Global Reach: South Africa

South Africa
Year Work
Total Funds
Invested To Date


South Africa is a country with 11 official languages and one of the strongest economies on the continent. The gains have not been equally shared by all; South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world and strong regional and race-based disparities continue to exist in the country decades after the end of apartheid. South Africa is a magnet for migrants from the region and its cities draw young people from rural areas and smaller towns alike, for both seasonal and permanent relocation. Pockets of deep poverty can be found even in South Africa’s most affluent cities, where large numbers of people live in townships and informal dwellings.

Key issues affecting young people in the country include high levels of HIV and orphaning, violence, poor quality education leading to low levels of secondary school completion, and high levels of unemployment and insecure and low-paid work among those who are able to get jobs. Girls and Black youth are disproportionately affected by these issues. Studies have found high levels of depression among South African young people, particularly among those living in poverty, who have experienced violence, and out-of-school or unemployed young people or individuals with lower educational attainment. Such challenges point to a need to focus on mental health and resilience among young people in South Africa, particularly among the most marginalized.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues and is estimated to have sharply increased violence against women and pushed many households into extreme food insecurity and further poverty, exacerbating mental health and other issues.

Empower focuses its work in South Africa on improving well-being, safety and psychological health for highly vulnerable young people in South Africa. We support organizations that work to strengthen the resilience of marginalized young people as part of the pathway to improving their educational, health and livelihood outcomes.


Total population: 59 million

26% of the population is 10-24.

At 66% urban, South Africa is among the most urbanized countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Special populations of interest: South Africa has 280,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, and is a destination for many cross-border migrants in the region (estimated 4.2 million international migrants, or around 7% of the population).

Economy & Environment

GDP per capita: 6,401 USD, declining slightly since the prior year (2019)

GINI index and rank (2014): With a GINI coefficient of 63, South Africa is consistently ranked as one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Over half the population (55.5%) lives below the national poverty line, and 20% live below the extreme poverty line.

About a quarter of the country’s population lacks access to at least basic sanitation services. In a recent survey, 20% of households were found to have inadequate or severely inadequate access to food. Food insecurity has deepened and affected many more during the COVID-19 shutdown.

INFORM Risk Index score (2020): Widely-used tool to assess the risk of humanitarian crisis and disasters, including the Hazard and Exposure subscale, which includes natural disasters like earthquakes, droughts, and floods, and human disasters like conflict. South Africa : 4.8 (medium, stable) overall; Rank 55; Hazard and Exposure score: 5.9 (high)

Key issues that affect youth:

Gender inequality

South Africa’s rank in Global Gender Gap report (2020) is 17 (out of 153), where ranking closer to the bottom indicates more gender inequality in economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment). It ranks third in the region (sub-Saharan Africa) out of 34 countries.

83% of adult women own mobile phones, but only 54% of them access the internet, compared to 87% of men with phones and 63% accessing the internet (2019). There are large disparities in access to mobile phones and the internet based on whether you live in a rural or urban area.

Education (Quality education, SDG4)

South Africa offers 12 years of free primary and secondary education, but additional fees for uniforms and other school-related necessities create barriers to education. Though many young people in South Africa are enrolled in school, attendance can be less frequent, and the quality of education is highly variable, with wide differences between provinces. 24% of young people enrolled in lower secondary education are at least 2 years over the appropriate age for their grade (2019). In 2018, the net enrollment rate for females (79%) was higher than for males (65%), one of the few OECD countries where this sex difference shows higher participation for females. Just a little over half of young people typically obtain their “matric,” a graduation qualification necessary for further education and also for many types of work. Comprehensive sexuality education is mandatory and examinable, a stand-alone subject for primary and secondary students (life skills at primary, SRH and HIV secondary)

Livelihoods (Decent work and economic growth, SDG 8)

Unemployment among young people in South Africa is among the highest in the world. Among 15-24 year-olds only 30% of males and 25% of females participate in the labor force. 42% of young people (15-24) are not employed, in education or in training (2018), the highest share of any OECD or partner country. [12% males 15-19, 15% of females 15-19; 45% of 20-24 year-old men, 52.3% of young women]. Young people in this category are typically socially excluded and on the path for that status to become more entrenched, with low incomes and lacking opportunities to gain the skills that could improve their economic situation.

Health and well-being

Child marriage is rare in South Africa, though 4% of girls (age 20-24) were still married by age 18.

Childbearing while still an adolescent, however, is more common with 16% of young women 20-24 having children by age 18.

With an HIV prevalence rate of approximately 25% among 15-24 year-olds, South Africa is among the most HIV-affected countries in the world. In 2019 there were an estimated 31,000 new HIV infections among adolescents 10-19 in South Africa, 70,000 among young people 15-24 (7.93 per 1000). Over 1/3 of all new infections are in girls and young women age 15-24. Only 46% of young people (15-24) have accurate knowledge about HIV prevention.

Violence against women is common in South Africa. In 2017, approximately 1/3 of women aged 15-49 reported experiencing violence from an intimate partner in the last year, and violence from others is also common. Approximately 1/3 of men in a population-based study in South Africa report that they have raped a women. Recent data from the South African Police Service (2020) indicates that every three hours a woman is murdered in the country. Violence against women has risen sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic.

7% of girls 15-19 agree that wife-beating is justified under some circumstances.

Social support: 15-29 year olds who say they have no friends or relatives they can count on in times of trouble. 10.6%

Other countries in Africa:

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