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RISE UP: A call for the youth to innovate and be extraordinary


Mandla Makhanya is the Principal and Vice Chancellor of Unisa

The youth of today face a plethora of issues including poverty, rising unemployment and many other social ills that plague this generation. The Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating these challenges – but has also sparked youth creativity.

Since 1994, we have etched in our memories that the month of June is for acknowledging and commemorating the pivotal role played by young people, especially students, in bringing about change in our country; including changing the face of education. We have paid tribute to the class of 1976 who rejected apartheid in all its forms and fought for freedom and democracy in South Africa – many lost their lives to the cause. This year is no different.

A black swan event like the Covid-19 outbreak has virtually brought the world to its knees, catching all of us – our youth included – in a spiderweb of socioeconomic tribulations. The youth of today face a plethora of issues such as poverty, rising youth unemployment and many other social ills that plague this generation. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges.

To give context, prior to the onset of Covid-19, according to Statistics SA, approximately 40% of South Africa’s 20.4 million young people aged 15 to 34 were neither in employment, education, nor training of any sort. Globally, youth were already seen as three times more likely to be unemployed compared to adults, while 126 million young workers were in moderate or extreme poverty worldwide, according to the International Labour Organisation. 

When the Covid-19 outbreak began to spread rapidly, it took an already vulnerable youth and placed them at further risk of being left behind both economically and in terms of education. At the same time though, we are seeing young people across the globe using the pandemic as an opportunity to showcase their creativity and ingenuity in dealing with the crisis. The youth are on the frontlines as health workers – advancing health and safety in their roles as researchers, activists, innovators, and communicators. Closer to home, the utilisation of approximately 7,000 young people as a youth brigade to enforce Covid-19 rules at Gauteng schools is a perfect example.  

Young innovators are responding to the pandemic through extraordinary projects that can have far-reaching social impact. There are several youth-driven initiatives and hubs that are developing groundbreaking technological solutions to address Covid-19. For example, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation worked with the Cape Bio team to develop a testing kit to help with combating the spread of the coronavirus. The qPCR testing kits are able to provide results in 65 minutes. The developers believe rapid testing allows not only the identification of infected individuals, but also provides an idea on how the virus is developing in the country. The kits help pathologists isolate and identify the virus’s DNA from an infected person. This makes it possible to detect the virus accurately in a laboratory.

Nelson Kwaje from South Sudan is combating fake news during this time using a digital community of youth working in various fields. Through his work, Kwaje has exposed false information and disputed unfounded claims of cures. South Africa’s Ndlovu Youth Choir, best known for raising the South African flag at “America’s Got Talent”, are using entertainment to raise awareness about Covid-19. The choir filmed a musical rendition of the World Health Organisation’s coronavirus safety advice. There are many others using their creativity to be of service to the world, but let’s leave it here as the above was just for the purpose of illustration.

With the growing use of technology and access to technology, young people must continuously be encouraged to get involved in the fight to curb this pandemic. Innovative ideas and disruptive thinking is what our current situation requires, and our youth is key to unlocking it.

In the context of teaching and learning at Unisa, it is my responsibility as Principal and Vice Chancellor, together with the rest of the university’s staff, to ensure that no student is left behind. As the largest Open Distance e-Learning (ODeL) institution in Africa, with a student population of approximately 380,000, we have had to reiterate to students that Unisa is well-prepared for the “new normal” of remote communication and learning that we find ourselves in. We are experts in the field of open distance and e-learning, and the institution is playing a pivotal role in this space by sharing expertise and experiences with contact institutions who are new to this way of teaching.

Our main focus has been boosting our methods of online student assessments, providing sufficient online student support, counselling, and real-time solutions for the student body.

We are aware of the digital divide that exists in South Africa and to address this, we support the efforts of our government providing laptops via NSFAS to all students who fall into this category. We have also gone out of our way as a university to provide data to our students in order to prepare themselves properly and write their May/June exams. 

Unisa, like other higher learning institutions, has been challenged to be innovative in our approach to Covid-19 and to be responsive to the needs of our students.

This evolving environment requires a new level of consciousness. Where some see challenges, we see opportunities for the youth to focus on – and not only towards rebuilding the country, but rebuilding themselves in order to prepare for the future.

To echo the words of Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa: “The youth of 2020 have been called upon to fight a much more silent war, that is, the Covid-19 pandemic, and help to rebuild a society post Covid-19. While Covid-19 is a potentially life-threatening disease, it has some positive spin offs as many young people are creating Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) solutions that transcend beyond the end of the pandemic.

I call on all students to not fall into despair during this time, but instead to rise up, innovate, and find a novel way to contribute to our country and to the world. Do not settle for ordinary when you were born to be extraordinary. DM

Mandla Makhanya is the Principal and Vice Chancellor of Unisa.



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