Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Part of what drew me to SA when I moved here in 2011 was the disproportionate role young people were playing in business, politics and social development.

At the time it seemed that millennials, born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, despite the country’s hierarchical culture, did not feel they needed permission from their elders to make a mark in their respective fields.

Role models such as former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and Maboneng Precinct developer Jonathan Liebman inspired me to start spending a good portion of my free time chasing (sometimes literally) CEOs and policymakers up escalators and approaching them at public venues, such as restaurants and gyms. Although I am frequently ignored or growled at, I nonetheless persist with my lobbying efforts for the sake of the country’s future, which directly correlates with my future.

As national morale hit a low during former president Jacob Zuma’s second term, baby-boomer business leaders, born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s, finally began making their voices heard through a number of bold initiatives, such as the rebirth of Business Leadership SA and the CEO Initiative, which was formed after Nhlanhla Nene’s firing as finance minister in December 2015.

While big business’s voice and moral compass played a vital role in preventing us from reaching a place of no return, young professionals seemed to have largely abdicated our civic duty to help solve our country’s myriad economic challenges. After all, policy decisions taken today will have the longest-term consequences for millennials, not baby boomers.

One cause of our silence could be that young professionals in SA lack heavyweight peer role models. Given that our country has not yet produced a “unicorn” start-up, it is no surprise that the Sunday Times rich list does not contain a single millennial. I contrast this with the famous self-made millennial multibillionaires in the US, such as 34-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), 30-year-old Patrick Collison (Stripe), 28-year-old Evan Spiegel (Snap), and the world’s soon-to-be youngest-yet self-made billionaire, 21-year-old Kylie Jenner (Kylie Cosmetics).

Just as South Africans interrogate the demographic representation in boardrooms, business organisations and Sunday Times rich lists, millennials must carefully interrogate how broadly our generation is represented in boardrooms and influential business entities. As part of safeguarding their continued relevance and succession planning, corporates and business organisations must ensure that their boards are generationally representative of the generations in a country in which the average age is 26.1 years. Alternatively, they should consider forming shadow “young boards” that provide a different generational perspective to the same issues tackled by the parent body.

Not all the blame for our lethargy can be put on the baby boomers. My generation need not wait for permission to participate in conversations of national importance and must stop perpetuating our country’s “messiah complex”. President Cyril Ramaphosa alone is not going to save us; we as young professionals must save ourselves.

In practical terms this could mean forming policy-focused groups targeting young professionals; engaging regularly with CEOs and policymakers in our personal capacities; or requesting seats at the table within established business organisations such as Business Unity SA, Business Leadership SA and the Black Business Council.

I am part of a group of young professionals who took the initiative to form a task team to study the white paper on international migration for SA, under the auspices of a large business organisation. Over the past year I have personally reached out to CEOs and government officials to see how young professionals can be involved in conversations of national importance. The more frequently they are approached by millennials who want to substantively engage on policy issues ranging from youth unemployment to financial inclusion to immigration reform, the greater chance we have of being included at the table.

I invite young professionals to join me in chasing CEOs up escalators and approaching them at public venues. It is time we demanded that organised business, which is heavily dominated by those in their 50s and 60s, include young professionals in their 20s and 30s.

As young South Africans with unique skills we must stop abdicating our national responsibility to our parents’ generation. Otherwise we may inherit a country that does not reflect our generation’s unique values and priorities.

Brotman is co-founder of En-novate. He writes in his personal capacity.