South Africa is a place of miracles. Day by day, we’re confronted by the atrocious and stubborn apartheid legacy, which structural disparities so strong it’s almost impossible for an individual to dismantle.
Presently, our unemployment rate stands at 55.7% in the country, constituting almost 50% for Africans, 35% for Coloureds and almost 10% for whites. A staggering number of black people (70% of the population) live on R600 a month in a country where gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is almost $10800. Seemingly the burden of disorientation and disadvantage is not evenly shared.
Seemingly, there is little doubt that education and skills development are and will always be central to addressing the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and our socio-economic inequalities in the country.
Our former statesman Nelson Mandela narrates this point as follows; “Education is the greatest engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine; that a child of farm workers can become the president of a country”.
Redressing the legacy of apartheid in our country demands draconian efforts and systemic interventions that place emphasis on inclusion and transformation. The inclusion of education as one of the priority areas of government is extremely encouraging. We can only hope that it will include correcting some of the policy mistakes of the last 20 years.
We’ve recently been privileged with sensitive public spaces where we’ve interrogated programs initiated by the public sector.
The National Skills Accord and Basic Education Accord and the mooted National Youth Service are some of the complementary initiatives aimed at addressing the skills shortage in our country. Whether we embrace them or not, it’s a question of priority.
The accords are a partnership amongst: The Ministry of Economic Development, The Ministry of Higher Education and Training and The Ministry of Basic Education and their social partners in labour, business and civil society groupings.
The National Skills Accord aims to among others, address the skills shortage by placing +30,000 artisans in training programmes every financial year and injecting over R6 billion into skills development and education. The success of it would see businesses making 12,000 placements or internships available for further education and training colleges and 5,000 internships available for third-year students at universities of technology in a phased approach over three years.
Most encouraging among these, is a commitment from labour to ensure that all schools are functional. We can only hope this will re-establish the culture of teaching and learning. Hopefully teacher absenteeism and the annual teacher strikes would be a thing of the past.
Although these public initiatives are commendable and worthy of our support, they seem geared to those students and learners who are in the pipeline. Presently there are about 5-6 million young people who are outside formal schooling. They are part of an army of the unemployed, underemployed and the unemployable. A majority of these are high school and university graduates.
They have been short-changed by the system having invested resources (time, money and human efforts) only to end up joining the ranks of the unemployed. They are victims of the misalignment between what is offered in our educational system and the demands of our modern economy. More of the same is not an answer. Enough of excuses.
The mooted National Youth Service is most probably the best bet that our young people have. By their very nature, National Youth Service programmes are ambitious projects designed by internationally acclaimed scholars. Internationally, they have been used to fulfill multiple purposes. These range from addressing our various national challenges of youth unemployment, promoting national unity, fostering social consciousness by engaging and encouraging civic responsibility, involving graduates in structured community service in support of government sectors and national development.
As interventions to address unemployment they are used to provide economic opportunities for the youth with the provision of selective skills training enabling them to sufficiently respond to different deficiencies in our educational system.
At a closer look, the focus of our National Youth Service in South Africa broadly follows the international trends in countries like Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRICS), Singapore, Indonesia, Malasia, Malawi amongst others. In our case, the current rate of unemployment is 55.7%, accounting for millions of people; by contrast, the youth unemployment rate is more than 75%, meaning that youth are three (3) times more likely to be unemployed than the general economically active population.
To validate this program and maintain its relevance, it needs to respond to, and ameliorate the conditions of youth who find themselves unable to participate meaningfully in the socio-economic life of their country.
The success of the National Youth Service is and will be measured by the extent to which it integrates the youth into the economy by providing them with the appropriate and targeted skills. Good intentions, while commendable, do not however guarantee success, and quick-fix solutions are not only costly but are most likely doomed to fail.
Our international experiences have been that there are no shortcuts to investing in thought. Most developed countries have succeeded in their plans mainly because they’ve invested in their future, the young people. This is even more critical if one considers that the youth concerned are predominantly high school and college graduates. They have invested 12-16 years of their lives only to graduate to unemployment.
Given the investment in resources (infrastructure, time, administrative support and budgets allocated to the education system) we may be tempted to ask critical questions; what are the prospects of National Youth Service succeeding where the educational system has failed? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that people are equipped with proper sustainable tools to last them their lifetime?
The enormity of the work before us demands that our solutions be properly implemented, because we can no longer, as a nation afford to expose our youth to yet other forms of fly-by-night interventions. Essentially, everything we do must answer the needs of our youth, and until we absorb and make peace with this reality, until we accept, appreciate and embrace this reality through understanding the implications, we’ll not manage to make and implement the correct policy decisions and pursue the most suitable development plans.
Uniquely designed to benefit our nation, three critical elements underpin the NYS programme include:
1st: it responds to the challenge of building character in youth by focusing on leadership, discipline, teamwork, volunteerism and infusing the love of one’s community and country;
2nd: it briefly addresses the shortage of critical technical skills that have been identified; and
3rd: it puts most attention to the leadership, business and entrepreneurial skills that are necessary to navigate the stormy waters of the global knowledge economy.
At the end of the programme, recruits will be deployed in various working spaces in both government and the private sector, in collaboration with the relevant stakeholders. This, we’re hopeful, will sharpen their skills in a practical setting.
We’re mindful of the fact that the magnitude of the challenge and the number of youth that would potentially be involved demands the establishment of a robust platform to ensure appropriateness, adequacy and sustainability of the programme.
This platform is uniquely subdivided into numerous sub-programmes that are crucial for the governance and administrative program of the National Service:
• It has an extensive and robust electronic-based administrative and communication platform because of the anticipated wide geographical operational footprint.
• It has established operational relations between itself on the one hand, and the state departments and agencies, local education and training providers and international co-operation and exchange relations with similar services across the world. Under this operational theme would also reside the early engagement of community service project partners during the project team’s deployment readiness preparations.
• It oversees most education and training governance including the accreditation of appropriate education training unit standards and the quality management thereof at implementation.
• It also provides social care, wellness support and general support to participating persons with regard to community service placements, social and welfare needs, medical needs, sports as well as cultural activities.
Through this mechanism, South Africans have the opportunity to become Masters of Change than Victims of Change. Let’s all rally behind the initiative to make our country a better space to live in. It’s in our hands.
Koketso Marishane is an NDP 2030 Ambassador. He writes in his personal capacity.