YERSHEN PILLAY

Agent of change

NYDA chair, Yershen Pillay
Yershen hi res.jpg

Yershen Pillay, Executive Chair of the National Youth Development Agency, talks to Service about burning issues of South Africa’s young people.

The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) was launched in 2009 as a South African youth development agency aimed at creating and promoting co-ordination in youth development matters. Five years later, there’s no doubt that the NYDA has lived up to its promise to ensure that all major stakeholders (government, private sector and civil society) have prioritised youth development and contributed towards identifying and implementing lasting solutions which address youth development challenges.

When was NYDA established and what was the reason for its establishment? What is its core function?

The purpose of the NYDA is to co-ordinate and facilitate youth development in the country. The agency exists to facilitate an enabling environment and provide support for young people in need. It is important that young people understand that the NYDA is not a provider of miracles. There is only so much that can be done to help any young person in need. The NYDA may be able to provide better co-ordination in youth development matters, education and skills development programmes, access to information on career guidance in schools, financial assistance for young entrepreneurs and even establish platforms for greater social cohesion. Ultimately, the success of these interventions is dependent on the active participation of young people. More young people need to join the National Youth Service Programme of the NYDA and contribute to increasing youth volunteerism and building a culture of service. More young people need to set up youth co-operatives in different areas of the economy. What we need is a youth movement driven by a passion to transform our country through occupying the forward trenches. We should not sit at home and complain.

Since 1994, how, if indeed, has the fate and the plight of South African youth changed?

South African youth today have the opportunity to access government scholarships, grants and funding, provided that they are willing to put in the hard work required to excel. Prior to 1994 black, Indian and coloured young people could only dream of attending institutions of higher learning; today we have establishments like the National Student Financial Aid Scheme which has grown from R441 million in 1999 to R8.5 billion in 2013 in funding targeted at previously disadvantaged groups.

Twenty years into democracy, what are some of the biggest challenges our youth face?

Alcohol and drug abuse is one of the leading problems facing our young people; young people explore drugs and alcohol as an escape from their daily lives of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness – this needs to be rectified. Our youth need to be more involved in service, sport and recreation in order to become healthy, valued, contributing members of society.

What is the NYDA currently doing to address these challenges?

As government we have ongoing interventions and awareness campaigns to warn young people against the dangers of experimenting with alcohol and drug abuse, like the ‘You Decide’ campaign which the NYDA is involved in, in partnership with SAB and the dti and as well as interventions to assist those who are already addicted to drugs and alcohol, like the NYDA–Sanca peer support and counselling initiative.

What has been the biggest achievement of the NYDA?

The NYDA has various significant achievements like the Solomon Mahlangu Scholarship Fund, in which the NYDA has invested R10 million this year alone, aimed at supporting poor, rural youth who have excelled academically. This fund was initiated by NYDA and Department of Higher Education. The NYDA has assisted over 250 learners during 2014 alone. The NYDA Matric Rewrite programme was hailed by the president and social partners at the recent Presidential Indaba on Youth Jobs and Skills early this year. The results of the NYDA NCS Second Chance Matric Rewrite has improved every year for the past three years and will enable 3 500 students to rewrite their matric exams during 2014. The NYDA Youth Build Programme in partnership with the Department of Human Settlements, municipalities and FET colleges assists youth to gain practical hands-on experience in building, carpentry and plumbing. The NYDA Grant Programme provides both non-financial and financial support to survivalist and startup businesses through grant funding of R1 000 to R100 000. The NYDA has awarded 675 grants in 2013 alone: The Moses Mabhida Co-operatives Fund supports youth co-operatives through financial and non-financial interventions; the NYDA, IDC and Sefa partnership has earmarked over R2.7 billion in funding for youth entrepreneurs through loan finance and business vouchers.

What is the responsibility of the youth to ensure a better future?

Young South Africans are resilient, innovative and determined despite the many hardships they face. We have found young people from poor, rural areas achieving 7 or 8 distinctions in their matric exams and we hope these young people can become role models to other youth. We as the NYDA have always been firm in our stance in saying that young people must go out and create opportunities for themselves, they must persevere academically and we will make sure we support them through scholarships, entrepreneurship grants and the many other programmes and services we offer. It is the responsibility of young people to ensure they create a better life for themselves and it is the responsibility of government to make sure that we create an enabling environment for them to prosper.

What are the main focal points of youth development at the moment?

