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Sunday Times STLive By Lincoln Mali, 2012-04-08

Yes, it takes a village to raise a child

SA must empower youth to take part in economic development

At just 18, I had been expelled from school, had been to jail twice, had attempted to skip the country to go into exile, was on the run from the police and had not been studying for two years.

I was not alone; we were an army of angry and disillusioned young people, determined to make SA ungovernable and the apartheid system unworkable.

We had started to dabble in alcohol, dagga and other forms of deviant behaviour. We rebelled against the status quo in all its forms: our parents, the government, school, traditional authorities and the church. We were marginalised, bitter and destructive.

We were labelled the lost generation.

But there is a problem with labels. They strip people of their humanity and individuality. In the end, our paths diverged. A small group of us are now professionals with our own families. Another group has been lost to death caused by HIV/Aids, violent crime, police brutality or prison violence. Yet another group is alive, but still lost, with no formal education, no jobs and sometimes no source of income. This group suffers the daily grind of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness.

Currently, a generation of young South Africans is caught in an inhumane dilemma that affects all spheres of their lives. They have no prospects of earning an income, choosing work, and being integrated into the economy. This threatens the future of our country.

The statistics are disheartening. According to the national Department of Basic Education, last year 496090 pupils sat for the Grade 12 exams. Of these, 348117 passed, but only 84593 qualified to enrol for a bachelor's degree at university. Only half of those eligible are expected to actually enrol at a tertiary institution. The trade union, Solidarity, expects at least 50% of the class of 2011 to join the ranks of the unemployed in SA, where an estimated 4.3-million citizens aged between 15 and 34 are currently unemployed.

These unemployment figures, though frightening, may seem tolerable to some: they are just numbers. But behind the numbers are the feelings of ordinary young people. As someone who once felt marginalised and ostracised and who spends a lot of time engaging young people, I can relate to their feelings. These are just some of the emotions I have encountered:

  • "I'm feeling permanently unworthy and under constant strain";
  • "I have countless unemployed friends. Most of us have given up looking for work because it's a pointless exercise";
  • "I'm feeling broke and disillusioned";
  • "Why did I bother going to school?";
  • "My matric certificate is worthless."

This is a toxic situation, a ticking time bomb for SA. High youth unemployment means young people are not acquiring the necessary skills or experience to advance the economy. This inhibits the country's economic development and imposes a larger burden on the state to provide social assistance.

What is of most concern is the vulnerability of these youth to broader social ills such as teenage pregnancy, HIV/Aids, gang warfare, violent crimes, drugs and being sucked into violent community protests that lead to loss of life and the destruction of property.

But there is hope. According to an old African proverb, it takes a whole village to raise a child. Those of us who had earlier setbacks had an entire village of teachers, coaches, mentors, parents, wives, husbands and bosses to turn us from an angry mob into responsible individuals.

It is through such interventions that we regained hope, gained perspective, rekindled our ambitions and rebuilt our lives. It is too late for my peers who are no more, or are now dependent on social grants, but what of their children and the other thousands of young people who roam our streets without jobs? The magnitude of the youth unemployment challenge facing SA is such that it cannot be resolved by a single employment policy, or by the actions of one group or stakeholder. The whole village must mobilise and get involved.

My own lost generation experiences, the needs of our business and the passion for youth development of my colleagues at Standard Bank, led us to launch the unique Banking Skills Academy (BSA) learnership programme in 2008.

Our collective dream as pioneers of this programme was to develop a win-win learnership model that expresses our commitment to helping SA to reach its full potential - one student at a time. We want to provide a beacon of hope for many unemployed youth trying to bridge the gap between an inadequate formal education system and the workplace.

Firstly, the BSA programme directly addresses some of the key issues that underpin youth unemployment while fulfilling clearly defined and measurable business needs. The types of students we choose help to drive business strategy. Line managers are encouraged to be an active part of the recruitment process and staff members are encouraged to market the learnership to their families, friends and communities.

Secondly, the programme addresses the skills shortage, the quality of the education system and the lack of career guidance. People who apply to the BSA have matric, partial or full tertiary qualifications. Candidates complete a numeracy assessment based on financial sector norms and a competency-based assessment so that we can direct successful students to the roles they are best suited for.

Thirdly, our learnership model ensures that we train students upfront to be functional in their roles the day they enter the workplace. A study indicated that, on average, our students were (at least 50%) quicker to achieve daily processing targets at better quality than normal recruits.

Fourthly, the quality of the curriculum and the qualification acquired on successful completion of the programme makes it attractive to youth. The BSA curriculum includes an induction that sets out the expectations for students.

Lastly, we have built in an unparalleled support structure. Each student is assigned a coach, mentor and line manager for support and to ensure the students do and complete their modules of the curriculum. The programme's impact has been huge, greater than we ever imagined - on individuals and the broader community.

Its impact on our business has surprised us all. Our executive recognises the value of this and in 2010 and last year the programmes were extended beyond frontline roles to the operations and credit areas of the bank. This year, they were extended into the sales area and business banking.

We agree that corporates such as Standard Bank have to step up to the plate. However, each member of the South African village has a responsibility and a role to play in eradicating youth unemployment. Corporate efforts must be complemented by those of other players, such as labour, youth organisations, universities, communities and the government.

We cannot fail this generation!

Mali is director: customer channels at Standard Bank

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