South Africa’s Economic Future Depends On These Five Uncomfortable Truths


If South Africa is going to regain its economic foothold, we need to be investing in our youth. And the primary mechanism through which we should be doing this is skills development. This approach starts with confronting — and acting on — five uncomfortable truths.



When it comes to youth capital, South Africa is rich with opportunity. We have a young population who are hungry for knowledge and skills, and eager to work. If given half a chance, they have the power to transform the fabric of South African society socially, politically and economically. But unfortunately, we’re not providing them with the platform to leverage this potential.

If South Africa is going to regain its economic foothold, we need to be investing in our youth. And the primary mechanism through which we should be doing this is skills development. This approach starts with confronting — and acting on — five uncomfortable truths.

1. We need to overhaul our education system

The state of South Africa’s education system, and the ways in which it is succeeding and failing, is a large and complex topic. Many different areas need to be reviewed; some need to be overhauled entirely.

What I am referring to specifically, however, is the fact that our education system isn’t equipping young people with the practical skills they need to succeed once they matriculate. Trades aren’t properly integrated into our curriculums, nor are learners provided with the business skills they need to start their own companies. In its current format, our educational content often fails learners down the line.

2. A university qualification isn’t essential

We have created a society that grants undue status to universities. A university degree, we tell ourselves, is critical for professional success — over and above diplomas, or any other kind of qualification. This simply isn’t the case. And in South Africa’s current educational and economic environment, it isn’t viable either.

We can’t afford to be a country that depends wholly on university education: not every learner is ideally suited for university instruction, and even if they were, our institutions don’t have the capacity.

Instead, we need to encourage learners to pursue alternative tertiary routes. Skills development programmes, learnerships and internships can help young people gain the skills they need to find gainful employment or to start their own businesses.

3. A culture of entrepreneurship is still the answer

Most of the world’s most progressive economies are succeeding off the backbone of small and medium enterprises. These businesses are built by entrepreneurs and small business owners who are identifying challenges, developing solutions, and employing others as they evolve and grow.

The knock-on effect is enormous. Entrepreneurs help to promote economic growth, improve the standard of living, and lift individuals, families and communities out of poverty.

A culture of entrepreneurship, especially among the youth, needs to be prioritised. And this involves giving them the training necessary to build successful and sustainable companies.

4. Corporates can’t pay lip service to skills development

Skills development is a line item on the BEE Scorecard. As a result, it’s often treated as a mere box-ticking exercise. But companies that take skills development seriously, and invest in it wisely and consciously, see tangible benefits — not only for their businesses, but in terms of their standing within their communities, too.

By upskilling community members, companies gain access to a skilled and competent workforce with all the relevant training. They also help local residents to become entrepreneurs, and establish businesses from which their company can then procure.

These activities also help to alleviate communities’ dependence on certain companies or sectors. Skilled employees or entrepreneurs can offer their services more widely, and help to grow their local economies.

At Optimi Workplace, we work closely with both the public and private sector to make meaningful skills development a reality. We believe any organisation and economy is only as successful as the skills they are imparting to others.

5. Skills development is everyone’s responsibility

Our future economic success depends on everyone — individuals, the private sector and government — working together to prioritise skills development. It can’t be seen as a lesser priority, or a nice-to- have. It needs to be intentional, deliberate, and a constant focus.

And the result? What happens if we acknowledge these truths and act upon them?

Firstly, individuals become more self-sustaining. They’re less likely to depend on a system that is battling to serve them, and become capable of taking control of their own destinies instead.

For companies, it boosts their talent and procurement pools, as well as their social licence to operate. And for a government facing a shrinking tax base and nearly half the population requiring social grants, it offers some relief at last.

With more skilled youths and more entrepreneurs in the market, we may finally see the economic needle shift.

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