the social, political and economic exclusion of black people by the government resulted in very few qualified black artisans in particular sectors of the economy. The history of artisanal training and employment in South Africa was one of systematic social exclusion and inequality. 

Its history illuminates what educationist Volker Wedekind calls the distinctive feature of artisanal training or apprenticeship in South Africa. According to Wedekind, right from its earliest incarnation, artisanal apprenticeships were coercive and exploitative relationships, rather than benign relationships between a master craftsman and a novice. 

This chequered history has translated into a negative discourse that we must address. As South Africans, we grew up believing that artisans were 2nd class participants of the economy. They don’t come to mind when you talk about success or financial freedom. Our society teaches that you should seek to be a Doctor, Lawyer or at the very least a university graduate with a degree.

As a result, despite its potential to address the challenges of skill gaps and reducing unemployment, students, parents, and the larger community appear to show little interest in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) compared to university degrees. In most cases, TVET is regarded as the last resort for those who wish to pursue a post-secondary academic path.

We need to do more. Encouraging young people to pursue careers as artisans is one way to start to address this dichotomy.


Focusing on the future

To pursue this, as a country we must honestly confront the extent of negativity about technical and vocational training among our citizens. We need to understand people’s attitudes to certain types of work and occupations. The government’s existing policy is concerned with training more and more artisans and improving their skills. This policy is laudable, but there’s also a need to open up more opportunities for young, black and women artisans to shift historical trends of access, success and attitude. 

However, it is clear that without confronting the negative discourse of TVET and artisan as a vocation, while simultaneously addressing the attitudinal issues in our broader society, these efforts will not fulfil their true potential. Only through the promotion of TVET as a critical ingredient for change in national development can it become attractive to trainees and other stakeholders. 

Businesses have a crucial role to play in this regard, not only be opposing the negativity surrounding TVET and artisan training in our country, but by actively promoting it and sharing success stories.

It is time for the narrative of artisans and artisanal training to change, one artisan at a time. I believe that if we work together, we can not only show our youth a better way, but we can also pave a brighter future for them.

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Chief Executive Officer
Adcorp Group

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