I recently occupied the role of a ‘side-line observer’ at the conference of the Round Square schools (a worldwide association of schools which share a commitment beyond academic excellence, to personal development and responsibility) held at Bridge House School in Franschhoek. The high school delegates went through the usual ‘ritual sniffing’ during the first encounters, assessing who is who, filtering their observations through the existing stereotyping. By day two, they were hugging each other before and after sessions as if they were old friends very glad to see one another and glad to be in each other’s company. They came from all over Africa. In my mind’s eye I could see them, 15 to 20 years from now, meeting each other in the different areas of the African marketplace, shaking hands, exchanging greetings, doing business, sharing stories of success, empathising with each other’s tribulations, offering advice or help. All of this without regard to race, gender or creed. All of them nurturing Africa, the Tree of Life.
During the conference, at certain moments, they sang songs and also, in the background, they played a particular song, specially written for the occasion, Youth Rhapsody. The lyrics were written and the music arranged by a talented young composer, teaching at the school. The words were hopeful and inspiring. The first verse was partly a call for engagement and partly a statement:
Let us engage, create a better world; Our many minds, Our one belief, To conquer fear of past mistakes and chains; Seeking wisdom and courage To shed the false remains.
I thought of the words of Joyce Banda who became Malawi’s first female vice-president: “My life mission is to assist women and youth to get political empowerment through education and business”. Words that resonate with this call for engagement. This is an African youth rapidly expanding: 64% under the age of 24 and 40% under the age of 15. In certain regions like East Africa the children and youth represent 80% of the population!
What do they want? A better world, a world where they do not repeat the mistakes of the past, mistakes mostly emanating from the results of the leaders and followers of the generations before them. They have a legitimate desire to realise their full potential, yet have to achieve this in a context of food insecurity, of adverse climate change, of high youth unemployment, and of other challenges like the economic crisis, which exacerbates the pressure on resources and increases volatility.
In the chorus of this song, these youths sing, to rhythmic African drumbeats, with an attitude of expectation:
Sing, our youth! We shall prevail; so we might forge a world, sustaining life for all; Sing, our youth!
This age of grace, Freedom embraced; together we shall lead the way; So sing our youth.
Melodiously they express a positive mind-set, anticipating and visualising a positive picture of the future. So, how do we as their leaders, as their role models assist them in this quest, this anticipation? How do we respond so that we can reap the dividend from this yearning population; how can we create the environment for opportunities for our African youth?
Hearing them sing and seeing them interacting with energy and respect, I have a deep understanding that all of them have a basic need to feel good about themselves; to have the window of hope on a decent life in which they will know how and be allowed to relate in an ethical way; that they will have the skills to ‘forge a world sustaining life for all’.
There is, of course, no simple solution. We should not focus on changing unscrupulous politicians, whose aim it is to transform our youth into voting fodder, keeping them poor and ignorant in order to do so. Rather, we ought to harness possible synergies between education and business to facilitate this youthful energy and ambition.
We can start by getting our education system to complement the abilities of our youth, opening the avenues that will equip for the workplace, ensuring that they have the basic competencies to enter the workplace with confidence. We can identify their aptitudes and preferences early, and create structured contact with the labour market. In doing so, we create very necessary networks early in their lives, building the kind of confidence needed when they venture into life.
Before they repeat the chorus for the last time, I hear them singing the second verse:
Young as we are, Our reach can be far; The vision clear: Compassion for our world, No hunger feared.
Compelled to care and link Youth’s energy, To forge this dream.
The youth’s sense of agency (our reach can be far) should not be underestimated. They see themselves as leaders and they want to be part of something much bigger than we currently may think. We should not doubt their belief that they can make a difference (No hunger feared) to the world around them. The Arab spring is testimony to this. This, however, is not how one would like to see the energy channelled. As sensible, mature and responsible leaders in Africa we would like our youth to have integrity (a moral code that has compassion for our world), to have a strong sense and experience of achievement (Compelled to care); to show responsibility and, above all, the courage to live a life of integrity, with courage to achieve in the face adversity, courage to be responsible for the consequences of their actions. We, representatives of business and education, need to come together and creatively deliberate on ways to achieve this.
Then they may develop the wisdom to sustain (To forge this dream) this new world and pass the flame to the next generation; a flame that, in the place of arson and destruction, promises light and insight.