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Reflections to shape South Africa’s next generation

In the latest World Employment and Social Outlook report, published in January, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported that youth unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa is 11.8%. In South Africa, however, the rate is 52.5% — more than four times the average figure for the region. 

Based on the ILO data, 1.38 million of the world’s 73.4 million unemployed youth are in South Africa. That means that although the country is home to just 0,77% of the world’s population, it has 1.9% of its unemployed youth, ranking it in sixth place on the scale of youth joblessness.

This topic that took centre stage at a Critical Thinking Forum debate called “21 years of democracy, reflections to shape South Africa’s next generation”, held on June 19 and co-hosted by the Mail & Guardian, Frank Dialogue, and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), which also sponsored the event.

Speaking at the forum were Lucky Montana, group chief executive of Prasa; Mzwandile Masina, deputy minister of trade and industry; Jimmy Manyi, president of the Progressive Professional Forum; Catherine Constantinides, Lead SA executive; Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, deputy secretary-general of the United Democratic Movement (UDM); and Nhlanhla Ndlovu, executive director of the South African Youth Council.

The forum was moderated by Onkgopotse JJ Tabane, host of Frank Dialogue on Ubuntu Radio. He opened the discussion by asking whether today’s youth are ready to ascend to the role of leadership, and called for reflection on what has changed for the majority of the country’s young people in the 21 years since the end of apartheid regarding poverty, unemployment, and inequality. What followed was a discussion influenced largely by party politics.

“There are many problems affecting our youth, with unemployment being number one, whether we talk about urban or rural youth, school leavers or graduates,” said Montana. “But the big question is who is winning the battle of ideas in the country.”

Montana bemoaned the apparent inability of South Africans to unite in support of a common goal, referring to the ongoing opposition to Gauteng’s e-tolls. “How is it possible that an initiative which promotes the use of public transport — relied on by more than two-thirds of the population — continues to come under fire? E-tolls also help to curb carbon emissions, and reduce traffic congestion, yet our people are caught up in a protest that benefits only a small number of privileged citizens.”

In his keynote address, Masina spoke of the gains that had been made since 1994, despite poor economic growth. 

“In 1993, one year before democracy, only 150 000 black students had access to tertiary education. In 2014, that figure grew to 1.4 million at university and 764 000 in Technical Vocational Education and Training colleges. In addition, 80% of schools have been declared no-fee schools. One of the biggest problems, however, is that we cannot keep pace with population growth.”

Referring to the goals of Vision 2030, as set out in the National Development Plan, he highlighted the importance of a radical socioeconomic transformation programme. However, he cautioned, people need to be wary of those who promise economic freedom “next week”. “When other political parties speak about land distribution as though it will happen tomorrow, they are misleading our people. This is a constitutional democracy governed by the rule of law.”

The deputy minister reiterated that government is committed to raising at least R100-billion to support black industrialists and create at least 100 new industrial companies. “This will help to change the economic landscape and create new jobs,” he said. “The era of BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) is coming to an end, and very few of those transactions remain relevant and working. In many instances passive black shareholders have simply sold their shares back to white people.”

He noted that the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA), which foresees the integration of three existing trade blocs — the East African Community, the Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa — into one huge marketplace, is scheduled to come into operation during 2017, and will give the local economy access to a market of more than 600 million Africans.

“One of the biggest concerns is that South Africans are consumers and not manufacturers, which means we have to look into the school curriculum and determine how to get more young people to go into fields like engineering.”

The ever-controversial Manyi spoke on transformation. He took the opportunity to talk about the youth’s need to understand the “lonely space” that is leadership. “Leadership is the ability to sustain yourself under serious attack,” he said. “We should take strength from President Zuma, who is not even allowed to giggle without getting into trouble.” But we cannot speak of a leadership crisis, he insisted. “The problem we have is the opposition’s drive to unseat the president.”

Manyi accused the media of withholding positive news from citizens, decrying the fact that few media channels ever publish government media releases, which makes it impossible to keep the youth informed about the programmes and initiatives aimed at benefiting them. “The media is only interested in scandal,” he added.

