Soapbox: Youth have a good story to tell

Having a youth population of about 21.7-million is overwhelming if you consider the demands and needs of these young people that largely become the responsibility of the state. Resource and capacity constraints make the task even more daunting. Young people face a number of complex challenges ranging from chronic unemployment, education and skills development, which require a thorough diagnosis. It also requires a more concerted effort from all stakeholders to play an active role in youth development. 

The responsibility, however, lies with government to promote the co-ordination of efforts aimed at supporting young people, provide an enabling environment and ensure that adequate support mechanisms exist. It is then up to the private sector, civil society, labour and young people themselves to make sure that commitments are adhered to and each stakeholder plays their part. 

The question then arises as to how much quantifiable and testimonial progress we have made as government in improving the lives especially of young South Africans. Progress in this instance refers to gains made from one period to the next and should be assessed with the understanding that no government in history has ever been able to successfully meet the needs, interests and demands of all its youth. However, in the context of a negative global economic situation and prevailing legacies of apartheid, much progress has been made in improving the lives of young South Africans albeit to varying degrees. 

Bold and decisive steps
Prior to 1994, no deliberate state measures were executed for youth development. It's only with the advent of democracy that bold and decisive steps were taken by the ANC-led government to provide opportunities for South African youth. The result was the establishment of the National Youth Commission (NYC) in 1996 and the formation of the Umsobomvu Youth Fund (UYF) in 2001.

In an effort to integrate policy and planning with implementation, the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) was then established in 2009 through the merger of the NYC and UYF. Numerous policy and legislative developments accompanied the institutional arrangements for youth development, such as the National Youth Policy and the National Youth Development Agency Act 54 of 2008. The outcomes of such a deliberate focus on empowering young people finds expression in the staggering figures of youth assisted by these institutions over the years. 

In the 10 years between 2002 and 2012, approximately 30-million young South Africans received some form of product or service, from career guidance, loans, vouchers and mentorship to job placements, bursaries and scholarships. The past five years in particular have seen almost six million youth receiving support from state entities.

Worth mentioning is the significant increase in education-related support, which has increased from 44 000 young people to 1.6-million over the past five years, primarily in the form of career guidance and technical skills training. This combined with the seven million learners in no-fee schools and the 1.4-million poor students who were able to access higher education as a result of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme paints a picture of a nation focused on educating its youth. Let us not forget the 6.1-million youth who are currently employed earning an income to support their basic needs and live a decent life.

According to Godfrey St Bernard, senior fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies St Augustine Campus in Trinidad and Tobago, "youth employment is a critical domain, if only to reassure governments that their investment in early childhood and preadolescent stages in the lives of young people was worthy and as such, has stimulated the kind of momentum that will render economic institutions as sustainable entities."

In this regard the Youth Employment Accord signed on April 18 2013 by government, organised labour and organised business, as well as community and youth formations, offers a mass-based, collective and realistic approach to accelerating job creation for young South Africans. The accord aims to make a meaningful contribution to the creation of five million jobs by 2020.

Human aspect
Numbers, though, should have meaning. The stories that emanate out of the commendable figures depicting such noteworthy performance bear testament to the human face behind the numerical mask. It would be prudent to share some of these stories explicating the notion that indeed we have a good story to tell, especially as the youth of South Africa.

The Lesedi Manufacturing Primary Co-operative and its 13 young co-operators have a good story to tell. Alexandra township is estimated to have a population of 750 000 and for years has struggled to combat the challenge of pollution in the densely populated township. Lesedi began recycling after some of its members, previously employed at a recycling plant, became aware of the large quantities of waste on the streets of Alexandra and thus turned a community problem into a viable business solution.

The co-operative is of particular significance because not only is it co-operating for skills development and job creation in the community of Alexandra, but it is also making tremendous strides in alleviating the carbon footprint in landfill sites. The NYDA provided the financial and non-financial business development support and the City of Johannesburg provided the land for the premises. Working together we turned a dream into a reality. 

The Siyaphumelela Community Development Project in Orange Farm, a group of six young and proud South Africans, decided to turn the problem of pollution in their community into a viable business. The owners took the initiative and government supported them to obtain a BEE certificate and buy a bottle crusher to improve their co-operative. Their business was one of the first beneficiaries of the new NYDA Grant Programme to receive a grant of R60 000, which they used to buy a bottle crusher for their waste recycling business. As they expand their green business further into Gauteng, they will continue to tell but replicate their good story. 

At the tender age of 14, Puleng Molebatsi from Thaba Nchu in the Free State had to raise her two younger brothers and a cousin, taking time away from her own educational development. With the help of government, she will be able to follow her dreams after she was funded to complete a short course in English at Wits University, which will enable her to teach English to foreigners in South Africa or abroad. 

Good story
Karabo Robaya from Lebanon, Mabopane, in North West has a good story to tell. Karabo did his part by excelling in his studies. He then approached the government for support. After receiving a scholarship to study at Alabama State University in the US, the government funded Karabo's boarding and lodging expenses to ensure that he is able to succeed without having to worry about where to stay or what to eat in a foreign land. He is studying towards the US equivalent of a BSc Accounting degree. 

When 29-year-old Monwabisi Mtsizi joined the YouthBuild Infrastructure Development Programme, he was asked why he had made the choice to be part of such a programme. He replied by saying: "I want to set a positive example to the children of Langa where I grew up. Instead of the kids seeing me sitting around on the street corners gambling and drinking, they can look up to me as a role model, as someone who gives back to his community. I want to learn valuable skills from this programme." He said that even though he is unemployed and doesn't have much, this is the legacy he wants to leave behind. 

Established by a former addict, a drug rehabilitation centre in rural KwaZulu-Natal today cares for hundreds of youth who have various drug addictions. The Ukukhanya Rehabilitation Centre was established by a young man, Khayelihle Gumbi. Khayelihle was once an alcoholic who lost his job and a promising career to substance abuse. He spent four years sleeping on the streets of Durban before he found the courage to change his life and start a rehabilitation centre to help others who battle alcohol and drug addiction. Today his centre helps hundreds of youth overcome their addictions and in so doing, assists in creating drug-free communities.

While we continue to face challenges such as high levels of youth unemployment, lack of access to education facilities, skills development programmes and the challenges of HIV and Aids, let us not lose sight of the great achievements that today characterise the vibrant nation that is South Africa. A country that is today alive with possibilities.

The list of South Africa's success stories is endless. It is precisely because of such stories that young people today have a good reason to celebrate 20 years of democracy with pride and joy. Today more young people are employed than ever before. Today more young people have access to education than ever before. Today a young person can live freely and dare to dream because South Africa is a better place today than it was 20 years ago. 

Yershen Pillay is the executive chairperson of the NYDA and national chairperson of the Young Communists League of South Africa.

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