Panyaza Lesufi | What the youth of today can learn from the 1976 generation

Panyaza Lesufi.
Panyaza Lesufi.
Gallo Images

Like the youth of 1976, today’s young people are full of energy, ambition and willingness to develop their skills and stand on their own two feet, to thrive and lead fulfilling lives, writes Panyaza Lesufi.

Halfway through the 2020 Youth Month themed “Youth Power: Growing South Africa together in the period of Covid-19,” it is relevant to ask what the anniversary means for the youth of today.

As we commemorate June 16 and celebrate Youth Month, how far has the youth heeded President Nelson Mandela’s call when he said: "I have a wish to make. Be the scriptwriters of your destiny and feature yourselves as stars that showed the way towards a brighter future."

Historically, June 16 and Youth Month are immortalised as the day and month when high school pupils in Soweto were massacred by the apartheid police during a peaceful march which sparked years of resistance to topple white minority rule.

As the whole month of June has been dedicated to celebrating and commemorating youth power, it is often opportune to reflect the achievements, address the difficulties facing young people today and come up with solutions.

Taking ownership of challenges

So, to go back to President Mandela’s wish, are today’s youth scriptwriters of their destinies and featuring themselves as stars that show the way towards a brighter future.

My answer is Yes and No simply because the youth of today are not battling against the same challenges and opportunities that the 1976 generation fought for.

The youth of today strongly believe they must develop their skills and stand on their own two feet without help from others. The challenge is to take ownership of the Rainbow Nation’s socio-economic and political challenges including equal education and personal and socio-economic development.

Granted because of what started in 1976, during the past 26 years of democracy, access to education has been broadened to all races. One would have thought that the end of apartheid education should have provided equal educational opportunities for all to pursue their dream careers and live better lives.

But alas, despite the government’s bold efforts, inequalities and access to educational resources continue to be the biggest challenges ever.

For many young people, continuing education is the only route which can often still fail to prepare young people for the world of work.

Like their 1976 counterparts, the young lions and lionesses of today want to make a go of their lives and be successful. They want to earn their place in society and know a job is the key to a future they can look forward to.

Unfortunately, in South Africa today, 48% of the youth between the ages of 15 and 34 are unemployed, amid the challenges of racialised poverty, deepening inequality and an escalating unemployment rate. Accompanying this ugly reality is an economy that is shedding jobs.

After high school and tertiary education, finding a good job these days can be an uphill struggle, especially for young people. Youth are particularly exposed to higher unemployment, poor job conditions and a mismatch between their skills and labour-market needs. In addition, the gap between the aspirations of young people and adequate employment opportunities is widening.

Unemployment and skills roadblock

Not only is youth unemployment a roadblock for current and future economic growth, it also prevents our society from harnessing their future knowledge and skills.

Other challenges for our young men and women include power dynamics; social-networking constraints; discrimination based on age, gender or race; lack of access to assets and capital; low levels of education, skill and experience; and unfavourable administrative and regulatory frameworks.

We know that in the current economic climate, young people are among the most vulnerable to long-term unemployment, something that scars people for life, be it in their careers, or even their health and wellbeing.

With little or no track record of employment, this group is at high risk of being out of work and faces greater challenges to entering the labour market. The longer they are jobless, the greater the risk of dislocation becomes.  

SOWETO, SOUTH SUDAN - JUNE 16: The 38th Youth Day
The 38th Youth Day marking 1976 Soweto uprising, is commemorated in Soweto 16 June 2014.

Therefore, creating a more favourable policy and business environment, setting up of efficient and resourceful trade and investment support institutions, and providing adequate skills and resources to work directly with young people are essential to their success.

Scriptwriter if their destinies

So how can today’s young generation be scriptwriters of their destinies and feature themselves as stars that show the way towards a brighter future.

It all should start with high-quality early childhood education which has proven to be an effective tool for fighting intergenerational poverty.

Decades of research have shown that a high quality early childhood education leads to future success in school and in life, both academically and socially, the best investment a community can make in its economic growth, civic vitality and health.

However, early childhood education needs the long-range vision and participation of today’s youth.

Also, our young leaders need to participate in business education at universities, something which is becoming increasingly important in developing the managers of the future.

Fighting for change

After embracing opportunities for education, our young men and women should emulate the 1976 generation, demonstrate courage and bravery to fight for political change.

Today’s youth should continue to fight for change to lift them up from poverty. They should come up with ideas for an economy that is modern, one that will further create opportunities that will uplift our people, access to better health care, more food on the table, clean water in every household.

They should help eliminate corruption, smoke out dishonest officials who are living beyond their means. This fight is very important because corruption affects every single South African, none more so than the people who can least afford it.

Youth and skills training

It is a pity that teens and young adults are often the last to be considered for jobs, a plight that is likely to extend over a long term due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For many youths, though, such idling will likely get worse, not better, without some basic skills and responsibilities learned at entry-level jobs.  The truth is stagnant young adults are prone to become less-productive older adults without better, valuable grounding earlier in life.

Some companies are reluctant to hire young people with limited education or skills.  It is especially true for learners from low-income families, even for those who do go to universities and drop out.

Teens and young adults should work hard to motivate public and private employers to develop talent and skill pipelines to find spots for the next generation of workers, our future.

Young people should join programmes which provide a valuable new start to demonstrate that choosing a youth or young adult with limited education or lack of job history to fill a position can be valuable for both the applicant and employer - in the short and long run.

First jobs can be priceless in teaching the value of money and earning it, as well as life skills such as time management, self-esteem and teamwork.

Indeed, young people are often very bright, intelligent and articulate but it is opportunities they lack. And without a grounding in what employers require, they struggle.

Digital natives

Indeed, young people often have a wide range of skills and competencies that can prove immensely rewarding to employers. They often have an excellent awareness of technology, are eager to learn and embrace further training and are also keen to progress. With the right support, we can address skills deficiencies and give employers the confidence to give young people a chance.

Our young people should continue being digital natives and be enthusiastic to pursue opportunities in the digital economy, whether to develop their start-up or become self-employed.

Like the youth of 1976, today’s young people are full of energy, ambition and willingness to develop their skills and stand on their own two feet, to thrive and lead fulfilling lives.

- Panyaza Lesufi is Gauteng MEC of Education

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