Protesting students not other people's problems - Nxesi

Cape Town – A new leadership is required in South Africa – one that is courageous and not indifferent to the struggles of young people, said Minister of Public Works Thulas Nxesi.

Nxesi was the last-minute keynote speaker on Monday night at a conference in Stellenbosch where youth unemployment was discussed. He was standing in for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa who was scheduled to address the audience from Gauteng through Skype.

READ: NUM backs Ramaphosa as next ANC president 

Nxesi told the audience that they should imagine that it was Ramaphosa standing in front of them delivering his speech. He apologised on behalf of Ramaphosa for not being there in person to deliver his speech at such a “vital conference”.

The bigger part of his address was devoted to the struggle of young people, including students who are protesting against tuition fees. 

“This generation of young South Africans want action; not vision statements or policies. And we need to act now to address their needs. We need to show them we’re worthy of their confidence,” Nxesi said.

He added that people in business and government shouldn’t treat young people in prison or those protesting against unaffordable education as “other people’s problems”. 

“See them as our own beloved sons and daughters. These are young people who are rebelling against social exclusion. They’re rebelling against inequality, marginalisation and unemployment.

"When they resort to extreme measures and destroy community assets we can’t be comfortable. We need to redouble our efforts, as our young people are impatient. They want opportunities today. They have an unshakable belief this is the moment to implement revolutionary ideas.” 

Nxesi lauded the fact that business, labour and government have come together in recent months to find solutions for the structural problems in South Africa. One such example of a collaborated effort was a plan to place one million young people in paid one-year internships over the next three years in a move to make a dent in the high unemployment rate among youth.

The programme, which was signed off by President Jacob Zuma in mid-September, has been developed by the CEO Initiative — a group of business bosses who have come together to accelerate growth and create a more investor-friendly environment amid depressed economic conditions. 

Youth unemployment is among the biggest crises in South Africa currently with almost 55% of people between the ages of 15 and 24 years — some 1.5m people — in the labour force out of jobs.

“If we create jobs, develop skills and prepare these candidates for the workplace,” Nxesi said, “if we succeed here we’ll change the course of development in Africa. But if we fail, we’ll condemn more than one generation to an existence of poverty.” 

Towards the end, Nxesi deviated from the prepared speech to share with the audience how young graduates managed to turn the financial state of affairs around at his Department of Public Works. 

READ: Auditor general lambastes health, education, public works

Two years ago, the department employed 120 young commerce graduates who worked as interns in his department. “The Department of Public Works was characterised by very poor audit results – we’ve received three disclaimers in our annual reports for three consecutive year. But we placed these young people in the finance and property sections of the Department and guess what? In two years’ time they turned public works around. We have received two years’ of unqualified audits.” 

Half of these young graduates, Nxesi said, are now full-time employed in the Department, while the other half has found permanent employment in the private sector. 

Nxesi, also SACP deputy national chairperson, has been critical of the ANC of late. During an SACP provincial congress earlier this month, he said if the ANC doesn’t address destructive developments it would cause irreparable damage to the organisation and the alliance as a whole. 

The public works minister was some months ago named as being targeted in Zuma’s alleged cabinet reshuffle.

Nxesi also received a letter of reprimand from Zuma for his involvement in the Nkandla security upgrade project, following a Constitutional Court ruling that Zuma needed to pay back a portion of the upgrade costs to his private homestead. 

Nxesi spoke out and said he shouldn’t be blamed for irregularities with the security upgrade project as it happened under the watch of his predecessors Geoff Doidge and Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde. 

Nxesi was appointed in 2012 after the tenders for the project had already gone out.

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