We have shifted our core focus towards education and skills development, as research indicates that most young people are still seeking employment rather than pursuing entrepreneurship. This is not to say that we no longer support young entrepreneurs. However, young businesspeople need education and skills before they can become successful business owners, and research has shown a strong relationship between the levels and quality of education and that of youth entrepreneurship.

How do we compare to other countries in terms of youth development?

We have done extremely well in mainstreaming and integrating youth development into all aspects of society after 1994. Prior to 1994, there was no dedicated institutionalised effort at youth development in South Africa. It was only after 1994, with the establishment of the National Youth Commission and Umsobomvu Youth Fund and the eventual merging of these two institutions into the National Youth Development Agency in 2009, that we began to see meaningful progress in matters of youth development. However, we have a long way to go before we reach the levels found in countries like Australia and the UK which rank consistently in the top 5 of all youth development indicators according to the Youth Development Index of 2013.

You have been involved with the BBBEE Council, Human Resource Development Council (HRDCSA) and National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and Pan-African Youth Union (PYU). How has your involvement with these entities prepared you for your current role?

I have learnt a lot from my involvement in the HRDCSA and while serving on the NSFAS board, and this helps to further broaden my understanding of not only youth issues but national and international issues – and how best to address them. My role as the president of the PYU allows me to not only learn more but to also share our successes and best practices that have allowed us as a country to lead in many aspects of youth development.

You are also the national chairperson for the Young Communist League (YCL) of South Africa. Tell us more about your involvement here? What importance do you see the ideologies of communism having for South African youth?

We stand for non-racialism, freedom, equality and the socialisation of the ownership and control of all means of production nationally. Many young people have no access to skills development opportunities such as apprenticeships, learnerships, internships and experiential training because our economy is dominated by private enterprises, which have a single motive – profit making. Accordingly, the YCL calls for opening the workplace as a training space.

How much progress has been made in terms of educating our youth? In your opinion, how far do we still need to go?

South Africa is a better country today because of the sacrifices made by so many youth of the past. In the last 10 years alone between 2002 and 2012, approximately 30 million young South Africans received some form of product or service which included career guidance, loans, vouchers, mentorship, job placements, bursaries or scholarships from government. 1.4 million poor students were able to access higher education as a result of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and 6.1 million youth are currently employed, earning an income to support their basic needs and live a decent life. However, there is a great deal that still needs to be done, especially in ensuring that rural youth have access to opportunities.

How does leadership among our youth look like in South Africa today?

Before 1994 I think youth leadership was a natural order of things. Our predecessors like Solomon Mahlangu, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo were natural born leaders willing to lay their lives down for the sake of our freedom and obviously that generation of leaders cannot be compared to the youth leaders of today, simply because we are facing different odds. However, young people of today should not be underestimated. Forbes magazine recently announced the top 30 most successful entrepreneurs in Africa, and of the 30 young people, seven are South African – so our young people are stepping up, creating opportunities for themselves and others. We obviously still face the issue of ‘entitlement’ among many young people who think that government and business will create opportunities for them so they can sit back and do very little, but generally our young people are taking control of their situations and making things happen for themselves.

Looking at demographics, how are the black youth in South Africa doing in terms of youth development?

There is still a great deal that needs to be done, particularly for rural black youth. The gravity of challenges the youth of South Africa are faced with includes the international scourge of youth unemployment, education and skills development, economic inclusion and issues related to health and wellbeing and considering the numbers of unemployed young people. Government and the NYDA cannot address these challenges alone. The private sector and civil society, among others, need to step in – together we can begin to see progress.

What will the role of the NYDA be going forward?

The role of the NYDA has always been to promote co-ordination and, where required, to facilitate or initiate programmes aimed at youth development. We will continue with this role, but try to reach more young people than before. Youth development requires a multi-pronged approach that involves the enlargement of opportunities and choices for young people. It also requires specific interventions, and job creation is the most pressing matter facing young people today. The Youth Employment Accord signed on 18 April 2013 by government, organised labour, business as well as community and youth formations represents just that. The NYDA will remain steadfast in working towards creating 5 million jobs by 2020 as set out in the Accord.

What makes a good leader and where does leadership start?

Leadership is about idealism in action. There’s no point having a vision and not taking deliberate actions to realise that vision. A good leader knows what to do and how to do it right. It is said that a good leader knows his or her people better than their own mothers do and cares even more. I couldn’t agree more with that characterisation.

Do you have any advice for young people regarding leadership?

Lead by example and take the initiative. Don’t complain or become complacent when opportunities are bountiful. The future belongs to us as the youth and we must start now to shape that future. Selflessness, and not selfishness, is what we need from future youth leaders.

Michael Meiring 

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