SA youth at a crossroads: What can we do about it?

South African youth here have never faced as enormous challenges as they do today.

The South African youth are on the precipice of going backwards or forward, depending on the decision-making of many – some of whom are not necessarily youth, nor necessarily have a real long-term investment in the makings of a better future.

The grim future

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It could be glorious, though… maybe…

But only if:

  •     technology, talent and teamwork are harnessed appropriately;
  •     environmentally conscious behaviour, choices and practices are entrenched, and rigorously adhered to; and
  •     if we pivot our skills development initiatives to focus on horizon education, not rote instruction in the old style.

This approach may require some effort, some resources, and critical collaboration with the youth by those policy and decision makers.

But really, what it requires is that we try a bit harder to do better using what is already available to us.

Figures released last week by the Ekurhuleni Municipal Department of Education paint a picture of the situation of some South African youth. In this one area of Gauteng, approximately 1000 schoolgirls fell pregnant in one year.

At one institution, reportedly half of the school is living with HIV. What hope do these young girls and their children have unless we move to drastically fix the problems of the youth?

Where do the problems lie?

The issue lies in education and skills development, the usual suspects, but is made much more complex by the fact that the skills required for the future of work do not even feature on the curriculums or horizons of most training institutions. Nor are they even accessible to your average young South African.

Technology is changing everything. Since the established educational institutions are broken, how can we use technology to sidestep what is not working and prepare for a much more intricate future?

Technology may not be a perfect silver bullet, but in the absence of a functioning system, it is a critical tool we can give the youth to empower themselves, keep connected and connecting, and to be prepared for the future of work.

If we continue to ignore or decelerate the access to and widespread use of technology among the youth, we do so at our peril. So the one side is to harness technology.

The other side is meaningful – and relevant – education.

Having spent a considerable amount of time thinking of youth issues, and working to support a young creative class, playing, studying, making, breaking, co-creating, partying and partnering, I have been privy to the many-layered conversations among us ‘youth’, privileged and unprivileged.

I’ve borne witness to and in some cases participated in the resistance to the status quo. We are fighting not only for relevance but for consequential policy and its application to a cohort that is no longer willing to settle or wait: not in the context of freedom and not at the demise of ourselves.

The youth are hungry for an impactful education and opportunity, and it’s not that much to ask for.

The youth are also willing to burn, figuratively and actually, institutions built to self-serve rather than co-create. Whether this is the right approach is moot – the point is, the institutional context needs to change.

What can be done?

I offer two options here, conscious that there are many more.

First, young South Africa, in the absence of opportunities for skills development and training, we need to create knowledge pools.

We need to become more adept at sharing what we know, learning quickly from each other, avoiding past mistakes and elevating each other at every chance.

We have the tech if we share it. Access is as much about people as it is about connection. Digital helps us, but we still need to make meaningful connections in reality. That means taking what you know and pushing it around, like a football.

Where you have knowledge and networks, let them be ours. Talk to each other, get uncomfortable. Cross class and geographic boundaries. Be open to learning from each other. Share the tech and create open access. Push data around. Offer after-school classes.

In the higher education context, ask your classmates when they had their last meal, if they need to borrow a laptop, if they need to sleep over a couple of nights a week, if they have ever been to a township, or ridden a taxi, or understand more than three South African cultures.

Then be active about areas of shared interest.

Engage in social and economic issues and needs, and work together to try to innovate around these. Have difficult conversations about race and class and our place in these debates and new ways of mitigating challenges within them.

Second, I implore retired South Africa to play their part.

Travelling up and down the Eastern Cape coastline to visit my ageing uncles and aunts, I have realised the wasted potential of the thousands of retired people who see out their days of earned leisure time in seaside towns.

This cohort is former IT gurus, farmers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, CEOs, nurses, doctors, musicians, artists, teachers – the professional gamut – with years of experience no training can unlock.

Why are these skilled people sitting idle, when they are in proximity to some of the neediest communities?

Imagine the outcome if each retired accountant from George to Jeffrey’s Bay offered extra accounting, business and entrepreneurship lessons in local schools once or twice a week?

I have a sense retired South Africa owes us a small debt too, for the relatively peaceful transition to democracy and for some seriously prosperous years along the way.

We need you.

Go into local communities that don’t have teachers in schools. Collaborate with those that are there. Form NGOs. Organize trips to the beach, to art galleries, to concerts that will change young people’s lives and perspectives.

Take initiative – and don’t go yet, before passing on your skills and helping us build a country on a foundation that is stronger than before.

We, having lived through many histories, know what an under-education alongside an under-estimation of the youth brings… and it’s neither pretty nor peaceful.

But it could be.

The squeeze is on. Decisions now roll through for decades, and with them, increasing pressure to be right, now.

We cannot afford to fail our youth for one more day, one more minute.

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