OPINION | South Africa’s youth deserve better role models

It’s been 28 years since our country became a democracy, yet the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, rooted in racial and spatial segregation, continues to reinforce inequality and hamper transformation. With just 15.8% of top management positions occupied by black people, despitye making up 79.3% of the economically active population (according to the 2021 Commission for Employment report), the legacy of apartheid is still very much alive.  

Thousands of young black men and women entered the new South Africa at the end of 1994 as the country’s first “free” black matriculants, and I am one of them. It was an incredible time, and we were all filled with a flood of emotions. The future looked bright and I, like so many others, was hopeful for the future. 

It felt like the shackles had been removed and that we were on a path to achieve anything we could once only dream of. Dignity had been restored for us, our parents and our elders. We really thought that everything was going to change overnight. Some may say we were naïve to believe things would change so quickly, but it’s understandable why people feel they have been let down by the promises of 1994.

The biggest downfall of our transformation journey has been the low quality of education, then the lack of access to acquiring entrepreneurial skills, mindset and spirit. I blame this on the shortage of positive black role models within communities, especially those that have been affected by the systemic issues inherited from apartheid. 

I have been fortunate to have had incredible role models, not only growing up but also in the early stages of my career, for whom I thank daily for encouraging me to never give up on my dreams. Their influence cultivated a mindset in me that has allowed me to excel in my journey thus far. I started out as a receptionist in a below-the-line agency and today I am a co-managing director and a company shareholder of the largest independent South African owned advertising agency, Joe Public. 

Thanks to the belief of those around me who invested their time in nurturing my entrepreneurial spirit, I have worked my way up the corporate ladder. Not too many black women in South Africa hold top management positions. It’s my calling as a business leader to use my role to empower the next generation. Our industry, like many others, is a tough environment to work in and requires a thick skin. But more so, a solid belief in oneself and an intense work ethic. 

I know, thanks to my upbringing and role models, that positivity and hard work are at the core of personal and professional success. Yet there appears to be a growing trend among our youth that they are entitled to success and don’t believe it must be earned. This I blame largely on their exposure to social media where celebrities flaunt their wealth and create a desire for a lifestyle that is not realistic or attainable. As a volunteer lecturer at Boston House College, I drive home the message to my students that success has to be earned, that it cannot be achieved alone, and that their mindset plays a critical role in how they respond to their circumstances.

From early on in my life, I was adamant that I was going to survive and achieve great things. I quickly realised and accepted that I was going to need help, and so I opened myself up to it. Leveraging every opportunity, big or small, can be used to gain experience and improve one’s circumstances. The youth have so much to learn if they can always commit to arriving with humility, having an open mind, showing appreciation and never giving up.

The latest employment data, released by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) revealed that unemployment in the fourth quarter of last year rose to 35.3% from 34.9% in the previous quarter. This was the highest level since the start of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey in 2008. The youth unemployment rate remains at a staggering 65.5%. How can this be? In the 28 years since I left school, why are there just 15.9% of black men and women in top management positions? These are, after all, the role models our youth need so that they too believe they too can dream big.

We live in a multiracial, multicultural country with so many opportunities to learn from each other. Our cultural foundations and our truly African principle of ubuntu provide a relevant foundation for having a global mindset, which according to a study by the Gordon Institute of Business Science is the common denominator among senior black South African executives who managed to break away from the norms they were brought up with.

I wonder how many of our youth consider their own stories and believe that their traditional and cultural values and life experiences are worthy of something significant and meaningful in the global corporate space. I believe that South Africa’s youth already possess a global mindset and, as the study concludes, it’s essential that corporate South Africa begin to harness that.

At Joe Public, we are driven by our purpose, which is growth, and incorporate it into all elements of our business strategy. The first is the growth of our people. We invest in employees’ studies, workshops, mentorships, courses and business coaching. Second is the growth of our clients where we measure strategy and creative products using excellence tools we have developed. And lastly, we are driven by the growth of our country and support non-profit organisations, job creation, transformation and diversity within. We are currently 60% black owned and have 40% women on our board.

I believe that putting the spotlight on role models is one solution to help encourage a better self-belief in our youth — one that will positively impact South Africa’s transformation. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Khuthala Gala Holten
Khuthala Gala Holten is the co-managing director at Joe Public, South Africa’s largest independent advertising agency. Born and raised in Cape Town, she began her career in the below-the-line environment within the alcohol sector. With no formal tertiary education, she’s worked her way up the corporate ladder heading up global accounts such as Unilever, and more recently, eBucks, Old Mutual and Nedbank.

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