The South African government has taken cognisance of the importance of the youthful population and has attempted to address the challenges faced by this group. In this regard, the National Development Plan (NDP) policy identifies poverty and inequality as the two foremost challenges facing the nation. It discusses the means by which the aforementioned may be alleviated and thereafter eradicated. Quality education and employment opportunities are the main avenues elected as remedies to the challenges posed by poverty and inequality. The bolstering of the school system through quality education, as well as highly trained teachers, and an increase in the quantity of Further Education and Training (FET) Colleges have been tabled to remedy the situation. It is interesting to note that whilst the NDP is a national policy, it has a decided youth bias, calling the youth the “single greatest risk to social stability” and thus focusing largely on this demographic.

The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) is another government endeavour aimed at improving the status of the South African youth. This body was established to tackle challenges faced by youth and addresses poverty and inequality, and other issues, such as poor health. This is a fundamental area in terms of youth development when one considers the fact that the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is 8.5% amongst 15 to 24 year olds – meaning this is the age group with the highest infection rate. Youth development and empowerment are the key aims of this agency, with the hope of achieving lasting solutions to the current status quo.

Unfortunately the NYDA has been unsuccessful thus far in carrying out its mandate. Amid scandals concerning the fraudulent conduct of the head of the NYDA and other staff members, as well as a high staff turnover, one may question its efficacy in addressing the identified youth challenges. There have also been calls for the disbandment of the NYDA. Many reasons have been provided for the agency’s lacklustre performance, one of which is insufficient funding from the government. This then begs the question: is the state capable of prioritising a generation identified as needing the most attention?

One has only to look at the Institute of Race Relation’s 2015 Born free but still in chains report to see the dire situation of South Africa’s youth. The report states that 61% of all children receive support grants from the state and a third of all children between 15 and 16 years of age live in households where no one is employed. There are 3.42 million youth between 15 and 24 who are not in employment, education or training, and, according to Stats SA, 36.1% of the youth are unemployed. These statistics are troubling, more so for a nation founded upon constitutional democracy. The Constitution both recognises and protects the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights, while ensuring the inherent dignity of the people of the nation.

During the Soweto Uprising, youth stood up against an unequal system that threatened their ability to compete on an equal footing with their peers. It is ironic that today, almost 40 years later, South Africa’s current generation of youth still battle with an inadequate education system that leaves them vulnerable to a future of poverty and unemployment. South Africa is producing unskilled, uneducated and unhealthy individuals who will one day be the leaders of this nation. Perhaps this year, instead of celebration, we should pause and think of not just the laws and policies to be enacted, but also ways to better implement interventions geared towards ensuring an empowered youth. 

 By Rebecca Sibanda: Intern, Centre for Constitutional Rights