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Picture: 123RF/RAWPIXEL
Picture: 123RF/RAWPIXEL

For a while now SA has witnessed an increase in its youthful population. This is loosely referred to as a “youth bulge”, a phenomenon that, if harnessed well, can result in enormous benefits for a country. This bulge is a common thread among African countries, and has resulted in the continent having an exceptionally youthful population.

An AU assembly in January 2016 declared a theme for 2017 of “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend Through Investments in Youth”. The theme was chosen to acknowledge that young people in Africa are an enormous resource for the continent’s development. Harnessing this human potential is crucial for Africa’s development as it continues to struggle to emerge from poverty.

A demographic dividend can occur from the opportunity created by reductions in child mortality and a demographic shift to fewer dependent people relative to working age individuals. This means that having a large number of workers per capita gives a boost to the economy — provided there are employment opportunities. AU heads of state and governments recognise a country-level demographic dividend as central to the continent’s economic transformation.

The AU’s strategy for socioeconomic transformation, Agenda 2063, envisages an Africa whose development is people-driven, especially its women and youth. It speaks of creating opportunities for Africa’s youth for self-realisation, access to health, education and jobs.

However, only through systematic planning, coupled with appropriate long-term investments, can countries take advantage of the boom in their youthful population to help accelerate economic growth and job creation. A demographic dividend is very much time bound, though, usually lasting three to five decades. 

Youths aged between 15 and 34 constitute about 20.66-million of the 59.62-million South Africans, or about 34.7% of the population. Those aged 35 and younger constitute 65% of the population. And based on population growth estimates these numbers will continue to rise. A burden or a blessing — you decide.

SA’s unemployment stands at 34.5%. According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of 2022, the unemployment rate was 63.9% for those aged 15-24, and 42.1% for those aged 25-34. And so the question: can we still reap the demographic dividend? Notwithstanding the recent calamities experienced the world over, my answer to this question is yes and no. Yes if we are deliberate and intentional in creating an enabling environment for young people to occupy their rightful place in society, and no if we continue to stroll down the present path.

SA has at its disposal volumes of literature on the challenges facing young people, and similar volumes on how to overcome them while planning for the future. The country’s Integrated Youth Development Strategy (IYDS), for instance, recognises that young people have not been fully brought into the societal and economic mainstream, effectively marginalising them.

According to Stats SA, poverty levels are highest among children aged 0-17, at about 63%, followed by youths aged 18-24 (58.6%), and 47.1% for those aged 25-34. This compares to those aged 35 years and above, at an average poverty level of about 42%. Furthermore, people living with disabilities are more vulnerable to poverty as they are often denied economic opportunities because of stigmatisation and general discrimination.

With respect to employment, the data shows a positive correlation between age and employment, with young people more likely to be unemployed. The same is the case with business activity, with the data showing low levels of participation in entrepreneurship among the youth when compared with those aged 35 years and above.

The statistics confirm that while the number of youth and children who succumbed to Covid-19 is relatively low compared with adults, measures to curb the spread of the virus affected them particularly severely. The bulk of businesses that closed due to Covid-19 were youth owned. Most people who lost employment were young people, as reflected in the sharp spike in youth unemployment in the fourth quarters of 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Therefore we cannot over-emphasise the point that young people must be at the centre of the post Covid-19 recovery plans, not just in theory but in practice. Sectors such as tourism, agribusiness, and technology and innovation show potential for large-scale productivity growth and job creation.

Some of the country’s youth development strategies propose the following interventions:

  • Curriculum reform; a focus on technology and innovation; career guidance; a reform of the TVET college sector;
  • Implementation of agile, demand-led workforce development programmes; supporting the township and rural economies; revitalising the National Youth Service programme; an improvement of sexual and reproductive health strategies and;
  • Financial literacy; youth set-asides in state procurement; access to blended forms of business finance; attention to regulatory issues relating to spatial planning and land use management (which has a tendency to undermine economic opportunities in townships).

While efforts such as the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention are commendable, it will take a joint effort by government, business, civil society and young people themselves for such interventions to have good yields. At this stage the country needs to see a rise in young people who display exceptional leadership capabilities, and a strong sense of commitment to social and economic issues facing their communities and the world at large.

The National Development Plan (NDP) goal of creating a capable state through professionalising the public service must be pursued vigorously. In the youth sector, building capacity entails strengthening key institutions dedicated to deliver services to the youth, and ensuring that youth development practitioners as primary providers of services are adequately skilled and competent. The NDP makes the observation that there is unevenness in capacity that leads to uneven performance in the public service. If we are to still reap the important demographic dividend we need to genuinely build the capacity of the state and its institutions to adequately respond to the challenges raised. 

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan once made the observation that “young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation. Empowered, they can be agents for development and peace. If, however, they are left on society’s margins, all of us will be impoverished. Let us ensure that all young people have every opportunity to participate fully in the lives of their societies.”

• Magadla, a former spokesperson for the National Youth Development Agency, is founder and MD at creative marketing agency LSM Communications. He writes in his personal capacity.

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