The vulnerability of the youth in South Africa is widely recognised. Statistics South Africa Quarterly Labour Force Survey for quarter 2 of 2022, for example, reports that 35.7% of youth aged 15-24 are not engaged in employment, education or training (NEET), which is 2.7% higher than the same quarter in 2021. High NEET levels are a significant concern for those working with young adults, as NEET tends to compound into other kinds of negative outcomes, such as poverty, crime and substance abuse. NEET and its associated factors are at significant odds with the ideals of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), such as no poverty, decent work and reduced inequalities.
While these NEET data suggest the almost universal vulnerability of South African youth, it is important to recognise highly vulnerable groups within a larger category of vulnerability. One such group, which is internationally recognised as highly vulnerable, are youth who age out of the child protection system. Known as “care-leavers”, they grew up in alternative care (such as foster care or child and youth care centres), because of the inability of their families to provide them with suitable care. At the end of their 18th year, they must usually leave the care system and transition towards independence. The state provides little generic and no specialised support to them once they leave care, which means that they are particularly vulnerable.
Data from other countries highlights this exceptional vulnerability. For example, in the United Kingdom, 12.5% of youth aged 18-24 years were NEET in 2022, compared with 38% of care-leavers (aged 17-21) in 2021. Being NEET is thus about three times more prevalent among UK care-leavers than their peers. By contrast, in the largest study on care-leavers in South Africa, the NEET rate is 27%, several percentage points below the national NEET rate of 36%. Why is this?
Professor Adrian van Breda, Head of the Department of Social Work and Community Development in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), is regarded as the leading care-leaving scholar in Africa. He is the co-founder of the Africa Network of Care-leaving Researchers (ANCR) and a member of the Executive Committee of the International Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood from Care (INTRAC). His work contributes to UJ’s ranking as third in the world for research on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) goal of “no poverty” and eighth for “decent work” in the Times Higher Education 2022 ranking.
Van Breda has been leading a longitudinal study on care-leaving of youth from Girls and Boys Town South Africa since 2012. He and his team have conducted 455 interviews with 176 young people, many of them on an annual basis, over several years. His research shows positive trends over time as these care-leavers transition into adulthood. For example, over the first seven years out of care, the percentage of care-leavers who were working increased steadily from 32% to 73%, and the percentage earning a “liveable” income increased from 21% to 78%. In addition, avoiding criminal activity increased from 78% to 92%, and physical and psychological health improved by several percentage points.
Not only does this research show a steady improvement in outcomes among this highly vulnerable group, which in studies across the globe tend to show particularly poor outcomes, but Van Breda’s research also identifies the kinds of factors that facilitate improved outcomes. His research is informed by resilience theory, in which resilience is defined as “the multilevel processes that systems [in this case, care-leavers] engage in to obtain better-than-expected outcomes in the face or wake of adversity”.
Drawing on a holistic, social ecological approach to resilience (rather than the more psychological approach to resilience used by many resilience scholars), Van Breda can identify the kinds of resilience processes that facilitate improved outcomes over several years out of care in relation to diverse outcomes, such as NEET, accommodation, earning a liveable income, employment behaviour and relationships. The resilience processes that enable these outcomes are drawn from the full spectrum of the person-in-environment, including individual processes such as self-esteem and optimism; interactional processes like teamwork; supportive relationships with friends, family, lovers and adult role models; in-care factors, such as supportive relationship with care staff; and environmental factors like community safety and social activities.
Most prominent among these resilience enablers are supportive relationships with people who care for, believe in, listen to, challenge and stand up for one. This, combined with the many other resilience processes that are relational — such as teamwork and engagement in social activities — suggests that social capital is vital in assisting highly vulnerable young people to thrive socially and economically, particularly in South Africa’s challenging environment, with its extremely high levels of inequality and youth unemployment.
It seems that the achievement of economic SDGs such as no poverty and decent work are dependent upon the SDGs that centre on social factors, such as good health and wellbeing, sustainable communities, peace and justice, and partnerships. The social fabric of a vulnerable person’s life, particularly in the context of highly limited resources and state support, and in the absence of a history of a stable and well-functioning family environment, appears to constitute a vital network of enablers that facilitates more successful transitioning into well-adjusted adulthood.
Van Breda argues that social investment in these kinds of resilience enablers is as important as investing structurally in job creation and poverty alleviation. Indeed, they could be seen as closely connected partners in improving the odds of highly vulnerable youth and even changing the odds themselves. He argues that notions of ubuntu and resilience weave through the SDGs, forming a series of “nests” that provide the multi-layered support needed for vulnerable young people — and indeed, for all people — to flourish. These nests are experienced most proximally as connecting with others, and moving through direct networks of supportive individuals, families and communities, into the systemic and structural supports and access provided by organisations, the state and global bodies. It is the firm alignment between these systems that enables multisystemic resilience and that provides a space within which vulnerable youth can flourish.