The widespread poverty and unemployment in South Africa is fuelling drug and alcohol abuse, Congress of SA Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said.
"It is unemployment that drives so many to the booze and other substance abuse," he said in an address prepared for delivery at the 2nd Biennial Substance Abuse Summit in Durban.
"That is why the debate around the New Growth Path is so relevant. Unless we can build an economy based on manufacturing industry and create millions more decent sustainable jobs, we will not be able to resolve any of our deep-rooted social problems like substance abuse.
"Unless we can offer hope to our youth, we will never to able to wean them away from practices which promise some short-term escape, but inflict deadly long-term damage to their bodies and minds," he said.
South Africa was faced with higher unemployment rates than any middle income country, with almost four out of 10 South Africans wanting to find work, but could not.
Women and the youth were the hardest hit by unemployment. About 73% of the unemployed were under 35-years-old.
And 25% of the population lived on social grants, Vavi said.
"The economy reproduces poverty, and the state throws money at this problem, without intervening to change its structure."
He bemoaned the massive inequalities that South Africa is faced with.
A source of the economic challenges faced by the country was the state of the education system.
Poverty, unemployment and a lack of recreational facilities left young people feeling hopeless and worthless, he said.
"If they see no prospect of ever getting a decent job and enough income to live a normal life, seeking oblivion through drugs and/or alcohol becomes a tempting escape route."
The country had an army of six million people –mostly black, female and the young with no education and skills –who wanted to find jobs but could not.
"This is what I have called a ticking bomb. This is the crux of the problem and this is where most our energies should be deployed to fix all our social problems including the scourge of HIV and Aids, the crisis of rape of the old and young, and violence.
"This conference will be missing a point if we cannot see the strong interrelations between these challenges. We are talking here about the collapse of families that used to play such an important role as a support system of our communities. We are talking to the collapse of values."
Young children of eight and nine were drinking alcohol, with drug abuse generally beginning around the age of 13 or 14.
There were many initiatives in place to curb substance abuse but they would fail if the problems of unemployment and poverty were not addressed. Vavi said.
(Sapa, March 2011)