Humans learn from history and visualize the future, but their existence is permanently in the present, which must be fully embraced. Photo: IANS
Humans learn from history and visualize the future, but their existence is permanently in the present, which must be fully embraced. Photo: IANS

Is the youth having honest conversation and commitment to the SA economy and future?

By Bheki Mfeka Time of article published Jun 7, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG – Humans learn from history and visualize the future, but their existence is permanently in the present, which must be fully embraced. Perhaps this philosophy may be understood better by the South African youth who must experience the promise of freedom now, whilst they are extremely angered by the current socio-economic conditions, they blame the older generation for.

The end of Africa month and entry to the youth month in South Africa, with the economy on a Covid-19 reset, is a significant moment in history to  ask and challenge today’s youth (generation “millennials” and “Z”, known in South Africa simply as “born frees”) if they are having an honest conversation and commitment about the state of the economy and its future. I say this because it is only possible to see high inclusive economic growth in our life time (7-10% of GDP) if we are tapping fully into the energy of the “born-frees”.

According to StatsSA as of 2019, of the 58 million people in SA, the biggest group category is the youth ages 15-34 constituting 35.1% (20.6m people). Approximately 13% of the youth aged 20–34 are graduates (2.7m people); the rest who are majority, unfortunately, falls within one of three current status categories: uneducated, unemployed, and unemployable. The dominance of the youth in the population is normally regarded, in economic terms, as an advantage for a country and it is called a “demographic dividend”. The demographic dividend is the positive energy the youth brings to the economic fortunes of a nation in the medium to long-term period.  

Political parties have been found wanting in mobilizing the youth. When elections arrive the bombshell of youth voter apathy is dropped, we are told the youth is not interested in election politics. I beg to differ, and argue that the youth is interested in politics but they are not happy with the quality of the political discourse that plays itself in parliament and the struggle methods they see on the street practiced, which they read about as anti-apartheid struggle methods in history books. They need resonance and space to be empowered to express their views in a “language” and “style” they would understand that is appropriate for democracy. Unfortunately, the youth that came before them, my generation X, did not showcase modern struggle methods and nuances of a vision for a just, peaceful, and prosperous South African economy and society.

My youth generation “X” (born between 1965-1979) failed to effectively engage on the economic future post-94 since we got the tail-end of the political struggle against apartheid and completely relied on the older generation who led the struggle for liberation. Remember these were our role models. But we found later when some of them we discover they messed up in leadership of the country and institutions; and were themselves not prepared intellectually and experientially to struggle for economic justice in a post-apartheid South Africa as evidenced by lack of economic transformation we find today. Their age and energy were not able to give them a far sight of a transformed modern economy beyond political liberation. One young political leader commenting on the age of parliamentarians said, (paraphrasing) “they are too old even to see the National Development Plan vision 2030 to fruition”. 

The “Rhodes must fall” (a protest movement that began on 9 March 2015, originally directed against a statue of British Imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town) symbolism showed us fires, and caught political parties in parliament flat-footed, completely unprepared. The “Rhodes must fall” movement honestly was politically non-affiliated but pure students’ movement, equivalent to June ‘76 Soweto Uprising. “Rhodes must fall” was a mission that goes deeper than the fall of statues, but gets into the core of colonial and apartheid economy and education represented by the symbols of British Imperialism. This was basically a call for “a yet to be born post-apartheid economy and decolonized education”, as my late friend and mentor Professor Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzane (may his soul rest in peace) would normally quip.

After the Rhodes must Fall mutated into “fees must fall” and government committed to introducing free quality education, further youth conversations and commitment disappeared from the public eye, and government and political parties in parliament, it would seem, were comfortable with the silence. It is this comfort that we must not entertain if we are to turn the youth burden into a demographic dividend. 

The born-frees must be supported in adopting methods of struggle that are appropriate to a democratic society. As we are now politically free the methods to fight for economic justice and emancipation will be won through a completely different approach. I do hope political parties, government, civil society, and educational institutions will catch up and become enablers for youth conversations and commitment to the South African economy and society. These struggle methods, I’ve observed are common in other countries, and were adopted and fundamentally key to the “Asian Miracle” (the unprecedented technological advancement and economic growth of the East Asian countries), as an example. The Asian Miracle was fought through the Asian youth at the forefront, who fiercely competed in Ivy Leagues universities in the US and Europe, acquiring PhDs in predominantly SETs (Science, Engineering, Technology) with the sole aim of returning to their home countries leading the innovation and commercialization efforts in order to set their people free from centuries of poverty.

The methods adopted by the youth must be based on the belief in love for South Africa and fellow citizens across race and class lines, ideals intended by the founding mothers and fathers of our democracy, a vision for a united, equal, non-racial, peaceful and prosperous South Africa.

The methods that must be inculcated by the youth in all institutions they find themselves in include amongst others the following:

  • Creative Thinking and Innovativeness – belief and tapping into the abundance of yet to be explored knowledge and solutions for our society. The youth could help the older generation to solve what seems like insoluble socio-economic challenges facing South Africa.
  • Global and Local Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration across race and class lines – aspiration to learn and work with others and with the best in the world.
  • Campaign against brain drain – the youth must mobilize the highly skilled youth trained outside the country to return home and contribute to the building of the society. 
  • Agitation for Mentorship, Coaching, and Internship – they must demand opportunities for role models and experienced adults to mentor, coach, and provide experiential learning.
  • Evidenced-based Policy Lobbying – with the youth having access to advanced information technologies and social media, young people should help shape policies as they will be at the fore-front of implementing them and experiencing their outcomes and impact. 
  • Youth Political Economy Talk Platforms – the youth must be able to criticize and air their views freely and loudly about the state of economic affairs and their views of the future.
  • Inter-racial/class Social Cohesion events and activism – sport, creative arts and entertainment are key to youth development and building of unity. 
  • Proactive and Peaceful Protests – young people who are adept at the above methods will not be reactive when it comes to grievances, the reaction which often become violent, but will be proactive based on their view of the future they want.

With the intensity of the struggle for economic emancipation and unity of the “born-frees”, they are able to express their uniquely South African positions on key economic questions better than they were envisioned by proponents of capitalism and communism on the following amongst others:

  • The land (for minerals, farms, and dwellings etc.) question – how they envisage their participation in working the land. The politics of land relations and the participation of the majority must be articulated by the youth in a manner that addresses deficiencies older people are failing to address, beyond the political slogans and affiliations.  
  • The capital allocation questions – they should air their views on fair capital allocation (entrepreneurship, ownership, banking, savings, investments, etc.) and other financial matters confounding the older generation.
  • The labour or employer/employee relations questions – they should express a much better vision than that which was envisioned by capitalist relations.
  • The environment – the youth should decisively be at the forefront of protecting the environment as climate change will affect them most. 
  • Governance – the youth must demand and participate in governance and quality of leadership debate in all sectors of our society if they are to inherit sound institutions.

The product of the modern methods of struggle must be a dynamic 20-year roadmap for our diverse youth in South Africa. It is a possible mission that must be spearheaded by young people themselves. The roadmap must be anchored on economic justice and emancipation, entrepreneurship, technical skills, and values-based quality education. The youth must have a mindset of abundance of love for the country and fellow citizens, as well as intelligence to create coexistence in owning, managing and benefiting in the economy. They must seize the moment whilst visualizing a new future completely free from the bondages of racial and class hatred experienced by previous generations.

Dr Bheki Mfeka, is the Economic Advisor and Strategist at SE Advisory; and former Economic Advisor to the Presidency. | Twitter: @bhekimfeka | Website: www.seadvisory.co.za| Email: [email protected]

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