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South Africa is a young nation. We will soon enter the 20th year of our democracy. While this may seem a long time to most of us – a whole generation – when put into a broader historical context, it is a mere moment.
Ghana has been independent for more than 50 years, India for over 65 years, Brazil for 190 years, and the US for more than 200 years.
We are therefore still very much in the process of building a new nation. Our democratic institutions are still young. Our efforts to transform the economy are still at an early stage. We still have a great deal of work ahead to reverse 350 years of discrimination and injustice.
The poverty and inequality that we are confronted by in our country today is a product of a deliberate process of dispossession that stretches back generations.
The educational outcomes that we see today are the result of a system that sought to curb the aspirations and stunt the prospects for the majority of South Africa’s people.
It is this same system that accounts in significant measure for the structural unemployment in our country, where there is an extreme mismatch between the skills that our people have and the skills that our economy needs.
There are some who say that we cannot blame apartheid for all our country’s ills. That is true. But we do need to acknowledge how pervasive and persistent the legacy of apartheid is. Unless we understand the real causes of these problems, we will remain powerless to address them.
Though much of the challenges we face have their roots in our divided past, we have the ability and the determination to address them.
We may be the products of our past. But we are not the victims of our past.
The people who are being honoured this evening have each demonstrated that the South African people have the means and possess the resources to build a new, better nation from the remnants of the old.
They are people who have seen adversity, and have triumphed. They are people who have had a vision of a better future, and have relentlessly pursued it.
As a people, we should follow the path that these individuals have forged.
We must realise that no one will deliver to us the future that we seek. We need to build it ourselves. We all need to be leaders, in our own personal development, in our families, in our communities, and in broader society.
That is what the National Development Plan (NDP) means when it speaks about an active citizenry. It is a citizenry that is integrally involved in bringing about change, not only through its interaction with the state, but also through initiatives within communities.
An active citizenry requires inspirational leadership at all levels of society.
According to the NDP, the qualities that we must look for in such leaders include:
n The ability to lead by example and to follow rules that apply to everyone,
n Honesty, integrity and trustworthiness,
n The capacity to innovate and manage change,
n The ability to listen,
n The ability to promote meaningful inclusion,
n A commitment to empower the otherwise powerless.
This means that every person has within them the potential for leadership.
Not everyone will receive recognition. Not everyone will occupy a position of authority and influence. But everyone has the potential to be a leader of meaningful change. That is the message that we must communicate to our young people.
We must tell them that they are not powerless in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. We must encourage them to learn, to improve their skills, to gain experience, to apply themselves in everything they do. This is why education is critically important.
As a country, we have put much emphasis on developing the skills that our economy needs. We speak about the need to improve our performance in maths and science. We need more engineers, doctors, accountants, scientists. We need people with hard skills and relevant work experience.
But that is only one part of the education outcomes we seek.
We also want an education system that enables young people to develop a sense of self-worth and self-respect. It must inculcate values of responsibility and accountability. It must give young people the confidence to become leaders of social change.
That is why there can be no more meaningful investment than an investment in education. An investment in education extends beyond merely the financial. It extends beyond what the government can commit. Education must be a societal issue. Parents must invest time and interest in their children’s school work. Communities must invest effort into safeguarding and maintaining educational facilities. Companies must invest knowledge, skills and resources in school development.
Once we start making progress in our schools, we start to address the skills shortage and unemployment. We establish a platform for more robust and sustained economic growth.
We achieve greater social cohesion and stability. We reduce crime and violence. We make faster, more meaningful progress towards the achievement of a better life for all.
While everyone has a role to play, I would like to highlight the essential contribution that business can make.
Business is a direct beneficiary of a well-functioning, integrated education system. With better educational outcomes, business gets the skills it needs.
It stands to reason that an investment in education is an investment in the future of the business. This logic is understood by many companies, with education receiving the greatest proportion of corporate social investment spend in South Africa.
The challenge is to ensure that this investment is realising optimal returns. This means that companies need to look at where they can have the greatest impact.
They need to develop partnerships, with the government, with non-profit organisations, and with other corporates.
Experience suggests that collaboration is critical to the success of any intervention in education. Experience also suggests that private sector investment often acts as a catalyst for an improved return on government efforts.
South Africa is a new nation.
It is also a young nation, with half its population below the age of 25.
This means that it is to the needs of young people that we need to dedicate our energies and resources. It is from among young people that we are going to find those who will lead social change.
It is from among young people that we will find the entrepreneurs that will grow our economy. It is from among young people that we will draw our leaders.
As we honour these outstanding South Africans this evening, we need to consider what it is that we need to do to ensure that the values, qualities and capabilities that have made them so successful are passed on to a new, much younger generation.
Only if we manage to do that – to nurture a new generation of outstanding leaders – can we be confident that our new nation will achieve the progress and prosperity to which we aspire.
Cyril Ramaphosa is the deputy president of the ANC and vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission. This is an adapted version of the speech he delivered on Friday at the Black Business Executive Circle’s 3rd Chairman’s Awards in Johannesburg.