How to empower the young, spur development and create employment

What we need is a politics of progressive thinking, which South Africans have demonstrated a proclivity for in the past. The desire to go beyond one’s muscles and glands, the will to journey into the realm of reflection, always strikes one as a pinnacle in the history of this country, a profound metaphor that sustains an indelible position in youth consciousness.

As former president Thabo Mbeki put it, as youth, “they had to decide whether fear and the instinct for self-preservation would predominate in their minds and hearts, turning their own conscience into their everlasting and constant tormentors, because of what they had been afraid to do.”

Today, at the peak of our country’s regional power and in the midst of its relative wealth, most South African youth feel uncertain about their future. They are convinced that life will be harder for them than it was for their parents. Even politically active youth feel incapable of addressing, much less solving, many of the basic problems in the country. These problems range from inadequate healthcare and education, urban and rural poverty, to increasing inequality of wealth and income, to abstaining from public dialogue.

In short, we are faced with a jarring mixture of optimism and deep unease, a disenchanted youth, and the dawning of a new epoch of changing economic paradigms that are influencing conflict between subordinate and superordinate youth groups; between the haves and the have-nots, and between those who want for nothing and those who are in desperate need of life’s bare essentials.

Current trends in global markets have been influenced by various forces: cyclical unemployment, unequal division of labour (particularly in developing economies), and technology-led automation of many jobs. Global youth unemployment rates have risen rapidly and are currently sitting at 13.1% — which is more than three times higher than the unemployment rate of adults (4.3%). Skills mismatch between educational institutions and business needs, a lack of life skills education, the digital divide and limited access to capital, has exacerbated joblessness.

As a result, young people in developing countries will face higher unemployment rates, increased labour inactivity, and precarious work conditions. According to StatsSA, South Africa’s unemployed population sits at an estimated 32.5% of almost 60 million people.

This is not to give a depressingly negative representation of youth. It is a reality and a potential window of opportunity. The effect of these statistics is not to understate but to caution against the consequences of perpetuating a disengaged and disaffected young population. However, none of these outcomes are set in stone for any particular youth development programme. But we can’t deny a problem exists because some youth do well. There are many exceptions, but the statistical tendencies are pronounced, and tendencies produce a large and problematic youth culture.

A well-coordinated programme could help address structural and personal factors identified as causing disempowerment.

An inspirational example can be found in the work done by not-for-profit organisation, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in Johannesburg. In order to achieve youth empowerment, setting up programmes to ensure that learners are physically and mentally equipped to achieve their dreams is imperative. Alongside this initiative, additional programmes to tap into and develop this potential must be established. The areas identified where youth can make positive contributions are in:


  1. Creating an academic and lifestyle platform for development to identify youth leaders who do not seek majors but missions.
  2. Formal and informal youth development and leadership.
  3. Entrepreneurship education, experience and skills development.
  4. Appointing mentors and career coaches who will provide support and advice to their advisees. One primary responsibility of the advisor/coach is to oversee the course selection process for their advisee.
  5. Make it easier to start business: governments could formulate effective policy that encourages entrepreneurial activity through enterprise growth.
  6. Encourage a culture of entrepreneurship and treat failure constructively. Allow the proliferation of mentoring and incubation hubs.
  7. Make more venture capital available for business start-ups. Provide easier access to business loans and encourage the use of alternative funding options like crowdfunding.

A caveat: this is not a fool-proof plan. Social programmes for intervening with the youth have consistently produced meagre results in other parts of the world in general, and South Africa in particular. However, data suggests that entrepreneurship is a useful mechanism to curb unemployment. Furthermore, youth entrepreneurs tend to employ a greater number of younger people who are likely to start socially responsive initiatives.

The rationale behind this programme is to arrest the underdevelopment of youth through enhanced socialisation programmes, ones that provide on-the-job training, send young people without skills to centres for extended skills training and psychological preparation for the world of work. Programmes that facilitate alternative opportunities for school and university dropouts ought to also be considered.

These are simply a few ideas aimed at matching individuals to skills they will require later in life.

The wreckage of ruined young lives represents a denial of human rights as abhorrent as torture – and a devastating handicap for a country’s economic development. Whether smashed in a week or withered away in a generation, the arrested development of the youth must be seen in connection with ageism, with all its manifestations. Academics have devoted time and insight into trying to understand how youth organisations in repressive regimes and liberal democracies become depoliticised and re-contained by big business and corporate elite.

The task for the critical reader, in these uncertain times, is to provide the conditions for individuals to acquire opportunities that will enable them to reflect upon and shape their own experiences. The youth are keen to engage the public in the dynamic interplay between individual uniqueness and communal accountability.

The glue for this entire youth framework resides in leadership exhibiting compassion for complexity, to understand why the conditions of youth empowerment in communities have deteriorated so rapidly after the gains of 1994. In an attempt to uncover why conditions for developing youth empowerment is a concern, differentials in access to channels of privilege must be critically examined. We must remain active in the task of demonstrating how neoliberal policies and conservative discourses contribute (and reproduce) youth disempowerment. 

OPINION: Thebe Morake