He also spoke about the Constitution, wondering why, if it is meant to be as excellent as everyone says it is, no other country has copied it. “That worries me. When Dikgang Moseneke, the Deputy Chief Judge of the Constitutional Court, spoke of how it was shaped, he mentioned Germany, Canada and India, but not one African country. That also worries me. There was no effort to learn from Africans. As a result, traditional laws are allowed as long as they do not violate international laws. That worries me.”

He questioned why it is that whenever the ruling party tries to do anything it is “red-carded”, based on the Constitution. “Why, when the government represents the will of the people, can Parliament not resolve anything? Why are we undermined by the courts every time?”

Labelling the Democratic Alliance (DA) a “multi-racial” party, he warned against confusing transformation with assimilation. “The DA is determined to maintain the inequality gap and keep black people in the townships. Its black members have allowed themselves to be assimilated and subjugated.

“We always hear of the skills shortage in the country. But our problem is not the low number of qualified individuals. Our problem is that opportunities are not given to black people. They keep saying that people must start their own businesses, but companies only do business with people they know. Until there is social equity, black people are going nowhere in business. That is why we should be unapologetic about supporting this government. The only way to have black people represented at top management level is by passing laws to enforce this.”

Manyi said employment equity is critical and that no one should apologise for employing seven Africans when they have 10 spaces available. “That is equitable and fair. The equal treatment of unequal people is unequal, and will impede the economic development of this country.”

He said racism is rife in the workplace and referred to “gatekeepers” who will do everything they can to keep black people from advancing. Asked why around 200 000 SMEs had been put out of business because of non-payment by government, Manyi insisted that payment was conditional on work being completed properly, and that the only companies not paid were those that had failed to deliver.

He said it was critical for the country to focus on developing industry, as the knowledge economy was still out of reach of the majority of the country’s youth. On the issue of corruption, he said that government is responsible for only 30% of GDP, and that the corporate sector is rife with corruption, which costs the country billions. “When it comes to kickbacks, the private sector calls these ‘processing fees’ and gets away with it, while the country is told to focus on Nkandla,” he said, referring to the controversy surrounding the president’s R246-million home. “A supply chain problem has been turned into a political programme to unseat Mr Zuma.” 

He also accused the media of being quiet when it comes to questioning transfer pricing on the part of multinational mining companies. “South African mining companies sell products to offshore companies for next to nothing. Because they claim to earn less, they pay less tax, and the miners do not get a decent wage because budgets are tight. In the meantime, the offshore company is making millions.” 

In his final salvo, he dismissed xenophobia outright, claiming it was a concept created by “troublemakers who wish to destabilise the country”. 

Constantinides stressed that it was important to talk about women and gender as part of the discussion about youth. “We all have to ask how much we are doing as citizens to address challenges in the communities we live in. We need to play a more active role in developing entrepreneurship. As the youth, we are responsible for the country we are building. We need young people to thrive in their communities, and then have people build economies around that. We can support our government, but we must also hold our leaders accountable.”

Kwankwa said there was indeed a leadership crisis and that the ANC cannot continue to focus on vote maximisation at all costs. “Issues of national importance such as the future of our youth should not be subjugated to party politics. That is why a constructive opposition is imperative.”

Speaking of his own experience in the commercial environment, he agreed that transformation in the private sector remains a critical issue for the country.

Referring to the recent chaos in Parliament, Kwankwa insisted that the situation could not continue. “What the public does not know is that the real work of Parliament takes place in portfolio committees. The people who disrupt proceedings in the House rarely participate in portfolio meetings as there are no television cameras to film them.”

He urged fellow parliamentarians to focus more on finding common ground in the interest of nation building, and called on government to honestly evaluate the effectiveness of programmes for the youth.

Ndlovu said the problems facing the youth in the country had in part been caused by the demobilisation of civil society after 1994. 

“In the interim, government has thrown billions at the problem of unemployment,” he said. “But there are other issues to discuss. A final-year engineering student who fails two subjects and cannot qualify, for example, is treated as a matriculant in the world of work. Surely there must be a way of providing some level of certification that takes into account what the student has completed? Without that, people simply fail until they are eventually excluded from the system.”

Most of those present agreed that young people need support networks, and an integrated approach to youth development. “Every year the topic of the youth comes alive in June, and everyone becomes an event manager,” said Ndlovu. “We have to find ways to develop a more consistent, long-term approach to the needs of the young people of this country.”

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