Opinionista Mmusi Maimane 1 November 2015

How can we create opportunities for every young South African?

Last week we witnessed an important victory for young South Africans over an out-of-touch government. This victory was not simply about the freeze on fee increases for the 2016 academic year. Without a firm commitment from government on extra university funding, a 0% fee increase was not a win. The real victory was in the way that education and youth opportunities have now been placed at the very top of our national agenda, where they belong.

Funding of education dominates our headlines, opinion pieces and conversations. While much of the discussion focuses solely on the issue of university funding, it is the wider conversation that really has been long overdue. What are we, as a nation, doing to open up opportunities for all young South Africans? What are our leaders doing to prioritise the opening up of opportunities for young South Africans?

Many of the students who shut down the campuses and marched to Parliament, Luthuli House, and the Union Buildings face a tough battle every day. It’s not just about finding the money for class fees, it is also about trying to afford text books, accommodation, and transport. For many students, it often comes down to a choice of either fees or food. These are, however, the lucky ones. They are the minority of young South Africans who made it to a university campus. For every one of them there are many more who will never see the inside of a lecture hall.

As my colleague Gavin Davis wrote here on the Daily Maverick last week: “If the student movement is a fuse, the powder keg may well be the silent majority of young, black South Africans who leave school with little prospects of finding a decent job.”

A study just released by an organisation called Youthonomics looks at the prospects of young people in 64 countries across six continents. This Youthonomics Global Index takes a wide range of indicators into account, including early education, university and skills, access to employment, work and living conditions, wellbeing and health, and then ranks these countries on how youth-friendly they are. South Africa is one of the countries on this list, and is ranked 63rd out of 64 countries. Ahead of us were countries like Ghana, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Mali. The only country below us was Cote d’Ivoire.

This is no exaggeration of our enormous challenge. Growing youth unemployment is the biggest crisis we face. More than a third of our country’s adult population are unemployed, and almost two-thirds of these people are under the age of 35. That’s a staggering number of young people excluded from the economy, and who are left to fend for themselves. When it comes to simmering frustration, #FeesMustFall is just scratching the surface.

The government is doing nothing to better this generation’s chances of economic inclusion. A lack of growth-enabling policies, a corrupt culture of enrichment, and an arrogant belief that they are guaranteed electoral victory, no matter what, has seen the African National Congress (ANC) turn its back on young South Africans.

We have around 12 million children in our basic education system, roughly a million children per age cohort. Just under half will, at the current rate, make it to the matric exams, just over a third will pass these exams, and only one seventh will qualify for university admission. These numbers are heavily stacked against the black child.

If we are to build on the momentum of the #FeesMustFall movement, then it is crucial that we expand this conversation to include the prospects of all young South Africans. We must acknowledge that, even with a well-funded and well-managed higher education system, many young South Africans will not study for a degree. We must also acknowledge that many of the jobs created by a growing economy will not require a university degree. We must familiarise first ourselves, and then equip our children with these “scarce skills”, and think of ways to guide them towards these careers. While funding and fixing our universities is of the utmost importance, we must also take a step back and see the whole picture.

Every single one of the roughly million children per age cohort must have options and opportunities to live a life she or he values. Of course, this begins with basic education. Unless we’re adequately teaching children in Grades 1 to 3 to learn to read, they will not be able to read to learn for the rest of their school years. They will be lost in our education system and will most likely form part of the silent majority of hopeless young South Africans. Fixing our basic education is crucial, but what happens after that?

I have thought about this for some time, and have come up with a simplified model of streaming children towards various education options and, ultimately, the jobs where their skills can best be put to use. Please keep in mind that I have used rough estimates and round numbers. This exercise is not meant to be an accurate audit of our education system, but rather a conversation-starter on finding opportunities for young South Africans.

Globally, participation in higher education has doubled over the past two decades, growing from 14% in 1992 to 32% in 2012. In South Africa, we are still some way off this mark (around 16%), although government’s national plan for higher education did set a target of 20% back in 2001. Let’s say we can achieve this university participation rate of 20%, that would account for roughly 200,000 people in an age cohort, leaving another 800,000 outside our universities. If we are to unlock the potential of these young South Africans, we must ensure that they, too, have options.

Let’s assume we can improve the number of children enrolling in Grade 1, and who later go on to pass matric to 45% – up from the current 36%. That would account for roughly 450,000 learners, the other 550,000 leaving school at some point before passing Grade 12. If just under half of these successful matriculants (200,000) will enter university, we must find space for the rest (250,000) at various TVET and other vocational training institutions.

For the 550,000 early school leavers, it is crucial that this does not become a life sentence. If, for example, we are to issue children with an Early Exit Certificate at the end of Grade 9, it has to be of use to them. It must empower them to enter a field of vocational training with sufficient skills, and cannot simply be a way of culling learners before they become part of the Education Department’s drop-out statistic in Grade 10. So, of these early school leavers, a portion – let’s say 150,000 – could progress to one of a number of vocational training colleges.

The rest of these learners – around 400,000 – could then either slot into a host of apprenticeship programmes offered by businesses in the private sector, or they could take up short term positions in a “youth-only” section of the government’s Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). The Youth Works Programme (YWP) would essentially also act as a form of apprenticeship, up-skilling youngsters fresh from school.

The remaining 100,000 in the school-leaving cohort would then have to enter the job market straight from school, without further education, training or apprenticeships. Suddenly this number doesn’t sound so daunting anymore.

As I said earlier, this is not meant to be a statistically-accurate breakdown of the youth segment. Nor do I for a moment believe that life works in neat little compartments like this. I do feel, nonetheless, that with a little planning and a lot of guidance, we can start to find a suitable path out of hopelessness and despair for every young South African.

This is not a silver bullet to end unemployment and inequality. It would however require radical improvements to our basic education system, and a turnaround in our economy to enable the creation of jobs. If we can put enough possibilities on the table to ensure that every single young South African has an option, we will have completed a massive part of the job. DM

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