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INSIDE LABOUR: The need for a national conversation about youth

Jun 15 2018 06:00
Terry Bell

Tomorrow is Youth Day, the formal celebration of the heroic 1976 uprising by Soweto school students against apartheid. That history and the hopes for the future that underlay it should certainly be celebrated.

However, there is little for the youth of today to celebrate as they contemplate the present and the prospects for themselves in the future. For most — and especially those with little formal schooling — current prospects are bleak and the future outlook bleaker still.

Increasingly, work of any kind seems out of the reach of millions. And here it should not be forgotten that the majority of South African children who start school, never reach matric, let alone progress any further in what is admittedly a shambles of a schooling system.

Another lost generation

As a result of the widespread acceptance of this reality, there is talk now of another 'lost generation'; that just as those young men and women who fought under the banner of liberation before education suffered, so too will this generation. But the difference, this time, is stark because — on the present trajectory — we face not just a lost generation, but generations of discarded people, made redundant by a psychotic economic system.

It is a global system, but South Africa is increasingly sliding lower down the scale to the extent that more people in the business sector are starting to panic. As well they should, with the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) recording a fall of more than 2% in the first quarter of this year.

Now profits are being hit, whereas, in the recent past, while growth was slow, profits still grew, along with the wage and welfare gap — and joblessness. The call now is for South Africa to join the 'fourth industrial revolution'. As Telkom chief executive Sipho Maseko noted last week: "The digital economy brings unparalleled efficiencies to agriculture, manufacturing, retail and mining sectors globally."

It is true that, without state-of-the-art information and communications technology (ICT) policies in place and implemented, South Africa will fall still further behind in terms of competing globally. Yet the very technologies now advancing exponentially, and which business wants to kept abreast of, require fewer and fewer workers.

Looked at in this way, it is easy to paint a dystopian vision of the future: of a grossly polluted planet, with tiny islands of heavily protected extreme affluence in a sea of desperate and impoverished humanity. This may well be a valid long-term view, unless some change takes place or, at the very least, the more lunatic excesses of the system are curtailed.

Ignoring the fundamentals

What there can be no dispute about is that the youth of today face a massive crisis, with the International Labour Organisation, for example, putting at 71 million the number of men and women, globally, between the ages of 15 and 24, who are neither working, at school nor in training. And the numbers are growing.

These numbers will continue to grow as governments and business ignore the fundamentals and opt for an array of often simplistic ad hoc measures ranging from extended public works programmes to short-term employment tax incentives. If there were jobs to be had as the future unfolds, such measures might have some justification; in the present circumstances, they are, at best, stop-gaps doomed to overall failure.

However, several commentators have pointed out that, even if a major transformation of the education and economic system began today, it would take at least a generation or two to remedy the ills of the past. Which is, of course, no reason why change should not begin.

It does not mean we should not have a vision for the future. Nor that we should not take steps now to start to lay the foundations of a better world.

We certainly need, as Telkom’s Maseko has made plain, youth who can understand coding and software development. But while we need ABET — adult basic education and training — the prime focus should be on early childhood.

Critical thinking is the crucial component, and the encouragement and development of this begins in early childhood. And there is a wealth of material, going back a century and more — to Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori, Margaret MacMillan and others to prove this. Sheer logic should also dictate that millions of angry, unemployed youth do not make for a stable society.

But education programmes take time. And time is now of the essence. So why not adopt the serious "national conversation" called for by Sipho Maseko? One that could deal with ways to implement, for example, job sharing — at a living wage — and that could highlight, and bring an end to, the dumping on the domestic market of everything from tinned goods to confectionery and meat; actions that are adding to local job losses?

There really is only one missing ingredient for a start to really address the current ills: political will on the part of the powers that be. But, as the youth of 1976 showed, such will can be awakened.

Add your voice or just drop Terry a labour question. Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.

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