As we navigate the turmoil and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, all eyes are on keeping one another safe while preparing for a post-pandemic world. The custodians of this post-pandemic future are young people – and when one considers that the official unemployment rate for people under 35 in South Africa is 46,3%, the urgency of meaningful and sustained youth empowerment becomes apparent.
While the unrelenting orientation towards total emancipation is draped in positivity and an unshakeable belief in the better nature of humanity, ignoring current, crippling realities is counterproductive.
Beyond half of our youth feeling the pain of no economic opportunity, the country is battling a terrible scourge of gender-based violence, exacerbated by patriarchy that is woven into most corners of society.
The 17 sustainable development goals which form part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provide a blueprint for a world we all want to live in. While the instinct of critics is to call the vision of eradicating poverty, providing quality education, delivering gender equality, decent work, and economic growth, among many more, by 2030 a pipedream, the truth is that it is in your hands, my hands, and the hands of everyone who has a stake in this world to chase these goals with everything we have.
Why? Because if we don’t, in 2030 we will be where we are now, or worse. If they are not achieved but every effort has gone into striving toward a sustainable, fair world, then at least progress would have been made. Perhaps the most obvious − but least spoken about − fact is that the future is not ours, but our children’s. This means the efficacy of our efforts today will have a direct bearing on the future: either a future we dream of fondly, or one that represents a nightmare from which we cannot awake.
How? Once, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, when speaking about how to effect change when the problem appears insurmountable, reminded us of an old African proverb: There is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. What can we do, what do we have control over? How can we take small, purposeful bites that, over time and if repeated often by enough people, will accomplish the seemingly impossible?
By seeing through this lens, we have over the years focused on various initiatives with a focus on mentoring, education, gender equality, entrepreneurship, youth empowerment and digital inclusion.
Flagship initiatives such as the Take a Girl Child to Work Day (which now includes mentoring activities and interventions for boys) and others driven by corporates, NGOs and individuals take on added strategic value. Indeed, the Take a Girl Child to Work Day has been learning and evolving for 19 years.
It is with this wide-angle lens that this year’s theme is #MoreThanAday.
As South African citizens, there are many ways we can influence and shape society to effect real and lasting empowerment among the youth generally, and girls specifically. It starts with education and mentoring.
If one considers that one of the main obstacles to equal opportunity is a lack of access to the kind of mentoring that the more privileged enjoy, then we as corporate citizens can work towards plugging this gap. As learners approach the middle of their teens, they need to make crucial subject choices. The value that can be imparted by guiding and supporting them during this time, with an eye on the future and their individual aptitudes, cannot be underestimated.
While youth unemployment is officially almost 50%, the official unemployment rate for graduates is 9,3%. The graduate unemployment rate is therefore 23,3% lower than the official national unemployment rate of 32,6%. These numbers represent the current 2021 reality. Now, for a moment, imagine a country in a few years with healthy economic growth and opportunities, and all these numbers would decrease.
Stemming from this, no matter the background of the youth, they should be exposed to the possibilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A privileged child may be aware that with the power of digital innovation the world is at their fingertips, but young people who are surrounded by almost 50% unemployment and dire conditions also need to be inspired by the power technology can bring to their lives and careers. Similarly, the potential for digital inclusion to stimulate economic inclusion cannot be overstated.
This speaks to the need to actively drive access to connectivity – this is non-negotiable for the future of our country, where barriers to entry must be lowered. This will be achieved by intentionally focusing on creating greater accessibility to a digital life in work, learning, working, business and contributing to the digital skills pool in the country. This is certainly a focus for ICT initiatives such as the Data Science Academy and others who have an interest in the country’s prosperity.
There is hardly a discussion or debate without the benefits of entrepreneurship being addressed, especially around gender equality, youth empowerment and job creation. Indeed, the National Development Plan has set admirable goals for the role of SMEs in South Africa and their job-creation potential. But what are we doing as a society to instil an entrepreneurial mindset in the youth? Mentors have a crucial role to play here in how they inspire and challenge young people. This is something all of us in business can play a role in.
Of course, inspiring entrepreneurs is only as good as the environment, which calls for more incubators, like the Innovation Challenge, to drive the entrepreneurial agenda as well as the education and skills required. Government must do its bit, and I strongly contend that corporate South Africa must do its bit, too. The more opportunities there are for young entrepreneurs to learn the skills and attract the funding needed to thrive, the closer we get to making legacy changes.
When seen in isolation, these interventions may resemble little bites. But as the wisdom of the old idiom makes clear: each bite takes us closer to achieving the seemingly impossible. Another old African idiom holds perhaps the biggest piece of wisdom and warning for us all: a roaring lion kills no game. It’s good to talk but doing so without taking action is worth very little.
Juliet Mhango, Chief Human Capital, Development and Transformation Officer at Cell C