South Africa


Ability of youth to adapt to and adopt new tech is key to addressing unemployment

Ability of youth to adapt to and adopt new tech is key to addressing unemployment
Youth Day now serves as a reminder that young South Africans were at the forefront of our struggle for democracy and freedom, says the writer. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

Because of their ability to adapt and flourish in an ever-changing environment, young people today have a key advantage in addressing the problem of youth unemployment and turning it into an opportunity for youth entrepreneurship.

Historically, young people have shown that they play a critical role as drivers and implementers of development and change in society. As we celebrate Youth Month in commemoration of the events of June 1976 – popularly remembered as the Soweto Uprising – we are again reminded of how black learners rose up against the apartheid education system (or “Bantu education” as it was called). They helped to change South Africa’s history and reshape our country.

Bantu education was an inferior education system meant to deny black people access to the kind of education that enabled one to achieve one’s full potential as a human being. This system sought to undermine black learners, using education as a weapon of subjugation to keep them from achieving success for themselves and their families. It was the knee that suffocated their ability to breathe freely intellectually.

The atrocities which unfolded on 16 June 1976 turned the world’s eye to apartheid South Africa’s lack of humanity as police opened fire on schoolchildren. Youth Day now serves as a reminder that young South Africans were at the forefront of our struggle for democracy and freedom.

As we commemorate this day, all of us, and especially the youth, should use this memory to reignite the drive for an equal and just society. While progress has been made in terms of access to education, we still live with the legacy of the inequalities created by Bantu education, and it will take a concerted effort over the next few decades to undo its damage. Failures in resourcing and managing schools in the post-apartheid period have compounded and sustained apartheid’s unequal education legacy. It is not acceptable 26 years into democracy, and change has to happen sooner rather than later.

We are encouraged that so many of our students from these kinds of schools manage to excel against the odds and choose to study at the University of Pretoria for its quality academic programmes. They go on to become success stories for themselves, their families and communities.

To ensure that all learners have the opportunity to access higher education and that no learners are left behind, we all need to drive the necessary changes to develop the full potential of our young people in this complex and rapidly changing world. 

Youth Day provides us with an opportunity to address the 21st-century issues facing young people today. Education without digital skills or digital access is today the new Bantu education – a lack of access to digital skills now puts young people at risk of falling behind their peers. This deepens the divide between students who have access and those who don’t.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide as well as other structural inequalities within our education and economic systems. The creation of a new society that addresses these inequalities and can withstand pandemics will require massive investment to give our youth a future-proof education.

Faced with the challenges created by the pandemic, the University of Pretoria decided not to resume the academic term online during lockdown until we had addressed the digital inequality and lack of access among our own students. We devised a scheme to loan laptops to students who had no means to acquire them. Although there were some initial glitches, we mostly managed to roll out our deliveries on time.

Thanks to their ability to adapt, this generation of students is rising to the challenges of online learning. Because of this ability to adapt and flourish in an ever-changing environment, they have managed to transition to the new ways of studying, something that will from now on be an integral part of tertiary education worldwide.

To further help our students, we worked with mobile network operators to have our UP Connect online-learning platform made free of data costs. Under Level 3 of the national Covid-19 lockdown, we’re also making provisions for some students who cannot access online learning at all to be given permission to return to campus. This is because in some rural areas there is no mobile network coverage, making it impossible for these students to learn online.

Our young people have not shied away from the challenges posed by the Covid-19 virus. Our medical students are supporting healthcare workers in hospitals and taking care of patients. They are also playing a key role in assisting researchers in their search for a vaccine. 

Other students are developing and studying mathematical models to determine Covid-19 infection peaks and outbreak trends. We have young people creating and manufacturing protective gear as well as developing and leveraging innovative technology to assist with the tracking, tracing and treating of infected patients. All this while others continue with their volunteer work, supporting disadvantaged communities, where the pandemic has severely impacted people’s lives.

As we reflect on Youth Day and its significance, it is time that we took the potential of youth seriously. As institutions of higher learning, we need to continue to provide high-quality education and equip our students with the scarce skills our country needs. We must constantly reexamine our curricula to ensure our students receive relevant training to prepare them for an ever-changing work environment. The pandemic has also shown us the power of the internet, and how much we can do online and remotely.

Young people’s ability to easily adapt to new technologies is a key advantage to addressing the problem of youth unemployment and turning it into an opportunity for youth entrepreneurship. The potential of online businesses, for example, has become a crucial discussion that policymakers need to take seriously, especially in a country like South Africa, which has severe economic inequality.

I encourage all the youth in South Africa to use this day to remember their power. The youth of 1976 helped to shape South Africa’s history, and the youth of 2020 should reflect on how they can use their own voices and power to reshape South Africa and make a positive impact on our collective future through their sense of equality, equity, justice, innovation and creativity. DM

Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, and professor of media studies and literature.


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