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Education and Youth Employment: A Priority for all South Africans

Behind the staggering statistics on youth unemployment lies a "human tragedy of immense proportions," Director of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Ethics and Governance Think Tank, Gideon Pogrund told a recent Forum on education and youth employment.

"Besides the grim physical realities associated with unemployment and poverty, there is also a profound psychological dimension," he explained. A sense of independence is basic to a person's sense of self-respect and dignity.  "Not having a job is humiliating. Not having a decent prospect of getting a job is devastating, especially for young people.  It destroys hope and the sense that there is something important to live for and that there is the possibility of a better future."

Desperate unemployed young people are fertile ground for populist politicians who "feed off people's frustration and anger, making promises that may be enticing, but which are irresponsible and reckless, bound to cause long term damage and destruction," Pogrund said. In South Africa, unemployment threatens the conditions for success of the business community, and that of the country.

In the discussion about youth unemployment, the role of education is crucial, as the country's education system is "still failing many of our young people, as access to education is a precondition for access to opportunities" and had a huge bearing on how wealth is accumulated, how resources are distributed and how power is exercised.

Education and change  

Professor Piet Naude, director at the University of Stellenbosch Business School said: "The biggest crime against humanity in this country is our education system. If we need activism to hold the government, private sector and civil society to account for our long term benefit, it's not to change Section 25 (of the Constitution), it is to change this dysfunctional, crooked education system."

Sizwe Nxasana, founder of Future Nations Schools and former CEO of First Rand Group said long term thinking had to be applied to education: "It takes 13 years to educate a child. We cannot have the short termism of politics, all this chopping and changing has already lost us 25 years."

Nxasana called for new players who could show what 'Africanised' education is and what it could look like in the 21st century. He called the current education offering "very traditional and steeped in its ways."

How can we teach for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the African context? How can we make education modern and relevant for the context in which we operate? We are not just teaching for knowledge, but for a changing Africa."

While learning and teaching in the 21st century is something all countries are grappling with, schools must develop students' skills for communication, critical thinking and creativity. Early childhood development is a fundamental part of education, which is often overlooked and considered to be a function of social welfare. Nxasana said early childhood development was "really important in the preparation for knowledge, skills and character." 

Nicola Galombik, executive director of investment holding group Yellowwoods, which is involved in a number of early childhood development initiatives, said early learning was a very solvable problem for the country. While approximately 60% of young children in South Africa don't have access to any sort of pre-school education that makes sure they reach their cognitive milestones, "our single biggest asset in delivering early learning is not the education system, it is simply to enable women who are caregivers to be effective early learning practitioners." This training could take place in only three days she argued.

"This is an example of our paralysis. Our skills system, infrastructure and all the incentives around skilling in this country are obsessed with qualifications that serve no purpose. What we need is break-through solution thinking."

Employment initiatives and economic growth

Stephen Koseff, group CEO of Investec and Co-convener of the Youth Employment Scheme (YES) said the country needs young people with aptitude, and not qualifications to fill the skills gap. "We do have significant structural issues in our economy, of which education is one. However, it is very long term and we are not going to fix it overnight." 

The YES initiative hopes to create 500 000 jobs per year by providing pathways for young people into the world of work. Tashmia Ismail-Saville, CEO of YES, said the programme could absorb young people into projects that generate employment. The first Hub, which will bring opportunities to the doorstep of youth in neglected communities and drive the recruitment strategy of "local into local opportunities" had been launched in Tembisa earlier in July.

"We will supplement what we are doing inside corporates by creating a viable township economy," Koseff explained. "Corporates are just not creating enough jobs, that will only come if you have a much greater degree of economic growth."

Weim to give people with no hope a skill, and give them a sense of what it feels like to have a job," he added.

While the programme has been in the planning stages for approximately 18 months, Koseff explained they were still waiting for a notice to be published in the Government Gazette, which would formalise the incentives for companies involved in the project. "We have strong support from the President, but there is a lot of politics in the background which can get in the way of execution. YES has potential, but it needs to get going."

He said part of the challenges the country faces is the capacity of government: "South Africa has lots of ideas and dialogue, but we have an execution problem."

"Unless the public sector can be brought to the point of executing the mandate for which they were appointed, and for which they are quite well paid, we are not going to solve South Africa's unemployment," Naude concluded.

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