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South Africa urgently needs a national movement of competent young people equipped with management skills to get things done, and it’s unlikely that traditional education approaches can achieve this.

The time for young Africans to shine on the world stage has arrived. In a recent report, global consulting giant, McKinsey says that Africa’s young, growing, urban and tech-savvy populations are likely to become a key source of future talent in an ageing world. Young people are critical for economies, because you have “fluid intelligence”, which is shorthand for the ability to engage with new ideas, think creatively and solve problems, and are therefore a source of much-needed innovation and regeneration.  

This is something many of us have known for a long time. African talent and intelligence, especially among our young people, knows no bounds, and in a very real sense, we can’t do without them if we want to build strong and resilient economies. And yet we continue to do things that make it harder for young people in this country to thrive. As a result, inequality has endured, and in fact worsened over the last few decades. 

A key problem is a lack of access to quality education – and in particular higher education. Right now, we are losing out on more than half of our country’s human potential; just 4% of South Africans who start school go on to graduate from a university or a Technikon in this country – compared to about 50% in a more developed context.  

We’d have to be incredibly short-sighted or wilfully ignorant to ignore the massive opportunity that this white space of talent is indicating. We urgently need to develop alternative – and practical routes – to allow more young South Africans to access quality education. Traditional universities are great at training elites, but what we really need right now is a national movement of skilled and confident managers that can get things done. People who are not afraid to trial new ideas, even if they are not perfect, who know how to work with money and motivate others and to take others with them as they rise. 

You will have heard a lot about the shifting skills that are needed to survive in the workplace of the future, defined by its turbulence and uncertainty. But one of the requirements that is likely to endure will be the need for skilled managers who can bring it all together.  

A good manager is the secret sauce that makes everything else happen. We love to celebrate leaders, but it is the sheer discipline and capability of trained and seasoned managers that will grow businesses and economies. 

This is not to say managers can’t be leaders — separating the two is a false and dangerous dichotomy. All the best leaders in the world are also excellent managers; that’s a fact. Imagine if we had thousands of leaders who struggle to manage. Then imagine what would happen if we had thousands of good managers for whom leading is part of their skills. Who would you bet on to build business, to build South Africa, to build a continent? 

At Henley Africa, we are building a national movement of brilliant managers, who have what it takes to get things done and make things happen. An obvious place to start is with the many hundreds of South Africans that have had to bypass further education and go straight to work because they need to make ends meet, or they don’t qualify for tertiary education. Our unique Ladder of Learning offers them an alternative route to the top of their game; a set of fully-fledged modular qualifications from NQF Level 5 (equivalent of a first year of university) to NQF Level 9 (which is master’s level), allows working students to get the same qualifications as they would at university, but studying part time at their own pace, while they work – and earn. 

Just the other day, the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) admitted that almost 2,000 senior managers in government at both national and provincial levels are considered to have no qualifications for the positions they occupy.  

That’s not on them alone, that’s on us, the tertiary education sector and the education system in this country that is keeping people trapped in poverty and mediocrity.  

The highest adrenalin shot we can give our economy right now would be to transform these working populations, by giving them the management practice skills they need to grow in themselves and their careers; and to allow them to acquire these skills while they work and earn.  

A significant advantage of this approach is that it also means students can apply what they are learning as they go along – which helps to embed and make real the theory. It is in this process of learning and applying, failing and trying again, that people can start to build their resilience and wisdom. This is where the rubber hits the road so to speak. Rather than just generally encouraging people with motivational hype or by giving them the high level theory, we need to give them the ability to actually deal with the challenges they will encounter ahead. 

Confidence is vital in business, but it can only be attained through actually successfully overcoming challenges, and becoming honestly familiar with your strengths and weaknesses. 

For too long people have confused poverty with a lack of intelligence. I call it povertism. It’s a psychic crime, and it’s costing all our futures. But we may have reached a tipping point as the world comes to understand and appreciate that young African talent is the future. 

This National Youth Day and Youth Month has been themed: “Accelerating youth economic emancipation for a sustainable future”.  I’d rather call it: “Igniting the flame of economic liberation in the youth, sculpting a future that defies limits” However you say it, those of us in tertiary education – business schools in particular – need to move fast with an activist spirit to give young people the access they need. 

There are many things we can do, from radically overhauling South Africa’s extensive TVET (technical and vocational education and training) network, introducing short non-degree learning courses at universities and business schools, partnering with international learning institutions and, critically, making it all available online so that people can learn while they earn without any of the customary South African barriers to higher education. 

If we want to realise McKinsey’s vision – no, our vision, our mandate – of developing skilled and talented youth who are the envy of the world, we need a revolution in education. We have to give people hope and harness them in a movement to make our world future-proof. I refuse, and so many of my colleagues refuse too, to allow our young people to be left even further behind and less able to cope as the world becomes increasingly inhospitable and inimical. We will do better. DM

Author:  Jon Foster-Pedley,  Dean and Director of Henley Business School Africa and International Business School which has campuses in Johannesburg and Cape Town and has been working in Africa for more than 30 years. He is also the Chairperson of the Association for African Business Schools. 



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