The lack of opportunities for education, excessively high levels of youth unemployment and dissatisfaction with persistent levels of inequality are all placing the country's youth under an enormous burden, a panel of youth leaders told a recent Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) forum. Shaeera Kalla, student leader, activist and former president of the Wits SRC identified education, and its ability to transform lives, as a central issue for the youth today: "Education is about being able to choose your place in society and is the key to overcoming structural inequality and economic exclusion," she said.
Much of the volatility seen on South African campuses and at institutions of higher learning during the Fees Must Fall protests in 2015 was aggravated by the youth's perception that their voice and opinions were not being taken into account. With approximately 21 million citizens between the ages of 14 and 35, South Africa's youthful demographic feels marginalised and forgotten. Kalla explained that the legitimate demands put forward during last year's protests have not been resolved and won't disappear: "The system has to change so that your success is not simply determined by where you were born, or the financial situation that you were born into."
Thami Pooe, member of the Wits SRC, told the forum that South Africa's youth is beginning to find its own independent voice. He said many South Africans are still economically excluded, and the widening inequality gap, exacerbated by a lack of access to education, means this inequality has manifested with only a few able to access the mainstream economy. "Collective action is needed to deconstruct our many societal ills," he said.
Kalla admitted that young people are regarded by many as violent and angry. She said South Africans had "mastered the art of deluding ourselves. People are angry because the situation they are living in is unjust. We are trying to make sense of a system that predates us and exploits us. The global crisis we are in is caused by the structural inequalities within the system." She said South Africans had to "speak out about where we are going."
Neliswa Fente, Mandela Washington Fellow and co-founder of youth consultancy SpringAGE told the forum that she believed democracy was fundamentally about respect and a tolerance for others' beliefs. "If you go in angry, you can't interact," she said.
"Democracy is being able to participate with all different types of people. The youth must use that opportunity to create something for themselves. If you are not respectful and tolerant, then we can't attempt to understand and solve our country's bigger problems," she explained.
"The failure to seek to understand one another is our greatest challenge in South Africa today," Ndumiso Hadebe, winner of South Africa's youth leadership debate show 'ONE DAY LEADER' and an entrepreneur, explained. While historically South Africans had been deliberately divided and kept unequal, he said: "Now we have the opportunity to create the country of our dreams. But this means having the difficult conversations around persistent inequality."
Kalla agreed that discussions are necessary to foster understanding, but that truly moving beyond rhetoric meant putting our energies behind things that change the fundamental structural inequalities of society and not only in activities which "look good on social media." "Money is not a scarce resource, co-ordination and political will are," she concluded.
Hadebe said a sense of ownership of South Africa's problems would allow for innovative solutions: "We must be solution-oriented. Education is still the greatest equaliser and tool to change the world, but it must respond to our challenges and must be practical."
Steven Zwane, founder and chairperson of the non-profit organisation Youth Leadership and Entrepreneurship Development said he believed practical solutions are required to make young people "entrepreneurially aware." Business leaders could play a fundamental role in achieving this by opening up windows of possibility for young people and allowing them to excel.
"We continue to promote the affluence of our lives. There is the opportunity for reflection from every executive and a multitude of opportunities exist to be door openers and enablers."