Living arrows: educate SA’s youth or risk a loss of social cohesion

Our young people remain marginalised even as global labour opportunities beckon

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Khalil Gibran wrote: “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

The word “parent” originates from the Latin verb parere, which means “to bring forth”. In a broad sense, our youth have different “parents” (bows) in different phases of their development. Most of these parents have a pure intent in “bringing forth” as well as “sending forth” these living arrows. The desired outcome is an empowered young mind with good character, serving society with accumulated competence, while becoming a responsible “bow” in humanity’s trajectory to a sustainable future.

This good intent is expressed differently by the different “parents”. Biological parents visualise their children in an end state of success and then guide them as best they can towards that destination. Our Constitution, in the preamble, expresses the conducive environment for these ideals. The National Youth Policy 2020 envisages a “non-sexist, non-racist, democratic South Africa in which young people and their organisations not only enjoy and contribute to their full potential in the social, economic and political spheres of life but also recognise and develop their responsibilities to build a better life for all”. These are the ideals.

There is also the matter of context: historical, current and future. The future depends heavily on how the former two are dealt with. The South African past is exactly that – it cannot be changed. We can learn from it and prevent that which destroys a cohesive, peaceful and productive society.

Consider the current context. Africa has become a significant participant in the global economic system. From this, opportunities arise for its youth. These opportunities should be seized to sustain development of the continent and to eradicate poverty. The logical focus is to harness our youthful potential and nurture Africa’s economic development through their participation in the labour market.

It is at this point that our positive narrative breaks down.

Although 41% of the world’s youth, within three generations, will be African – and Africa’s labour force will, by 2035, be larger than China’s – our young people are marginalised as expressed primarily in the high youth unemployment rate. Africa’s youth bulge should hold an inherent potential in human dividend, but too many of our young people are not employed, studying or looking for a job.

The challenge is to turn this around so that the African youth can compete equally at a global level. Our educational, governmental and business leaders need to be clear about how the global market is shaped by the financial crisis, technological disruption and demographic shifts, as these affect the content and process of education and development needed and, importantly, how the stakeholders of youth development are aligned and coordinated in their efforts.

Regarding their education: our youth land up in different circumstances – those who have left school without completing the National Senior Certificate (NSC); those who have left school with a NSC but without meeting university admission requirements; those who meet the university entrance requirements but do not gain access to a university or cannot afford it; those who meet admission and selection criteria for university study and are admitted but do not succeed; and those who start working but seek to advance their skills through training.

The lurking danger for these young people is that they may become isolated, not linked to networks that can lead to opportunities for study or work, which in turn could help them achieve their aims and build a future for themselves. An increase in vulnerability is inevitable, which may lead to involvement in criminal activities, depression due to negative experiences, early or unwanted pregnancies, and so forth.

If we fail to adequately educate our youth, develop the competencies that will make them globally competitive and create sufficient economic and employment opportunities, they may present a significant risk to social cohesion and political stability. #FeesMustFall is a recent case in point. Our youth are no different from other young people in the world. They too flourish when they are surrounded by adults, families and communities (the “bows”) that value them and create conducive environments, opportunities and support structures to help realise their potential and ambitions.

Our living arrows must be involved and allowed to participate actively in their own development. It is said that parents do not have CVs – they only have children. We leaders in civil society, business and government have to seriously revisit our parere role. While we do that, it may be wise to light another candle from Gibran’s wisdom:

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.

Frik Landman is the CEO of USB Executive Development.

This article was paid for by the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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