The world, at least the progressive part of it, is well and truly in the innovation age. Technology is impacting on industries and society in unprecedented ways. Willingly and unwillingly we are all having to adapt to the new pathways created by technological innovations. Never before, one would argue, have political leaders been faced with the crossroad decision of having to decide on the kind of societies that they want to lead.
And South Africa, like many other countries out there, is no exception. We too are compelled to not only plot the path that we want to pursue, but equally, to create the environment where innovation will backup our strongest strides. Here is the undeniable truth; behind the innovation revolution, are young people. In fact, in China, according to their biggest job website, Zhaopin.com, three-quarters of tech workers are younger than 30. And China, without mentioning the obvious, is global leader where innovation and technology stands. The same is true of many other countries who are also redesigning their societies through innovation.
Young people are not only raising their hands to indicate their availability, but they are at the forefront, pursuing new possibilities. Much to our concern is the current status of young people in South Africa. A recent Statistics SA report reads; “The burden of unemployment is concentrated amongst the youth (aged 15–34 years) as they account for 63,4% of the total number of unemployed persons”. And of equal concern is that a significant number of graduates are in the same unemployment pot. With their hard-earned qualifications, many young South African graduates find themselves as far away from the employment opportunities as they possibly were before they graduated. That’s our hard reality.
This is a conundrum. One that forces all of us to truly sit and think long and hard about our prospects of success or survival in a word that is fast modernising itself. The biggest concern, one would argue, is the fact that currently there is little that indicates that government or the private sector have concrete plans around successful investment into our young people. The mentality of most private sector remains the same. They wait for ready-made fresh graduates whom they expect to add immediate value into their services.
On the other hand, government is still trying to figure out a sustainable way of funding the free education of many young people in the country, the enrolled and the prospective students.
Let one be clear; the challenges that we face in employing our young people is by no means an indication that our country’s youth do not have the potential or capacity to lead our innovation. Not by a long short! Nkululeko Tunzi is a young entrepreneur who invented an innovative walking aid that helps blind people navigate traffic. His product, called Bulatsela, uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning features to interpret surroundings. Back in 2011 we got to know of a young man by the name of Ludwick Marishane who introduced us to a product called DryBath, which is a clear germicidal and moisturising gel that’s applied to skin in the manner of waterless hand cleaners. It saves a lot of water. They are not the only ones. In the face of the challenges that they face, many young South Africans have shown appetite for innovation.
Two interesting things happened last week. When announcing his new ministers, President Ramaphosa, also announced that the department of Water and Sanitation would merge with the department of Human Settlements. The department of Science and Technology is now merged with the Department of Higher Education. The mergers may present some challenges for the departments but at the same time they may be opening our eyes to new opportunities. There have been several innovative products in the water sector over the years. One of such products is the Arumloo toilet which is an innovative toilet capable of flushing on less than two litres of water.
One of the challenges that have always faced the old Department of Human Settlements have been the lack of products that are less heavy of infrastructure yet sustainable for adequate human use. The merger may present an opportunity for South Africans to not only enjoy decent homes but also benefit from innovative and sustainable sanitation products. One only imagines that thinking behind bringing together the Department of Science and Technology together with that of Higher Education is that government finally wants to ensure that science and technology is well integrated into our higher education system. We need that. The world demands of it.
The 6th Administration comes to service at a time when serious decisions need to be taken. One of such decisions is our willingness to invest with determination into our youth for them to be the leading figures in our innovation efforts. This time around we must get it right. We cannot and should not accept half-baked programme plans that only go as far as dragging high school learners to a seminar where one minister is talking about the 4th Industrial Revolution only to leave the room with a phone full of selfies and a government-branded goodie bag. We must demand of ourselves.
The public-private partnerships between government and the private sector are an instrumental vehicle to help get us up and going. The extended willingness from both sides to adequately invest into solid innovation programmes cannot fall short. This is not just an aspiration to be a part of the moving world but a necessity in defining our readiness for an emerging market.
Sifiso Mazibuko is a Communicator at the Water Research Commission.