The Development and Underdevelopment of Youth in South Africa

2015-09-02 18:09

According to a report by McKinsey & Company, South Africa’s potential in service exports could represent a major vehicle for delivering real economic transformation.

The paper, released by McKinsey Global Institute and McKinsey South Africa, is titled South Africa’s Big Five: Bold priorities for inclusive growth and outlines the growth potential of various sectors supported by interviews with government, business and academia.

The following sectors were highlighted where the country already possesses great potential but could be doing much better, namely, advancing manufacturing; infrastructure productivity; natural gas; service exports; and agricultural production. Furthermore, the report emphasises that these priority industries could contribute R1 trillion to the annual GDP and create 3.4 million jobs by 2030. However, in order for this to be achieved, business and government need to jointly promote and cultivate an intense expansion of skills development especially vocational training.

Should the big five of economic development as proposed by McKinsey Global Institute and McKinsey South Africa be realised, then the following medium term goals for youth must receive national priority. These are the provision of free, quality and relevant education, meaningful and accelerated skills development with a special focus on vocational skills, promoting youth entrepreneurship and cooperatives development, promoting the health and wellness of youth and finally the implementation of national youth service. These five priorities must be regarded as the big five of youth development to support and attain the big five of economic development.

Considering the ‘youth bulge’ that we are currently experiencing in South Africa, the country stands to benefit from a demographic dividend therefore both the implications and opportunities posed by the ‘youth bulge’ need to be explored.

Along with unemployment, youth underdevelopment refers to the underutilisation or inability to realise the full potential inherent in youth. Youth are not ‘adults in waiting’ but they are capable human beings with abilities that must be enhanced or fostered. If these capabilities are not cultivated and developed, over time youth underdevelopment may occur which could lead to a lack of personal development and negative consequences for society’s development.

The demographic dividend can only be achieved if young people are healthy, productive and contributing citizens. With South Africa’s high rate of youth unemployment, low levels of youth entrepreneurship, the poor quality of education, the inability of the economy to absorb young economically active citizens and the low life expectancy mainly attributable to the scourge of HIV/AIDS, this is not yet possible. However, the massive roll out of anti-retrovirals (ARVs) by government has increased life expectancy while the country’s fertility rate has also significantly decreased as compared to most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

So while South Africa might not be able to fully reap the benefits of a demographic dividend, too many of our youth are still being deprived of support systems for personal, economic and social development leading to their underdevelopment. Equally, while many young people continue to succeed, their full potential may not be accomplished owed to the impact of insufficient employment, education and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Some may argue that it is not the institutions, products, services or programmes that are lacking but rather their inability to address the structural causes of the challenges facing youth. Thus the current set of interventions may only lead to the temporary development of youth while the system continues to reproduce youth unemployment, youth poverty and youth underdevelopment.

South Africa’s labour force surveys have consistently shown that the country is faced with unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment as compared to countries of a similar economic size. According to the most recent data from Stats SA there are approximately 19.5 million youth in South Africa between the ages of 15 and 34. However, 10.2 million are not economically active and therefore not considered part of the labour force meaning they are not employed nor are they unemployed. There are 9.3 million youth who are considered economically active. Of these, 6.1 million are employed and 3.2 million are unemployed. The challenge therefore is how best to create 3.2 million sustainable jobs or opportunities for the country's unemployed youth.

The challenge of youth unemployment is an unconventional one that requires exceptional solutions. A silver bullet approach to youth unemployment in the form of a youth wage subsidy will not work. What is required is a multi-pronged approach spearheaded by a multi-sectoral effort. By narrowly incentivising the private sector to create more opportunities without ensuring that young people are educated, skilled, healthy and adequately prepared for the workplace can only lead to failure.

The social perspective of youth needs to change. Society can no longer view youth as problems or a drain on national resources. Youth must be viewed as societal assets and as equal partners in development. Society must begin to display more faith in youth as benefactors of development and not just as beneficiaries of advancement. In the medium term, this change in social perspective must be accompanied by a focus on the ‘Big Five’ non-negotiables of youth development.

We must embrace a multi-pronged approach to facilitating youth development and alleviating youth underdevelopment. Ultimately, this approach will achieve a more patriotic, healthy, skilled, educated, employed and empowered youth. Factors contributing to the underdevelopment of youth such as poor quality education, lack of information and access to entrepreneurial opportunities as well as the inequity of access to health support services must be addressed in the long term.

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