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#YouthDay: A reminder of the past, a message for the future

by  Marius Meyer

Today is Youth Day. On 16 June 1976, young people in Soweto started protests against changes to the education system and the perpetuation of inferior Bantu education, including imposing Afrikaans as a language in schools. The aggressive reaction from the government created chaos and led to the loss of many lives in the years to come until apartheid was finally defeated in 1994.  However, the legacy of apartheid lives on with inequality in education, communities and workplaces as a reality of South African life 24 years since we became a democracy.  But as Barney Pityana challenges us in City Press last Sunday, he poses the question where are the youth leaders today.  He goes on to suggest that we are failing our youth on so many fronts.

While we are reminded today of the dark days of apartheid, it is also important to craft a message of hope, inspiration and action for the future. If we respond to Pityana’s call, we should ask ourselves honestly whether we are doing enough for the youth.  Five critical questions come to mind:

  1. Can we honestly say that we are doing our best for the youth?
  2. Are we providing the youth with a quality education and skills?
  3. Are we doing enough to empower the youth with a national youth development programme?
  4. Have we done everything possible to reduce youth unemployment?
  5. Are we creating sufficient opportunities for the country’s youth to reach their potential?

Sadly, I can not answer yes on any of the above questions. Barney Pityana is indeed right. Yes, we can probably show some programmes and efforts and agencies and work (talk) shops.  We have to do more to empower the youth. But perhaps there is some hope that we can turn things around.

The launch of the Youth employment Service (YES) by President Cyril Ramaphosa last month is the beginning of a formal strategy by government, working with business and other stakeholders to offer a million internships to the youth.  While the impact of this programme remains to be seen, it is clear that government has now decided to convert talk shops into action.  However, it is essential for this initiative to be effective and sustainable so that meaningful full-time jobs can be created, Ultimately, good initiatives such as this one require effective implementation, let alone the need of a much better economic growth to ensure its growth and sustainability. Jobs for the youth cannot be created in a vacuum, it must be integrated into sustainable human capital development strategies and economic activity. In fact, despite the empty promises by the politicians, the truth is that it is impossible to create jobs. We must create work first.

The Arab Spring has already toppled governments, but if we don’t accelerate effective youth development, we should not be surprised if an African Spring emerges closer to home.  However, we should not do good work to avoid chaos, but we must do good work to invest in our youth as such an important segment of our population. It should also not be necessary for me to remind ourselves that the youth is our future. But they are also our present, especially in view of the current skills gaps in so many sectors. Whatever youth programmes we decide on, the youth must run it themselves. We need youth leaders. The time of talking about the youth without involving them is over. The time for old people to decide for young people is over. Now is the time for youth leaders to arise and to shine as they take their rightful positions in charting their own future. We must adapt to them, they should not adapt to us.

And unlike previous years, our attention on the youth must not stop today on 16 June. Let us not think about the youth only today, let us act with and for the youth. Let us not fill stadiums today with empty promises and speeches about the youth, and then let the unemployed youth lose on the streets tomorrow. We owe it to the victims of 1976 and the lost generation(s) thereafter. We owe it to the next generation of youth who deserve the best we can offer them. If we fail in the quest for real and meaningful youth empowerment, then Pityana was right, we are failing our youth.  My call on HR and business leaders: If we fail, the youth will fail. Let us rise to the occasion and create youth leaders who can take themselves, the country and the next generation forward.


Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP)

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Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the professional body for HR practitioners and Education and Training Quality Assurance Body for HR in South Africa.


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