Youth given false hope in ICT

By Phakiso Mataitsane, Founder and CEO, Pax Divitiae

Johannesburg, 21 Jun 2021
Phakiso Mataitsane, Founder and CEO, Pax Divitiae.
Phakiso Mataitsane, Founder and CEO, Pax Divitiae.

The month of June in South Africa signifies Youth Month. Every year, since the dawn of our democracy, this month has been celebrated to commemorate what the youth of 1976 have done for South Africa. This celebration includes the potential and possible impact that the youth hold.

With the current unemployment statistics, 7 in 10 youth are unemployed in South Africa. This has created a huge challenge for a country which cannot absorb its youth into the economy. The resultant solution for many, including government, is to try and treat this as something separate to normal operations or as separate from the mainstream economy.

Our government creates programmes and measures organisations through what we call internships, learnership, training and development programmes. These are viewed as separate from the normal productive world and are generally deemed as a way to obtain BBBEE scores or skills development points by employers.

These programmes last an average of 3-18 months. After this time period, a new group of graduates are chosen, following the churning out of the previous group which have completed their internships. The lack of contingency in most cases results in the graduates back in the position they once found themselves in prior to their temporary employment- seeking jobs.

The new graduates begin their internship, where their lack of experience is leveraged against them when remuneration is agreed to between the employer and the graduates.

The majority of those that completed the internships or learnership will at the end of these prorammes be faced with a challenge to find employment. This cycle is a sad way of creating false hope. We take our kids to school and encourage them with a promise that education is their key to success. Once they return after completing their studies, they find themselves in a graduate programme or interning. These programmes unfortunately do not guarantee sustainable jobs, in the event that they are even lucky enough to get an opportunity to be part of such programmes.

The question is why can’t we create a full value chain for the youth from learning, practical work and sustained employment for long-term instead of a short-term exercise, designed so that companies can tick the box of youth empowerment? Is this a possibility? Is there no path for such? The answer lies in our need to go back to history post-1994.

Programmes were created to incubate learners predominately from previously disadvantaged backgrounds so that they could enter the mainstream economy. Not only were the learnerships created for scoring points, but they were also created to bring diversity and new ideas into businesses. These programmes created jobs for the youth which were long term and people were given the opportunity to create career paths from that.

Some of the leading South African Banks took this initiative and drove it with training graduates in the likes of COBOL, C++, JAVA, Business Analysis and so forth. Employees who went through this training now occupy senior positions such as CIO of these same organisations. The key aspect to note is that these youth didn’t even need to have degrees and diplomas, yet they became successful. Was this a long-term view? Certainly, however, the key was that the youth were incorporated into the system and not turned away after their programme or internship was complete.

Where are we failing now? We create job funds for youth which amount to multibillion-rand schemes for youth employment, internships, skills development with more recently, “The Presidential Employment Stimulus” among others. These programmes often have one thing in common - they are not productivity focused. They exist to train people and then release them once again to join the ranks of the unemployment.

The South African government departments spend a large sum of money on services that they outsource to the private sector and yet more often than not their leaders do not see this as an opportunity to attract youth to the mainstream economy. They only focus on people with skills and a lot of experience. This begs the question, “Who should employ the youth if those with power fail to ensure that the youth are part of every transaction for productivity and not just viewed as a means to an end on a scorecard for so-called empowerment”?

One recent substantial tender is the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa), which has a mandate “to ensure the provision of comprehensive social security services against vulnerability and poverty within the constitutional and legislative framework”. It has an IT services contract that was advertised for three years, which requires people with experience. Shouldn’t this be used as an opportunity to make sure that at the least, 30% of the workforce are youth with no skills to do job shadowing so that at the end of the contract, the graduates would have acquired meaningful and practical knowledge that will enable them to walk away with three years of experience?

The response to this point is disheartening. The leadership stated: “No, we ran separate graduate programmes for the youth.” The youth is not part of productivity and this is while the contract has been up for renewal for over three times over the past nine years - this could have incubated a substantial number of graduates. Is Sassa leadership only concerned with providing grants and not looking at how to stop dependency on the system when they have the power to change the structure of the systems?

By the same token, I cannot cast my opinion without acknowledging the other side of the argument. We have noticed a different culture and leadership on the imminent crisis at other public sector institutions. An example which comes to mind is the National Lottery Commission, where the CIO did not only look to experienced partners when he appointed roles for services, but also asked for youth and growth paths for the youth. At the end of the contract, over 10 youth who started with no experience will have at least three years’ experience and this will change their lives forever. Some of them are from townships like Mamelodi, Garankuwa, Mabopane and Soshanguve, which will directly impact local communities positively.

The challenge is posed to our State Information Technology Agency as well, as it signs massive contracts with the OEMs called framework agreements, and do not use these contracts as an opportunity to enforce drastic changes to the system when it has the power to do so.

In the past three years, there has been a buzz circulating around what is commonly known as the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) with billions spent by the government on skills and messaging on its imminence. The question that should be answered is where are jobs that were mentioned for the youth and how are the youth incorporated into the system so meaningful skills transfer can be effected? This discussion sprung into the public domain in 2019; however, we seem to have forgotten the promises three years down the line. Did we forget when President Cyril Ramaphosa – referencing a tenuous study by Accenture – heralded 4IR as an opportunity to grab R5 trillion in value (roughly the size of South Africa’s current GDP) over the next decade?

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The problem is not exclusive to government, as the OEMs pride themselves every year on money spent on skills development and on their transformation scorecards. These cover in detail how many people they have trained, without providing qualitative information which illustrates if these youth were absorbed into the economy or not and for how long? Within some of the OEMs, there is a lot of money spent from third-parties and on graduates every year. They subsequently release the graduates the next year, without even an attempt to get them employed within the system in most cases. They create a worst kind of hope. In less than 12 months the income received by the youth is then cut, dimming their hope in the future.

Bob Marley said: “The biggest coward is a man who awakens a woman's love with no intention of loving her.” Isn’t that the same as false hope in this case?

President Ramaphosa said on 16 June 2021: "Young men and women - your country needs you. As you have correctly asked 'What will government do for us?'. Today I want to ask: what will you do for this country? We need you to rise and demonstrate that a better life for all is indeed within our reach."

We then respond to the president by asking the government departments to absorb the youth as part of their normal business and service contracts they issue every day. After implementing this, we will have a different picture in no time.

As leaders, it up to us to change the system or the collapse is near as history has told us before 1976 and the recent Arab uprising… Let us plan to have a different 2022 in June, where we check our milestones on how lives have changed long-term. Let us have a different celebration of Youth Month next year which gives the youth something to celebrate...