A recent report by UNAids estimates that 5.6-million South Africans are living with HIV/Aids. It is the highest number of infected people in any country in the world.
With so many infected people in spite of decades of action and billions of rands spent on awareness and preventative campaigns, one can only ask: What is behind the seemingly unstoppable spread of Aids?
Not so long ago, a loveLife radio campaign speculated that the root cause of the epidemic is not ignorance, cultural practice or lack of education. Rather, it is a lack of hope and income-earning opportunity among those most at risk, namely school leavers and the youth, that continues to fuel the spread of the virus.
The message seems to be that, without prospects for employment, education and a decent quality of life, our youth are adopting a what's-the-point attitude to their health and future, leading to irresponsible sexual behaviour and the resultant risks this carries with it.
If this is the case, reason would dictate that, to halt the spread of Aids and reverse the gains this epidemic continues to make among our poor and marginalised communities, we need to offer young people real alternatives and opportunities.
There are many youth development and training opportunities, and the dozens of government agencies and non-governmental organisations geared at supporting and educating school leavers and new entrants into the job market show a passionate commitment to finding solutions. Unfortunately, the continued spread of Aids and ever-increasing unemployment, especially at a graduate level, would suggest that these initiatives are not having the impact that our country needs.
So what is the answer? How do we create solutions that encourage young people to reach for the stars and not stumble over their own feet?
Bridging the gap
Firstly, we need more opportunities that bridge the gap between where the unemployed youth are now and where they aspire to be.
The rapidly changing world is a scary place for many people, and especially for school leavers and graduates as they face the responsibility of making a living and supporting their families. We need to make this transition from childhood to adulthood easier by providing accessible stepping stones such as internships, apprenticeships and low-risk micro-business opportunities.
Internships are used extensively in the United States and Europe as a way to provide on-the-job experience for young school leavers, often forming part of the requirements for a tertiary degree. Internship can be valuable to employers too, introducing a try-before-you-buy option. Internship provides excellent practical experience for youngsters and brings an infusion of new ideas and affordable, capable resources to businesses.
For that reason, we recently initiated the Graduate Asset Programme (Gap), which seeks to place 24000 unemployed graduates into internships over the next three to four years, creating about 8 000 permanent jobs. Through Gap and supported by the jobs fund, we are aiming to revolutionise the way the small, medium and micro-enterprise (SMME) sector views the hosting of graduates and interns.
The concept of learnerships and apprenticeships is well established in South Africa but appears to be having limited success. Unfortunately, the cumbersome sector educational and training (Seta) process makes the accredited training and learnership route unattractive for most smaller businesses and an administrative nightmare for learner and host alike.
We need to simplify this process, get youngsters into businesses to learn on the job and to start producing school leavers and graduates who have relevant, practical skills that are aligned to employers' needs.
In the same vein, the youth need access to practical, needs-based training that provides the skills they need to succeed in the real world. We must scrutinise training programmes ensure they teach skills that are needed by commerce and that these skills will help our young people to find jobs. We need to ensure that, in addition to self-belief and motivation, youngsters have practical, immediately implementable and in-demand skills.
A recurring theme in rural and peri-urban small businesses that participate in Legends, an enterprise development programme we run, is a lack of basic computer skills. But to find training organisations that offer decent personal computer literacy training at reasonable rates is almost impossible. The provision of computer training at school and university level needs to be a top priority if South Africa is ever to build an economy in which our people can advance from being low-skilled labourers to valued employees. This needs support and a working partnership between the government and business.
Thirdly, we need to ensure that the trainers and support partners are themselves equipped and experienced in the skills they teach. Business trainers need to be people with practical experience, and not simply academics and theorists.
Stop chasing numbers
We would do well to find out why so many support programmes have had limited success in solving unemployment. Why are most government-funded youth and enterprise development initiatives achieving below target? Enterprise development organisations should be measured on the results of their support – the growth of the individual or the SMME, not simply by the numbers of people trained or other input data. Performance management of this space needs to be impact-based and driven by people with a passion and understanding for the commercial arena.
Role models and mentors
Lastly, without successful, visible role models, how will we ever wean our youth away from the fantasy life of gangsters, TV stars and tenderpreneurs? We need to show that 99% of people succeed because they love what they do and because they work hard, not because they chose the winning numbers in the Lotto, have political connections or can kick a football.
Youngsters also need a support base to which they can turn when things get tough, or an experienced elder they can go to for advice.
According to the loveLife campaign, the antidote to Aids is opportunity. If this is true, we clearly need to do better in the opportunity department and start offering more in ways that will strike a chord with our youth. We need to show a clear link between cause and effect, hope and life, skills and opportunity, and hard work and success. We need to inspire our greatest asset, the next generation, to see a future that is prosperous, positive and Aids-free.
To learn more about the enterprise development agency Fetola and its programmes, click here. Catherine Wijnberg is its director and Anton Ressel is a senior consultant of the agency and a director of the Fetola Foundation