born freeIn South Africa, children born after 1994 are known as ‘born free’.

Born free of an experience of Apartheid…born into a free, democratic country.

Now it’s unclear as to whether it was a consequence of finally achieving a democratic dispensation; or the excitement of seeing Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar holding the Webb Ellis trophy, but more babies were born after 1994 than ever before in South Africa.

The result is that in 2016, 50% of all South Africans (that’s 27 million people) can today be considered to be ‘born free’. That means that half of the country’s population is now below the age of 22.

Having been born free – these are the students who are demanding to be educated for free too.

Although right now the focus of this group’s unhappiness is on the subject of free education, the reality is that this particular issue is just the tip of the iceberg.

What’s really developing here is a perfect storm, created by a combination of challenges, which is guaranteed to make what we are seeing now with the #feesmustfall campaign, look like quiet trance party.

The global economy has ground to a halt and thanks to aging populations abroad, doesn’t exactly show a lot of promise of revival in the future. The South Africa economy has stalled and the private sector has very little appetite for expansion or job creation in the current environment. Automation, migrants from the rest of Africa, unprecedented peer-group competition, the collapse of the resource commodity ‘supercycle’ and a populist government who have made many promises and kept very few of them; are all factors which are combining perfectly to weave a thick blanket of desperation that smothers the future of today’s youth.

While obviously education is an important pillar of human development, it is just one aspect which needs to be urgently addressed by South African society to avoid an impending national disaster.

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The structure of our entire economy needs to be redesigned so that there is fertile ground for these newly educated minds to flourish; otherwise all we are doing with free tertiary education is kicking the proverbial can down the road.

The National Development Plan (NDP) is a vital component of that possible solution, but after four years – the government still shows little interest in its actual implementation. Time is running out for us to fundamentally shift the focus of our economy. Modernising our collective future takes time, it can’t be effectively done overnight. And in the meantime, the frustration will manifest as fee protests, service delivery demonstrations and increasing levels of violent anarchy.

As many people who have spent time in rehab will know, the first step to salvation is to admit that you have a problem. And then to have a clear understanding of what that problem really is.

Our problem is not just about how education is funded in South Africa. It’s far deeper and complex than that. What’s needed is an honest assessment, of ‘where it is we are going’ and ‘where we would like to go’ as a society; followed by a collective effort to make sure that we structure our institutions and approach to achieve that ambition effectively. It’s an effort which demands that government, academia, labour, the youth and business work together.

The clock is ticking…

It’s going to take leadership and some maturity and will have to be done fairly quickly. Otherwise, our ‘born frees’ are going to lose hope with the promise they were granted by the name they were offered when they emerged as young South Africans. And under that scenario, nobody wins and nobody will be free.

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