Economic leadership also comes from below

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If you listened to the State of the Nation Address on Tuesday you could be forgiven for thinking that the government was the only agent of change. President Jacob Zuma’s address was less about the state of the nation than it was about the state of government’s involvement in the nation.

The nation is a lot larger than government and we ought to pay more attention to what people are doing themselves to take South Africa forward. Some of the most powerful economic leadership comes from below, and not from Parliament.

Zuma spoke very little about the youth. He mentioned that already 133 000 young people had benefited from the Employment Tax Incentive Scheme.

He also promised that all public entities would be required to offer internship programmes to aid skills development.

These are great initiatives, but alone this would not be very encouraging about the state of the nation. Luckily for Zuma, and for us, there is a barrage of independent initiatives driving South Africa forward.

One such example is the annual Brightest Young Minds (BYM) summit that kicks off on August 29. Into its 14th year, the summit brings together 100 representatives of South Africa’s top young talent from all backgrounds of race, wealth and expertise. What sets it apart is that it is action-focused. In the first half of the summit the youth are coached by top leaders and thereafter they are tasked to develop projects that provide a sustainable solution to a pressing social problem.

EDGE Campus is one such project that was founded by Paul Kim and Gareth Heuer at the 2010 BYM summit. It addresses the very problems that I spoke about in last week’s column – how to increase the quality of education when we have little control over the formal education system.

It provides low-cost educational products for students and teachers that are offered through mobile web technologies (such as Mxit) so as to be available to anybody with the most basic of cellphones.

Another innovative project born out of BYM is a company that publishes textbook information on recycled SIM cards, destroying the barriers of cost and accessibility that many students face.

Earlier this year, I had coffee with Sinethemba Mahabeni, the founder of iLearn2BFree, a Cape Town-based tutor company that offers educational support to university students. Such start-ups are common in the university context, most started by entrepreneurially spirited students to make a few extra bucks. This one is different because of Sinethemba’s vision and the structure of his business.

He tells me that it is useless to applaud the vast number of university entrants and funding programmes if most of these students do not walk out with a degree. He sees his company as primarily providing insurance services, not education. Bursars pay about R50 000 per student a year and his company gives students the support they need to ensure that this investment does not go to waste. His clients are companies, not students.

What do these examples have to do with economics? It is in understanding who it is that really makes a difference.

The government plays an important role in guiding the economy and we should celebrate its victories and hold it to account for its failures. But we must not use it as a scapegoat for all the failings of the country. It is not the only roleplayer.

Pierre Heistein convenes UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein


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