With South Africans only just out of the polls after the country’s seventh elections, at least one item has remained consistent on the national agenda for the past 30 years: the youth.

South Africa has a deep commitment to its youth. We know about the valuable role they have to play in shaping the country’s social, political and economic future. And we know that we have a responsibility to support them in this journey. It’s in their interest and in the interest of the generations still to come that they are given everything they need to succeed.

Today, as 4IR transforms the global economy, South Africa’s youth stand at a crossroads. While they are poised to seize new opportunities in technology and innovation, they’re also faced with persistent challenges in terms of inequality, access to quality education, and unemployment.

This Youth Day, we back at how the last 30 years have unfolded for South Africa’s youth, and what the future may yet offer.

Opportunities

The last 30 years have seen remarkable progress in terms of new technology, and the current generation of 18 to 35-year-olds is more connected and digitally native than any generation that has come before.

Some have had the privilege of growing up with educational technologies in their classrooms, a variety of devices in their homes, and the encouragement from teachers and parents to pursue any number of tech-related interests and studies. Schools and universities have pushed STEM subjects in an effort to help South Africa establish its presence on the global 4IR stage. Through important shifts in social paradigms, role models and mentorship, the country is seeing a rise of girls and women in STEM, too.

As they enter the workforce, today’s youth have access to skills, jobs and industries that simply didn’t exist 30 years ago. 4IR has created, and is continuing to create, new careers in technology-driven fields, including software development, data analysis, network management, AI and cybersecurity. As Gen Z enters the working world, the careers available to them are complex, expansive, fluid and full of potential.

Challenges

The benefits of 4IR, however, aren’t distributed evenly. South Africa’s digital divide is significant. While some learners and students can access technology and ICT infrastructure with ease, others can’t access it at all. Especially in rural and under-resourced areas, children, the youth, and job seekers lack reliable internet access and the essential digital devices they so desperately need.

This disparity in technological infrastructure limits their ability to engage in digital learning and online opportunities, which exacerbates educational inequalities. The quality of STEM education is also inconsistent, with many schools lacking the necessary resources and trained teachers, and leaving students unprepared for the demands of the 4IR job market.

South Africa’s devastatingly high youth unemployment rate is another cause for concern. Even those who do secure the skills they need to compete in the world of 4IR battle to find work placements. Without substantial economic growth, the country’s unemployment crisis is likely to linger.

The road ahead

Like many other issues in South Africa, what the future holds for the country’s youth is difficult to predict. However, South Africa’s schools and universities, the private sector, and government commit to this generation every time they seek to improve educational processes, provide access to technology, and create opportunities for entrepreneurship and employment. The process may be slow, but the intention and goodwill is there.

Addressing the digital divide, enhancing STEM education, and ensuring inclusive policy implementation will be crucial in bridging the gap between under-resourced and well-resourced communities. And fostering an environment of gender equality around 4IR opportunities will further empower a broader segment of the youth population. With sustained investment in education, infrastructure and targeted support programs, South Africa’s youth can play a leading role in driving innovation and economic growth in the 4IR era.

South Africa’s youth are its agents of change. They will guide the country into the future, and dictate its failures and successes. Our job is fuel the chances of the latter.

Happy Youth Day, everyone.