We need an integrated youth empowerment programme urgently

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File picture: Gcina Ndwalane/African News Agency (ANA)

South Africa needs an integrated national youth empowerment strategy, which provides skills, job opportunities and life purpose to millions of excluded youth. South Africa has a typical developing country demographic bulge, with youth now making up the largest part of the population. Youth also have the largest unemployment load, are the most excluded from mainstream society, and are likely to have the lowest sense of meaning in life.

Youth unemployment is now a national emergency. The bulk of the excluded youth are unskilled and low-skilled, with inadequate and incomplete schooling. They have either no or poor matric. Increasingly educated, with post-school qualifications are roaming the streets unemployed.

One anchor of an overarching strategy has to be to rollout mass vocational, technical and artisan training for youth who are unskilled or low-skilled. Such skills training must be industry-relevant, and must allow individuals to post-training set up shop on their own. South Africa is in dire need of artisans, technicians and technical repairmen and women. The country is short of electricians, plumbers and machine repairers.

Companies are best placed to understand the current and future skills needs of their industry. Companies operating in engineering, telecommunications and information technology sectors could pool their resources and set up company-based training academies. The South African National Defence Force could also soak up many unemployed with at least matric to provide them with technical skills, from paramedic, mechanics to electricians.

The government can roll out a massive adult education programmes for those with little or no schooling. Such adult basic education can be conducted directly in local communities – which can be run in after schools hours in schools, community centres and municipal halls. Such adult education programmes must combine basic education, with soft skills, such as self, career and project management, and technical skills which does not require matric, such as entrepreneurial skills, customer service and basic citizenship skills.

South African companies could collectively, as part of a national campaign take on at least two million youth for practical internships, where they can be provided with basic workplace skills, perform basic tasks and navigate the workplace environment. Youth entrepreneurs should be given greater opportunities in the supply chains of the public and private sector companies. Government departments, agencies and state-owned entities (SOEs) should provide small business opportunities to youth-owned companies.

The tendencies for government agencies to give opportunities to politically connected youth should end. Private companies should also stop giving supplier opportunities only to token socially connected youth. Entrepreneurship among the youth should be encouraged. Crucially, industry relevant entrepreneurship is producing things the country or the world need. It is not reselling imports from China.

It will be important that government analyse properly the economy’s needs and what can be produced by local entrepreneurs which is currently imported; or what the world needs, which can be produced by young people in South Africa. Agriculture offers youth potential entrepreneurial opportunities. Communal land and state land could be given to youth to farm. Agricultural companies could set up agricultural vocational and technical schools where the youth can be trained in the commercial and technical aspects of farming and industry.

Sport offers massive opportunities for youth empowerment. The South African government should in partnership with the private sector, civil society and sport associations rollout mass participation in sports itself, especially codes where there is no black mass participation.

Sports academies could be established in every township. Former sportsmen and women of all colours, and of all codes, could be roped in to provide mass training. The broader sports economy, management and food, is underdeveloped, and offers potential new career paths for the young educated, but unemployment. A national sport development strategy, which focused on delivering new global sports, in similar ways, Australia did decades ago, offers massive potential.

Similarly, culture, whether the arts, music or film are currently underexploited. South Africa can position itself as a global culture hub, making art which is uniquely South African, but which has global appeal. It will be crucial that the state culture, art and music related entities are cleaned up, made more efficient and staffed with competent people, rather than useless politically connected cadres.

Tourism remains underappreciated is a potential source of jobs for the young. Young people could be on mass trained in service orientation, professional behaviour and tourism related entrepreneurship. Again, the state agencies overseeing tourism must be cleaned up, staff with competent people and become more responsive.

Inefficiency, unaccountable and red tape at the Department of Home Affairs is one of the biggest obstacles to tourism, economic growth and job creation in South Africa. South Africa must create a youth corps in similar ways to that of the United States. Unemployed could be given basic technical training and fix roads, houses and public amenities as part of public service. South African youth could also do such community work in poorer African countries.

South African civil society can also soak up hundreds of thousands of youth as part of workplace internships. However, government and the private sector will then have to provide funding to civil society organisations, something they have up now been reluctant to do. South Africa must make its foreign policy more strategic, but persuading its major allies to annually take thousands of unskilled and low skilled black youths to get vocational, technical and workplace training abroad.

An integrated youth empowerment programme, supported by government, business and civil society, will not only provide opportunities to the excluded youth, it will also give many a new meaning to life. It will boost not only the economy, but the democracy itself and will bring greater peace in South Africa.


William Gumede is Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org); and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).