Born free, but denied hope

Mmusi Maimane says three million young South Africans are not in employment, education or training

The DA is on a mission to rescue SA’s lost generation

On Wednesday, 8 February 2017, I delivered a speech titled Rescue Mission for Lost Generation, ahead of President Zuma’s State of the Nation Address. I laid bare the reality of our country’s precarious condition, to highlight the desperate plight of South Africa’s black youth. They are a lost generation, and it is to them that I dedicate my term as DA leader. I laid out the framework of a rescue plan for this lost generation. Leading up to the national election in 2019, we will flesh out and test this plan, so that if we get into national government we can “hit the ground running” and rapidly improve their prospects.

StatsSA classifies over three million South Africans as “NEETs”: youth aged between 15 and 24 who are Not in Employment, Education or Training. No other group in SA has been so utterly abandoned, so wholly excluded from the fruits of democratic SA. Young people could and should be our greatest asset; the creative and energetic force behind SA’s economic development. Instead they constitute a ticking time bomb, a groundswell of anger, boredom and frustration that manifests in the gangsterism and drug abuse that plagues our poorest communities.

These are our “born frees” and yet they are not free to live the life of their choice. Unless South Africans step in and make some bold changes to the way our country is governed, very few in this group will get even close to realising their immense potential.

More than any other factor, our basic education system sets them up for failure. Eighty percent of SA’s schools are dysfunctional, unable to equip our children with the numeracy and literacy skills they need to get ahead in life. Little wonder that 500 000 school children drop out of school each year, with the result that almost half of all SA’s 1 100 000 children who should write matric each year never do so. Of the 600 000 who do, only some 440 000 pass the exam, the standard of which is so low that it holds no guarantee of future success in life.

Of the 200 000 kids who then feed into university each year, half will drop out without completing a degree, usually in their first year. They do so because they find themselves unable to cope academically and/or financially.

SA’s lost generation comes from this bleak system and feeds into an even bleaker one: SA’s labour market, which can absorb only a third of them. Those that don’t make it join the fast swelling ranks of the unemployed. Many lose all hope of ever finding a job and simply give up looking.

Our rescue plan has three key priorities for basic education: reining in the South African Democratic Teacher’s Union (SADTU), which nefariously controls six of our nine education departments; investing heavily in training existing teachers and recruiting more teachers with excellent skills, particularly in maths and science; and ensuring that teachers and school principals are performance managed.

We’ll explore the feasibility of bringing back teacher training colleges, and we will make it easier for excellent teachers from other countries to help plug skills gaps in our education system.

To ensure that teachers and principals are supported and held accountable for the performance of their learners, we will seek to create a National Education Inspectorate. This inspectorate will be empowered to conduct visits to schools – without notice where necessary – to assess the effectiveness of teaching and learning in the classroom. The results will be used to ensure improvement where it is needed.

We would smooth the transition from school to further skilling by looking to offer a free year of technical and vocational training to those who don’t get into university; by promoting apprenticeships and internships; and by giving full financial support to poor university students and partial support to middle income students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

But preparing the youth for the job market is just one half of the equation – the supply side. The other half is creating the demand – an expanding labour market to absorb these millions of young South Africans. And this means sustained, inclusive economic growth.

Our rescue plan recognizes that only the private sector can create jobs at the scale and pace South Africa needs, which is why we will radically reform the labour regime to support job creation – especially for low skill labour intensive small businesses. We intend to turn South Africa into a nation of entrepreneurs. The small, medium and micro-enterprise sector will have our full support because this is where 90% of our job-creating potential lies. We will do everything we can to minimise the regulations they face, and to give them access to capital.

BBBEE will be about mass inclusion rather than elite re-enrichment. It will reward companies that put young black people through school, that mentor them, and that offer them apprenticeships to grow their expertise.

In the Western Cape, the DA is making good progress in both education and job-creation for young people. Our basic education system is the strongest in the country and improving all the time, while our unemployment rate is the lowest of any province. By 2019, with both a solid rescue plan and a great track record of governance, the DA will be the party of choice for young people, and for those who care about them.

This article by Mmusi Maimane first appeared in Bokamoso, the online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.