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Opinionista

Don’t go for quick fix on youth unemployment — we should set long-term, collective drives

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Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, and founder and chair of MBAid, which uses the energies of MBA and executive education in business schools to help SMEs and NGOs.

The rush to be seen to be imposing quick solutions is a disservice to the future of our youth – what is needed is a return to a collectivist ethos where we understand that we all stand together or we fail. In almost every case, we are not poor because we are less able — we are poor because we have less opportunity. Every young person deserves an equal chance.

The future of the youth is something that should concern all of us. It is a theme that is particularly relevant in South Africa at this time as we come to the end of Youth Month, and following the annual commemoration of the incredibly brave revolt of June 16 which was started, led and sustained by the youth against a barbaric and oppressive regime that had successfully cowed their parents.

The problem is that in reflecting on it, we invariably find ourselves awash in platitudes and sound bites — none of which help. Even the best-intentioned ideas are focussed on the now, with few looking beyond. We cannot help ourselves. We are compelled to be seen to take action in the now, because being decisive is seen as an indicator of strong leadership. But sometimes the right action is counterintuitive: not rushing to make the wrong decision, despite the endorphin rush of crossing a problem off your to-do list. We need to be able to make good decisions, but to do that we have to step away from the dopamine fix that comes with grabbing headlines, likes and other affirmations.

We need to start by being honest about what it is that we are modelling and ensure that this correlates with the outcome we actually want. When it comes to addressing the issues facing the youth, this process has to start with the realisation that it us, the older generation, that caused the problems that the youth currently find themselves in.  We can’t address this by looking for short-term wins, especially in a country like South Africa with its impossibly high Gini coefficient of inequality.

We cannot address it either by ensuring that just our own children will be okay; we have to work towards a scenario in which every child is okay, because every young person in this country needs to have a future, or ultimately none of them will. This is a mountain to climb given that our youth unemployment is 46.5% and the youth are half the employable population. It is a difficult route to the top, which is made even harder by the general despondency and apparent hopelessness of the situation.

We obviously have to create jobs, but we need to do more than that, we need to teach resilience and problem-solving. We have to inspire hope. Perhaps the most important driver should be a return to the concept of interdependence, or the Ubuntu insight; that we are because of one another. In the long view, the truth is that if someone else is failing, then I am too. We have to teach that as we rise, not only should we lift others on our ascent, but also understand that by helping others we don’t diminish our own success – on the contrary, we grow as we give.

There is a terrible tendency across the world these days to see life as a zero-sum game; that the rewards at the finish line will somehow be lessened if we all cross together. The problem with that approach is that there have to be winners and losers. We should not have to dehumanise others to be able to succeed; seeing them as lesser than us and ourselves as better; seeing people in 2D. If we do that, we will never eradicate poverty. Perhaps even more pernicious, that approach will lead to the thought that people trapped in cycles of poverty are somehow responsible for their own plight; painting them as less intelligent, less capable — and then patting ourselves on the back for avoiding the same fate, because we are somehow better.

Collectivist approach needed

It is this kind of approach that has served to perpetuate the Gini coefficient. As things stand, all we have managed to achieve in South Africa over the last three decades is to change the demographics of the elites, not change the structure of society. The only way we can do this is to adopt a more collectivist approach and understand that in almost every case, the only thing standing between poor people and changing their status is opportunity, not ability. We have to create those opportunities and foster a culture of success.

We love the stories of individuals who triumph despite the odds, but imagine the momentum that could be created if one success story became 100, then 1,000 and then thousands, even millions? It can be done and it has been done, we only need to look at societies like Vietnam, which survived a brutal war. Korea was devastated by war (and still is officially at war). Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia are all states that have overcome their histories. There are many more.

One of the biggest barriers to achieving this is our current approach to education. Several years ago, the OECD reported that only 55% of our current workforce had the necessary skills for the economy at that time — 45% weren’t properly skilled. The pendulum has tilted even further given the massive disruption we have faced from digitalisation, superheated by the recent Covid-19 pandemic. If we don’t fix the education system soon, we will not just run out of time, we will be producing school leavers who aren’t just unemployed, they will be wholly unemployable. It’s not enough to teach people skills in a classroom, they need experiential training on the job; that’s where some of the most valuable lessons are learnt. We need to bring back apprenticeships, especially in an environment where high technical skills are going to be at a premium. And on top of that it is vital that we develop good managers.

If we want to get the lights back on at Eskom, the rhetoric and slogans won’t do it; only the people who can really do the job will be able to. We have to get people who know how to identify problems and solve them. This means that we need to teach people how to get information, how to interpret it and how to react afterwards. We need to train people to be able to work together, all in the same direction towards the same result. They can only do that by working and thinking intelligently together. The secret to that lies in great management — and unfortunately, all of that is very different from what and how people are currently being taught today.

As we start teaching people how to get things done, they will start to get moving, they will start to build a momentum for real change in this country. When you get the first result, you try something a bit harder and when you succeed you try some more. It’s a process that builds confidence and it is that confidence which will destroy the spiral of prejudices rooted in our own past and truly unlock the potential that exists in all of us, irrespective of the start we had in life.

Confident, skilled, successful people don’t have to take shortcuts. They are not as susceptible to corruption. They don’t need to be.  It all starts with creating jobs and then getting those who have mastered them to teach the tricks of the trade to the next one.

Each one teach one, was the rallying cry during the Struggle against Apartheid, it’s an injunction that has become more urgent now than it was then. DM

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