The South African Situation: Why Youth Empowerment is Key

In Alexandra, a poor township, a landscape photo of a slum, or neighborhood of informal houses, is being overlooked by masses of glamorous, high-rise buildings in downtown Johannesburg, showing the conditions that many South Africans live in (Woolard).

Diamond, Gold, and Segregation

Africa is the main victim of the European conquest that took place before the nineteenth century. No other place on Earth was colonized or exploited more than Africa. And South Africa was no exception. The country’s first contact with Europeans came in 1652 when the Dutch East India Company established a settlement in Cape Town to initially replenish the needs of ships passing by the southern tip of Africa. ( This settlement soon turned into a colony that was self-sufficient and being able to grow crops and raise livestock. But as with many colonies that grew in the United States, the South African colony soon started importing slaves from East Africa.

The first British settlers arrived in South Africa in 1820 onboard 21 ships with 4,500 men who came from a variety of backgrounds, with many being traders, blacksmiths, and artisans among other things. ( These first colonizers, the British and the Dutch, are the main catalysts to the creation of apartheid and the overall segregation of South Africa.

One of the reasons why South Africa was segregated was to keep some populations away from the major diamond and gold mining industries that popped up in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Discovery of gold ended up resulting in one of Great Britain’s costliest wars up to that point – an estimated 200 million pounds (£200M). The Anglo-Boer/South African War saw the deaths of 22,000 British soldiers, 34,000 Boer or Dutch soldiers and civilians, and 15,000 Black South Africans. (

The Union of South Africa, created in 1910, was to be a primarily white state. (  But because there is a mix of people living in the country, that idea was sure to be opposed. (  The opposition came in the form of the African National Congress or ANC, which was founded in 1912 to protest the exclusion of black people from power. (

In 1948, the pro-Afrikaner National Party (NP) came into power in 1948 on the platform of apartheid and the further segregation of black people in South Africa. Five years earlier, a younger group reminiscent of the ANC called the ANC Youth League saw the rise of members like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu. Under white-appointed leaders, South Africa saw the removal of people from what was now designated as “White Areas” where only whites could live. Out of these events, 3.5 million people were relocated, slums grew on what were formerly homelands of Black South Africans, and an era of separate development began to occur. ( Consequently, the areas where white people lived were being developed while everywhere else was neglected. ( This development of white areas and abandonment of black areas resulted in almost half of all Black South Africans living below the poverty line.

A bar graph showing the percentage of South Africans, organized by race and gender, living below the poverty line. According to the graph, less than 10 percent of white and Indian/Asian people live below the poverty line while the rate for colored and black people is much higher at over 20 and 40 percent respectively, being impoverished (Statistics South Africa).

As the above graph shows, many Black South Africans live below 797 rand or 60 dollars a month and another statistic reveals that more than half of all South Africans under the age of 35 are unemployed (Chutel).

It’s All About the Youth Population!

The resolving problem of poverty in South Africa lies within the youth population, as the schools and education systems for the young black children have been sorely neglected. Therefore, we end up with such high rates of children living in households that survive on less than what is considered minimum and so many people are jobless. Another challenge that will become problematic, if not tackled, is the issue of having a sustainable environmental presence.  This is because as more jobs are created, and the youth population begins to work and gain affluence, the effects on the environment will be increased.  The youth will also become more aware that they live in a polluted environment and may begin to develop resistance and unrest.

 A few of the solutions to mass unemployment and environmental decay have been proposed by the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development held in South Africa. These goals are broken up into five Priority Action Areas or PAAs: (1) Advancing policy; (2) Transforming learning and training environments; (3) Building capacities of educators and trainers; (4) Empowering and mobilizing youth; and (5) Accelerating sustainable solutions at the local level. (Knutsson). These five agendas are meant to prepare the young generations for the future, and if they are put in place correctly, they could change the lives of many South Africans.

The first PAA – advancing policy – aims to strengthen education, whether formal or informal, by the plans of the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). The second PAA – transforming learning and training environments – aims to make schooling in South Africa more eco-friendly with the help of the Eco-schools’ program, a global organization used in 68 countries while being managed in South Africa. (Knutsson). The third PAA – building capacities of educators and trainers – seeks to equip schools with the necessary number of teachers under the guidance of an organization called Fundisa for Change. This organization will strengthen the goals of the ESD by giving teachers the curriculum and learning materials needed to teach their students.

The fourth PAA – empowering and mobilizing youth – desires to “build green skills through post-school and vocational training.” The goal for this fourth PPA is to prepare students with the tools they will need after their schooling is over. This PAA is overseen by the Green Skills Project and the Working for/on program, aiming to “combine environmental protection with job creation.” (Knutsson). Finally, the fifth PAA – accelerating sustainable solutions at the local level – aims to “promote holistic environmental solutions at municipality level” with assistance from the Green Municipality Campaign. If all these priorities are met within a reasonable timeline, South Africa will be a much better country for the youth to live and prosper.

A graph illustrating the percentage of how many people aged 18 to 29 years old from each major ethnic group in South Africa participated in some form of schooling in 2002 and 2019. As the graph shows, participation in school for Black South Africans is very low being one-fifth the value of white South Africans (Statista).

Education and Investment for Brighter Future

The main benefit to the solution of introducing ways for the South African youth to learn and create more environmentally conscious decisions when they start working is that it pulls the youth out of a vicious cycle of poverty. This kind of solution has already been put into place in other countries that experienced the same problem of a majority of people being homeless or unemployed.

Ethiopia, for example, went through a violent civil war that left many people dead while starving the country’s children with many of them malnourished. Over the next decades, however, the country went through a dramatic change with reforms being made in education and family planning. Thousands of new schools were built to educate the nation’s children; children that would grow up to lead the country into a brighter future by advancing their technologies and capabilities. Ethiopia is an exceptional example of how education reform and investment can positively affect how the youth shapes their future.

Ethiopia’s story is not an isolated one either as there were many emerging Southeast Asian countries in the same situation as Ethiopia before they employed the same strategies and greatly improved the quality of life in their regions. If the same techniques that the Southeast Asian region and Ethiopia employed can be replicated throughout South Africa and elsewhere, overall stability and equality can be achieved.

Potential for Global Power

South Africa has undergone many changes throughout its history, originating as a destination for shipping, then a colony, later its own state under apartheid, and finally a free and democratic republic. Unfortunately, though, the country is not truly free for all its citizens as Black South Africans experienced much higher rates of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment, with the youth being neglected. To fix the problem of children growing up to realize there are no opportunities for them, a five-step program was launched that encompassed policy, learning environments, teachers, educating the youth, and the creation of green occupations. The benefits of gradual education changes can be observed in Ethiopia and countries in Southeast Asia that have already implemented such reforms. With education reform and better acknowledgment of the past, South Africa can rise to become a global power on the world stage.

This piece was adapted from a class paper written by Michael Menes, an Eleventh-Grade student of Cedar Hill Collegiate Academy in the City of Cedar Hill, Texas.  You can start earning money by becoming our Independent Reporter or Contributor. Contact us at

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