Supporting sustainable, solution-centric youth development is crucial to ensuring SA’s future

The Khayelitsha-based Progressive Youth Movement marched on Youth Day (June 16) in protest of youth unemployment to the offices of the Department of Social Development. Photo: Neil Baynes/Independent Newspapers

The Khayelitsha-based Progressive Youth Movement marched on Youth Day (June 16) in protest of youth unemployment to the offices of the Department of Social Development. Photo: Neil Baynes/Independent Newspapers

Published Jul 4, 2024


By Jeff Mkhwanazi

This year marks a momentous milestone for South Africa as we commemorate 30 years of democracy. Thirty years since the first democratic election we as a nation faced with hope and aspirations. It was seen as a turning point in ensuring a future where we overcome the struggles of inequality, poverty, resources and access to education.

While we have made great strides forwards in tackling some of the issues facing the country can we really claim success in these goals, particularly when it comes to the current situation facing the youth?

Three decades later, we are still confronted with a colossal socio-economic challenge in creating an environment that reflects youth progress and development on a large and sustainable scale. In fact, in some aspects we have regressed with young people in an ever-more dire position when it comes to poor employment prospects, poverty, high levels of crime, limited access to education, sexual abuse and numerous social ills.

There are also the “less visible” threats to the health and wellness of our young people. Mental health is still stigmatised and not acknowledged for the impact it has on youth health, their well-being and ability to navigate life on a daily basis.

Climate change is another topic that may seem irrelevant or far removed from communities besieged by fundamental issues such as poverty and hunger. However, it is these most vulnerable communities that experience the worst impact of climate-related disasters such as flash floods and extreme weather conditions.

Considering the immense scale of the problems faced by the youth, the situation seems overwhelming. But the reality is that now is the best time to mobilise society for positive change – the adversities we observe now are only going to get worse, unless we take prompt and impactful action.

How do we tackle these issues?

It is imperative for government agendas to prioritise youth development. Given that the entire future of the nation rests in the hands of our youth, this is the most logical approach. Such prioritisation includes government-driven skills development, funding, entry-level job creation, increased internship opportunities (such as government-funded initiatives), access to information and technology, improved education standards and community-centric political decision-making.

Merely treating the symptoms is not a long-term solution – the emphasis needs to be on strategic solutions that address the root of the problems. For example, a heightened focus needs to be on early childhood development.

At least 81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa are not able to read for meaning, according to a 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report. This should be treated as an education crisis for the country, and steps must be taken to address the situation as a matter of urgency. Furthermore, access to high-quality education at an early stage can positively contribute to reduced-levels of poverty, crime, drug-use and other ills later in life.

Access to quality healthcare and health education can result in decreased numbers of unwanted teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases among the youth. Healthcare education and support can also help young people struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse. Reducing the number of teenage deaths through suicide and social ills is an absolute priority.

Collaboration is imperative

If we are to be realistic, it would take the government a considerable amount of planning, time and resources to create the social transformation required to make a tangible change in the near future. Catalysing socio-economic development requires the involvement of broader society, including the private sector and ordinary citizens.

People can get involved through volunteering or offering knowledge and development through mentorship programmes. The private sector is also pivotal when it comes to offering lasting solutions, such as financial contributions to youth initiatives or implementing organisational youth development projects. More powerful still are collaborative efforts between the public and private sector aimed at providing practical and sustainable outcomes for the youth.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills are essential for the next workforce generation, and we need to scale the delivery of accessible tech-based up-skilling programmes. With the rapid expansion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation, there will be a reduced number of human-driven entry-level jobs available. We therefore need to increase digital literacy capabilities of young people to survive in an increasingly tech-driven socio-economic environment. The private sector can help provide infrastructural development, training and financial support to speed up digital transformation.

On the other hand, we have skilled youth who are struggling to enter the job market due to lack of experience. There needs to be mechanisms in place that bridge this gap. For instance, the (not-for-profit) DigiLink tech-focused Work Integrated Learning programme connects young entry-level digital talent with potential employers.

The candidates are supervised and guided to support the employers’ existing digital services staff. They are thereby given an opportunity to be employed, gain workplace knowledge and learn from experienced staff, while the employer is able to augment and supplement their digital workforce with young talent. The initiative is driven by Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, a social enterprise that works with public and private sector partners to find solutions to youth unemployment.

Another collaborative project is the Youth Employment Service (YES). YES is an impact-driven private sector-led initiative that receives no government funding. The programme works with various business organisations to provide 12-month practical work experiences for young people trained to become skilled professionals, managers and entrepreneurs who will in turn contribute to the future economic growth of the country.

Despite the many challenges that exist, there is a wealth of potential and hope. We are still in a position to turn the tide towards positive outcomes. By working together, we can change the outlook of the future. We can help young people to help themselves by supporting youth entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship aimed at changing lives and communities, while doing good for society.

Let’s ignite a mindset of optimism and employ renewed commitment to creating a better future for our young people. Let’s support their pioneering spirit through solution-driven approaches that will benefit both the youth and society. We have the power to change the future – let’s make it happen.

Jeff Mkhwanazi is executive director of the Southern African Association of Youth Clubs.