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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The first blow to Martha Netshiozwe's future came when her parents died of AIDS. The second came when she ran out of money and had to drop out of a South African high school.
Netshiozwe, 23, is a product of the first post-apartheid generation who entered a new and aspiring education system which aimed to heal the economic divisions created by the white-minority government. But like many, she left without the skills to qualify for anything other than manual labor.
Despite pouring billions of dollars into education, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has little to show for its money except for public primary schools regarded as among the worst in the world and millions of students destined for a life in the underclass.
"If you don't have an education, you don't have a chance in life," said Netshiozwe, who is unemployed with little prospect of finding regular work. She and her HIV-infected aunt live together and scrape by on about $100 a month in welfare benefits.
Nearly half of South Africa's 18 to 24 year olds -- the first generation educated after apartheid ended in 1994 -- are not in the education system and do not have a job, according to government data.
Academics have called this group the "lost generation" and worry it will grow larger unless the government fixes a system riddled with failing schools, unskilled educators and corruption that stops funding from reaching its intended destinations.
"This is an appalling waste of human potential and a potential source of serious social instability," the Ministry of Higher Education said this month when it unveiled sweeping plans
for boosting university enrollment and improving vocational colleges.
The lost generation poses long term risks for Africa's largest economy, which is trying to grow its tax base as it funds increased social spending.
There are about three people receiving social welfare payments for each taxpayer. While the recipients of state funds are set to increase substantially under anti-poverty programs, the number of taxpayers is not, which should cause already yawning budget deficits to widen.
Major ratings agencies are also worried.
Fitch, this month, and Moody's a few months ago, downgraded the outlook for South Africa, saying the government has not done enough to tackle structural problems including chronic unemployment, growing state debt and a broken education system.
South Africa does not suffer a lack of plans or finances for education, the largest sector of state spending and accounting for more than 20 percent of the budget.
The problems are with implementation.
Corruption eats away at money. Teachers are poorly trained and challenged by a constantly shifting curriculum. Schools are often shut by teachers' strikes.
There have been numerous changes for the better in the ANC-run education system with more of the country's blacks, excluded from most high-quality education under apartheid, entering high-performing schools.
Once almost exclusively white, universities now reflect the racial composition of the country with more people from groups disenfranchised by apartheid climbing the ladder with a degree or diploma.
But at the same time, the number of people living in poverty has changed little since apartheid ended, with no remedy in sight given the structural problems in education.
"As things stand, the ANC is wreaking untold damage on our children and, consequently, on the country's future, just as apartheid education did in the past," said Barney Mthombothi, editor of the influential weekly Financial Mail.
Hundreds of schools do not have electricity or running water and absenteeism has become such a concern that President Jacob Zuma has begged teachers to show up for classes.
A study by graft watchdog Transparency International last year pointed to massive local level corruption resulting in millions of students not having desks, chairs or books.
The central government has been trying to take over two provincial education systems that are effectively bankrupt.
In Limpopo province, students started the school year in January without textbooks even though millions of dollars had been allocated for purchases, with media reports saying a politically connected figure may have pocketed the funds.
This month, the central government said Limpopo, which has recorded some of the country's worst results in standardized testing, had unauthorized expenditure of 2.2 billion rand ($275 million). The province had more than 2,400 teachers on the payroll, including 200 "ghost teachers" who were not in classrooms but were still paid.
A university education is seen as the best ticket out of poverty. Competition is fierce and at some of the top schools, there are about 10 applicants for each place.
The desperate demand for higher education led to a stampede at the University of Johannesburg this month when thousands of applicants lined up for a few hundred available places on the final day to submit paperwork.
"The lofty status of universities is an indicator of a lack of status for any other alternative for post-school education," said Frances Faller, an education expert at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
About eight in 10 unemployed have not completed secondary education or just made it through high school. Only six percent of South Africa's jobless have a university degree, a study from the South African Institute for Race Relations said.
The odds are also stacked against those who hope to find entry-level employment. Economists say labor laws make it difficult for employers who want to take on new workers and train them for jobs.
A cozy relationship between the ANC and organized labor, formed in their partnership against apartheid, has hampered apprenticeship programs.
The ANC, which relies on the 2 million members of top labor federation COSATU as a source of votes, has put off plans denounced by unions but backed by economists to reduce youth unemployment by allowing firms to hire youths at cut-rate wages and train them up.
"We will never let them get away with making these laws even more 'flexible' to allow even higher levels of exploitation," COSATU said in a statement.
ANC governments have spent billions of dollars on job training programs only to see large sums lost to corruption, while producing few graduates with skills required by employers.
"I know what will happen to me if I don't get into school," said university applicant Eddie Ncube, 18.
"Look at what I am exposed to. I am from the ghetto. Without school, I will get into drugs and I'll never find a job."
($1 = 8.0169 South African rand)
Additional reporting by Ndundu Sithole; Editing by Rosalind Russell