What next for the jobless youth in Malawi


They begin a three-day journey on a fully-laden truck, in a container. Many of them are forced to prostitute themselves as a way of paying for their journey. Others die on the way in an attempt to manoeuvre into the foreign shores and hoodwink foreign authorities. They cross countries undertaking an epic journey during which they bribe border guards to pass through bushes and across mountains. Their average age is 25, but some are as young as seven. Their destination, of-course, is South Africa, perceived as a place of opportunity, ‘the Promised Land’.

They believe the country abounds in wealth. Furthermore, the country’s currency is stronger than that of their country. They are frustrated by failure to achieve their dreams in their native land. Just like many other migrants, they enter South Africa to find jobs, earn money and send some back home to help their relatives and for other investments.

However, for those who make it, if they survive, they end up being exploited. The brutal reality sees them ‘employed’ in violation of labour laws, earning less than R200 a week. They find no peace as they always hide for fear of being caught, jailed and deported for illegal entry. Very few are in contact with the office of the high commissioner of their country; larger numbers are not in decent jobs.


Selling goods in the streets is a source of income to many, collecting plastic bottles from rubbish dumps to make a living, gardening; cooking, catering, are some of the easily available jobs they find in South Africa. Technical and craft workers such as technicians, mechanics, electricians, plumbers, tailors, waiters are the most well paid as compared to Malawi. But for the illegal Malawian migrants, these jobs are hard to come by.

Females have it worse as they’re lured into the sex industry. These people are all but invisible to the South African society.

One of them, who we’ll call Marita, a 28-year-old college graduate, and her 18-year-old sister, travelled from Mangochi district. They emigrated to South Africa after the death of their parents, which was compounded by job scarcity despite having some academic qualifications.


Marita says after their parents’ demise, she was forced to take up the role of a mother to support her sister and two brothers by selling clothing and household items for their survival.

When their inheritance ran out, she started selling mandasi (doughnuts) on the streets of Mangochi. This is where a friend to her late mother recognised her and offered to help her escape the economic malaise in the country, together with her sister.

Marita narrates that she and her sister were spared from sexual abuse because their late mother’s friend provided them with food and paid for their passage, while others in their company had no choice but to have sex with older men during the journey.

“It was the worst experience of my life and something I’ll have to learn to live with,” recalls Marita.

When they arrived in Johannesburg, the driver abandoned them at Park Station. Needless to say, they knew no one and no one spoke their native language.

Fortunately, they met a Malawian businessman, who took them to his home, from where they were offered jobs as bar tenders. This had never been Marita’s dream.

Even though Marita has a degree in social science, she cannot work in her field as she is not a citizen of the country. She is one of the Malawians who work as manual labourers.

At least, Marita hopes to learn driving and believes she will earn enough to fend for herself, and assist her relatives back home. However, she does not earn enough to enrol at a driving school.

The story of Marita might seem imaginary but it is very real to many youth in Malawi.

Unemployment and underemployment levels, coupled with recent massive layoffs mainly in the private sector, have been very high in Malawi. Each year thousands of students graduate from various colleges in their specialised fields but only very few find jobs.

The situation has thrown most job seekers, even among the university graduates, into desperation to the extent that some accept job offers in appalling environments. This has also made some employers not to improve their employees working conditions and they hire and fire employees at will. A spot check in the cities of the country shows that many youth are engaged in casual jobs such as minibus touting, driving; and as shop assistants.

The rising unemployment has contributed to increased poverty levels, declining of social fabric and increased insecurity which has in turn, affected domestic and foreign direct investments. Hundreds of jobs are lost as companies and factories shut down due to economic pressure that has come due to donor fatigue and other micro economic fundamentals.

Available statistics indicate that the country has seen a total decline in private sector contribution to the public, with many companies winding up due to failure to effectively compete. This has not only increased the poverty levels but also heaped the burden on the public sector, currently employing more than 700,000 people with over 50 percent in the education sector alone.

And, as the number of the unemployed continues to rise, more and more Malawians, out of desperation to earn some money, are forced to work for almost nothing. Their take-home cannot cater for their daily expenses that have risen to astronomical levels.

Most people interviewed in some townships in Blantyre and Lilongwe revealed that they have no hope of getting employment in the country looking at the current trends in securing jobs.

Maxwell Mlabowa complains that it’s hard to make ends meet.

“I am jobless for more than five years now. I can’t just stand it. I think government is not doing enough to create jobs. People are made to believe that after school, there are jobs out there. This is why a lot of people prefer white collar jobs to doing businesses,” he said, amid nods of approval from his fellow job seekers converged at Blantyre Labour Office playing bawo while waiting for job call ups.

Just like many other graduates and school leavers, Mlabowa describes Malawi employment as an ageing workforce. He attributes this to employers’ insistence on several years of experience in job candidates.

“The local labour market is biased towards the old and is not responsive to the emerging and changing world. The challenge is experience as the youth are just from school. And there is a skills gap as no one is ready to employ the youth or school leavers,” he observes.

However, the late president Bingu Wa Mutharika was on record to have asked institutions to recruit job seekers based on qualifications not just experiences.

The situation has resulted into most Malawians trekking to neighbouring countries like South Africa in search of green pastures where their lives have been on a knife-edge, with for instance, gruesome xenophobic attacks where many foreigners including Malawians were killed.

Just recently, the country has been experiencing human trafficking, where the trafficked people are earmarked for sexual abuse, child labour and robbery in other countries.

Although there are no statistics available to indicate the number of Malawians seeking fortunes abroad in a year, Chief Executive Officer for Malawi Investment Trade Centre (MITC) Clement Kumbemba says currently, over three million Malawians live in South Africa alone while many others live in countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and United Kingdom. He says the majority are the youth.

Over the years, the governments have been implementing programmes aimed at scaling up opportunities for young people to acquire vocational skills, create their own employment and live a decent life. These include the Malawi Enterprise Development Fund {MEDF}, and the building of community technical colleges among others.

“The only way out is to give (young graduates) the technical and financial support to create their own enterprises. Previous governments did not consider this issue in their programmes,” says Henry Mussa, Malawi’s affable Minister of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development.

But despite these initiatives, the levels of unemployment and underemployment still remain high. Using the broad definition, the National Statistical Office, Malawi Labour Force Survey of 2013-2014 says unemployment rate among youth in the 15-24 years age group is 28 percent against the 46 percent of the country’s youth. This is an indication of the extent to which the economy is unable to provide employment for young people.

George Chilongo, a labour expert, says there is scarcity in the labour market of skilled workers which is an area that all the stakeholders must address from education system to the employment scene.

“One of the problems faced by employers with regard to skills is that much of the content in the courses at technical colleges does not meet the requirements of employers. The immediate result of this is that training costs tend to be high due to frequent need for workers to be trained. Reciprocally, employers’ ability to provide the expected working conditions and distribution of awards, whether financial or physiological, becomes very limited,” Chilongo explains.

Other critics point out that youth unemployment deserves a much longer-term focus. “The population is growing fast and becoming younger and younger,” explains Shy Alli, a young advocate based in Blantyre.

“If programs do not take into account factors like demographic growth, they will be a failure,” he says, adding that the government should think about setting up long-term programs over the decades, and not the short-term ones.

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