16 June 2021 marks the 45th anniversary of one of the most pivotal events in South African history. It was the day of the Soweto Uprising, when thousands of students took to the streets in solidarity against an unequal and unjust schooling system. This protest catalysed a series of events that would lead to the repeal of the Bantu Education Act and a significant move towards systemic change for young people – which is why we now mark the 16th of June as National Youth Day. While the events of 16 June 1976 brought many realities to light, the most poignant reality – one which I have been reflecting on recently – is that the opinions, the words and the actions of our youth matter. What the youth believe, say, and do plays a central role in what the future of this country will look like.
Despite challenges, youth still offer hope
We reached a concerning milestone in our democracy as the youth unemployment rose to 46,3 percent in Quarter 1 of 2021 exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. As we reflect on these numbers and look for solutions, we can acknowledge that over the years we’ve seen some success stories coming from youth support programmes throughout both the public and private sector that we can build on. As a country, we are waking up to the fact that an investment into our youth is a direct and sustainable investment into our future. We have far to go, but we have made a start. The recent statistic from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor South Africa (GEM SA) report, that showed a substantial increase in the number of people who believe that there is an abundance of opportunities to start a business in South Africa and who are confident in their skills and capacity to get one off the ground (from 43.2% in 2017 to 60.4% in 2019) is encouraging.
South Africa’s Youth are Global Citizens
We are commemorating Youth Day against the backdrop of a very different world, for two key reasons. One, we as South Africans have been swept up by the seismic shift caused by Covid-19. Two, the climate change imperative has reached new heights and leaders in green entrepreneurship are stepping up in a big way to contribute towards the solution. In the digital age and what we now refer to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the youth of South Africa should be taking their place amongst the youth of the world. South African problems are world problems, and world problems are South African problems. As businesses, private investors, and governmental organisations, there has never been a better time to invest in youth entrepreneurship.
Even in the midst of a paradigm-shifting pandemic, we saw the inspiring perseverance and tenacity of young South African entrepreneurs demonstrated in businesses like grocery delivery service, Zulzi.com. We saw local fashion brand, MaXhosa Africa, shift its focus from brick-and-mortar retail to an e-commerce offering, to the benefit of the brand and its employees. South African sneaker brands such as Drip and Emerging Entrepreneur awardee at the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year® competition – Bathu – are growing in leaps and bounds in spite of the pandemic. Innovation is everywhere, we just have to open our eyes to see it.
And it’s not just about larger, more profitable brands: micro-entrepreneurs, we are looking to you as the next generation of leaders. We see you in your homes, creating baked goods to sell at a market, or in your first creative space, honing your artistic skill while burning the midnight oil. South Africa sees you and encourages you to keep going.
Today, we resonate with the words of former president Nelson Mandela in his Youth Day speech in 1994:
“Let us all rise to the challenge of the freedom that we have won. That challenge is to create a better life for all South Africans: to create jobs, to provide free quality education and open up opportunities for skills training, to build houses, to provide health facilities and other basic services. Let us together answer the question, “so where to now?” with a new youthful determination to learn, to build and to live life to the full. The country thirsts for your talents and energy.”