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ar­tic­i­pants at last week’s World Eco­nomic Fo­rum on Africa held sev­eral ses­sions ded­i­cated to find­ing an­swers to the con­ti­nent’s high youth un­em­ploy­ment rate.

More than 100 young lead­ers from 31 coun­tries dis­cussed ways to cre­ate jobs. At the end of the meet­ing, del­e­gates agreed ur­gent at­ten­tion was needed to ad­dress the plight of the youth and pro­vide it with bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties for em­ploy­ment.

As we com­mem­o­rate Youth Month, it is im­por­tant to re­flect on this is­sue, as we are con­stantly warned our un­em­ployed youth rep­re­sents a tick­ing time bomb. In the re­cent past, we have wit­nessed large num­bers of un­em­ployed youth in the fore­front of com­mu­nity un­rest in our coun­try and the rest of the world.

In 2014, youth un­em­ploy­ment in South Africa was said to be at 36.1%, and the job­less youth made up 75% of the coun­try’s un­em­ployed. Ur­gent ac­tion is re­quired to deal with this sit­u­a­tion. How­ever, we have to ac­knowl­edge there are no quick fixes for youth un­em­ploy­ment.

The crux of the is­sue of youth un­em­ploy­ment is a lack of rel­e­vant skills. Many em­ploy­ers can­not find young peo­ple with the job skills they need. The re­al­ity is many of our youths with­out dig­i­tal skills are be­ing left out of a grow­ing num­ber of job and busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties. To pro­mote em­ploy­ment for youths, it is es­sen­tial they ob­tain dig­i­tal skills.

In­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy (ICT) is trans­form­ing all sec­tors of the econ­omy, in­clud­ing farm­ing, man­u­fac­tur­ing and health. The de­mand for ba­sic and ad­vanced ICT skills cuts across all sec­tors.

As gov­ern­ment, we ac­knowl­edge we have to do more, and do so quickly, to en­sure we lever­age ICT to con­trib­ute to im­prov­ing ser­vice de­liv­ery and ef­fi­ciency in the pri­vate sec­tor and cre­ate jobs.

This year we are start­ing phase one of broad­band roll­out – called SA Connect – by con­nect­ing health fa­cil­i­ties, schools and other gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions to poor com­mu­ni­ties. We are in the pi­lot stage of con­nect­ing gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties in eight poor dis­trict mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to fast and re­li­able in­ter­net.

SA Connect sets a tar­get of broad­band ac­cess at 10 megabits per sec­ond for all South Africans by 2030 and 100 megabits per sec­ond for 80% of the pop­u­la­tion that same year.

What is re­quired to break the cy­cle of poverty and un­leash youth po­ten­tial in cre­at­ing change for them­selves and so­ci­ety is a determined fo­cus on ICTs. Most young peo­ple are not ben­e­fit­ing from the op­por­tu­ni­ties in the fast-chang­ing ICT sec­tor.

This is de­spite the fact that tech­nol­ogy has great prom­ise in in­creas­ing the eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment of the youth. For ex­am­ple, it is cre­at­ing new mar­ket sec­tors that did not ex­ist a few years ago, such as so­cial me­dia and the mo­bile-apps econ­omy. There is also an ex­plo­sion of on­line learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and re­sources for job­seek­ers and dig­i­tal en­trepreneurs.

High youth un­em­ploy­ment not only ham­pers eco­nomic growth, but for the youth it can be de­bil­i­tat­ing and af­fect their abil­ity to lead pro­duc­tive lives.

Ur­gent at­ten­tion is needed to ad­dress the plight of youths and pro­vide them with bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties for em­ploy­ment. That is why we have in­cluded ICT in all our youth em­ploy­ment strate­gies. The de­mand for ba­sic and more ad­vanced ICT skills has meant we have had to come up with a num­ber of ini­tia­tives to in­crease the ba­sic dig­i­tal lit­er­acy of South Africans, es­pe­cially young peo­ple.

Our iKamva Na­tional e-Skills In­sti­tute has been funded with a bud­get of R36 mil­lion to drive the skills pro­gramme. Work­ing in part­ner­ship with the depart­ment of small busi­ness devel­op­ment, we have de­vel­oped a com­pre­hen­sive dig­i­tal en­trepreneur­ship pro­gramme to pro­vide so­lu­tions to young dig­i­tal en­trepreneurs. So far, more than 5 000 schools coun­try­wide have been pro­vided with in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity and state of the art com­puter fa­cil­i­ties.

This pro­gramme – which has been sup­ported by non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions and the pri­vate sec­tor – has em­pow­ered young peo­ple to be­come lead­ers in the ICT sec­tor and foster an ICT-savvy com­mu­nity. Through our techno-girl pro­gramme, we are also em­pow­er­ing and en­cour­ag­ing young women to pur­sue ca­reers in ICTs.

All of th­ese op­por­tu­ni­ties point to the need to pro­mote col­lab­o­ra­tive learn­ing in dig­i­tal skills devel­op­ment and the pro­mo­tion of uni­ver­sal ac­cess of youths to ICT. In ad­di­tion to the ed­u­ca­tional and eco­nomic ad­van­tages gained as a re­sult of th­ese pro­grammes, ac­cess to ICT can also con­trib­ute to a work­ing democ­racy.

Greater ac­cess to new me­dia would mean the public not only has bet­ter ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion, but is able to con­trib­ute in­for­ma­tion. As del­e­gates to the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum on Africa ob­served, none of th­ese so­lu­tions to youth un­em­ploy­ment is sim­ple, but nei­ther are they im­pos­si­ble.

Mkhize is deputy min­is­ter of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and postal ser­vices

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