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The Coming “Egyptian Moment” in South Africa

March 18, 2011


As we watch the Egyptian government concede to the demands of their citizens and closely follow the unraveling of the North African governments, one must acknowledge the millions of youth who are courageously going against the grain by breaking down social and political barriers. The global disenfranchisement of youth in underserved communities is creating a perfect storm for additional revolutions to occur around the world.

As a South African, I wonder how South Africa’s leadership might respond if it were to reach a similar tipping point with its disenfranchised youth — where conservative estimates tell us that more than half of South Africans under the age of 25 are unemployed. I do believe it would be foolish for South African leaders to think that these unemployed and disconnected youth may not one day ignite a revolution.

As signs of discontentment emerge at a rapid pace, I ask South Africa’s leaders how will they choose to manage this unrest and more importantly, how will they choose to address the aspirations of youth who want to live a purposeful life? Because like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and most of their neighboring countries that are weathering the revolutions of today, South Africa also has a massive army of disenchanted youth. South Africa is a young country considering that more than half of its population is under the age of 25, and with more than half of them unemployed — the numbers are equivalent in size to the entire population of Zambia. And the chilling truth is that unemployment doesn’t end at the age of 25. Based on current trends, it will go on to become a way of life, not only for their generation but also for following generations.

Yet South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said in a recent budget speech that the uptake on the National Youth Subsidy, an incentive for employers who take on young employees has been very low. He added to that bleak outlook the unsustainable dependency of the social grant system that now feeds more than one in every three South Africans. South Africa aspires to be a developmental state, but with 15 million people living off government hand-outs, it is hard to deny that South Africa is in fact a welfare state. Darkening the outlook further is the HIV/AIDS pandemic where thousands of people are becoming infected each day and life expectancy at birth that has dropped 13 years. Millions more of South Africa’s youth have fallen into the category of NEET, an acronym for ‘Neither Employed, Educated or Trained’. I fear South Africa’s bubble will soon burst.

Add to this that South Africa is becoming one of the most unequal societies in the world and now wears the odious badge of having one of the highest Gini Co-Efficients, the measure for income inequality. This is much more than another grim statistic, but is instead a deadly Molotov cocktail that will backfire badly. South Africa’s youth will one day begin to ride the wave of revolt instead of the wave of resistance against apartheid like their parents did not so very long ago.

South Africa’s political and social issues are only a microcosm of what’s happening throughout the world. The blatant disregard for our world’s youth and their lack of voice is fueling the fire for future revolutions, not only in South Africa, but in many countries where youth feel invisible. This lack of voice is only reinforcing hopelessness and encouraging violence, the very behavior that we are witnessing in the Middle East and North Africa.

We must build an infrastructure for our youth by encouraging them to play an integral role in negotiations with their respective governments on the design of social programs. We must build political systems that do not seek to provide hand-outs but that provide hand-ups with an emphasis on providing youth with the appropriate skills and tools to become active citizens within the global society. This will reignite hope among our youth. Hope that can be used as a means for perseverance because our youth will recognize that they are a part of an on-going effort for change, even if they may not see that change in their lifetime.

If South Africa opts for inaction in the face of these challenges then, as sure as night follows day, South Africa will face its “Egyptian Moment”. It won’t happen today, or tomorrow, or even next year. But that should make South Africans no less complacent. When it does happen — and it will eventually — it will affect every South African citizen. And until it does happen, the kind of lives its youth are leading should be of concern to all South African leaders.

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