Overhead photo shot of a group of people
Hope for a rising generation. Photo ©

Benny Jackson on Unsplash, adapted from the original

April 2018

With Commonwealth ties in the spotlight, the British Council’s latest research on the challenges faced by young South Africans looks at the implications of the country’s unprecedented youth boom.

A demographic revolution

Africa is changing. A shift in demographics is seeing the continent’s population growing progressively younger, with a staggering three quarters of its population under 35. This trend is not unique to Africa – ODI estimates that Commonwealth nations need to create 50,000 jobs every day to provide work for the growing number of young people entering labour markets. The pace at which the youth population is expanding far exceeds the opportunities currently available, presenting both challenges and opportunities for economic development. 

Commonwealth nations need to create 50,000 jobs every day to provide work for the growing number of young people entering labour markets

South Africa is also experiencing the continent’s so-called “youth bulge”, with 66% of its own population under the age of 35. While this generation may not have witnessed the injustice of Apartheid first hand, they are enduring the burden of its aftermath – a struggle for opportunities. Set against the backdrop of the Commonwealth Summit 2018 and the election of new South African President, a roundtable of experts and young people was convened at the British Council to discuss how South Africa’s youth should best be supported by the international community. 

Despite its status as an emerging global power, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, impeding the ability of young people from less advantaged backgrounds to access opportunities in terms of skills development, higher education and professional training. This is in spite of over one fifth of the available tax-spend being allocated to education (one of the highest proportional spends in the world). As found in the British Council’s new Next Generation South Africa research, over three million young people in the country are not in education, employment or training (NEET), while the participation rate of black South Africans in higher education continues to be considerably lower than for white South Africans.

A new generation speaks

However, as found by the Next Generation research, there is a strong sense of agency among South Africa’s youth, despite the multiple disadvantages in their lives and a bleak political and social landscape under then-President Zuma. Young people generally believe their future will be brighter, and that getting more involved in networks and social movements is crucial to building resilience and opening up new job prospects. They want to “stay woke” to changing external circumstances and take control over their own lives through social action as well as political participation. The protests around #feesmustfall and #rhodesmustfall are testimony to this sense of agency – perhaps simultaneously indicating a lack of opportunity in terms of where to invest this agency in the longer term.

Attitudes towards education are also changing, with 83% of young people surveyed believing that TVET (technical and vocational education and training) will help them to find a job. Roundtable participants also noted the rising importance of “soft skills”, for example, in communication, negotiation, public speaking and social skills – especially in light of the fact that many employment opportunities in South Africa are at SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) level, and the rapid growth of the creative industries. Participants considered that greater clarity on the gaps in this particular skillset among young South Africans would be beneficial, as would proper testing and evaluation of professional training programmes in the country to ensure they are fit for purpose. 

Scalability was also cited as a priority, with 10 to 12 million people entering Africa’s job market every year. Guests cited the need for “intrapreneurship” as well as entrepreneurship to ensure innovation and growth of existing, multinational companies in Africa. It was noted that this requires incentivising multinationals to expand their presence on the continent in order to meet employment demands. However, the potential of medium-to-large firms should also not be ignored; these are more likely to create the links needed with export markets to create further opportunities, and indeed, many large businesses in South Africa started out as small trading firms.

The experts noted that there will be winners and losers in this vision for economic development, and due regard must be paid to marginalised and disengaged communities – such as women living in rural areas. It was suggested that an equitable approach to African development required ensuring that the solutions are driven by Africans, rather than “shipped down” from the West. Foreign donors can enable and facilitate, but South Africa would also benefit from learning lessons from other African success stories. 

The UK Government is moving towards this partnership model with Africa, but guests questioned whether this ‘collaborative’ message was getting across, particularly to young Africans. The experts suggested that the UK should be more receptive to the needs and perceptions of these young people, and tailor its ‘offer’ accordingly – thinking carefully about where the UK can add value. It was noted that this might involve working more closely with the private sector both in the UK and Africa. 

The UK is certainly an appealing partner. In a major Ipsos MORI survey commissioned by the British Council, young South Africans ranked the UK as the second most attractive G20 country (after the USA). The EU referendum result has not damaged perceptions – indeed, over a third of those asked said Brexit had a positive impact on trust in and the attractiveness of the UK. The Next Generation research echoed these findings; the UK was ranked second only to the USA in terms of attractiveness, with sport, film and music cited as its most influential assets (politics was the least).

UK soft power depends on the UK being open, smart and generous, and capitalising on its many cultural assets, such as the BBC, the British Council and the Premier League, to name but a few

But how can the UK’s wealth of soft power operate most effectively in South Africa? Participants agreed that UK soft power depends on the UK being open, smart and generous, and capitalising on its many cultural assets, such as the BBC, the British Council and the Premier League, to name but a few. It was argued that government-to-government solutions should be augmented by people-to-people - or city-city - relationships in order to yield benefits for South African communities. this would require UK foreign policy to adapt to modern day international relations, which is less hierarchical and increasingly influenced by non-state actors. Partnerships with the private sector and NGOs therefore need to be forged so that social, economic and human capital can be harnessed to effect change. 

The result of this partnership approach will hopefully be a win for South Africa and a win for the UK, equipping the former to harness the energy and economic potential of its young population, and forging even stronger ties between the UK and a country which is its largest trade partner in Africa – and one of its largest in the Commonwealth. 

Isabelle Younane, Policy & External Relations Officer, British Council

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