Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Investing in our future—the African youth dividend

South Africa has a bright future—with strategic investments now, we will have a vibrant economy fueled by our “youth bulge.” I believe that investments today will pay a youth dividend of increases in economic productivity, innovation and quality of life.
Today, Sub-Saharan Africa is the youngest region in the world, with 44% of the population under the age of 25. Investing in our youth is the most important decision that leaders can make. We must invest in the technology, skills, and social systems necessary for young people to create a new global economy driven by the entrepreneurial skills of African youth. The future of my country and my continent is in the hands of our young people.

Young people want the tools necessary to shape their future—and that is our challenge. On International Women’s Day, I challenge all leaders to invest in girls’ education and health care, because our future depends on it.

When I was a young girl, my parents demonstrated that each person had value. My father was a teacher, and my mother a community health nurse. Their quiet dignity inspired me, and with their support, I had the courage to enter politics and to work with others to end apartheid. In this struggle, I came to understand that youth and women’s issues are fundamental issues of social justice. Today, my view has not changed—I see the clear connection between the education of young people—especially young women—and the ability to create change and to create a better future for all. My passion is to work with young people, and to inspire the next generation of African leaders.

At the Mlambo Foundation and as deputy president of South Africa, I have talked with many young people, and I have been struck by how they experience our world. As I struggle to tweet and communicate electronically, young people are dashing ahead connecting with youth all across the globe.

South Africa has the highest number of cell phones in Africa, with over 96% of the population reporting access to some type of mobile device. Even in poor schools, many children report using a mobile device to access the Internet. From news to social networking and instant messaging, young people in South Africa are using technology to communicate and connect. They are experiencing the world instantaneously, sharing their hopes and dreams, passions and priorities in real time over a tiny screen, employing an emerging technology that is younger then they are.

For young people, the world is interconnected and global—issues of health, climate change, and economic development are all inextricably linked, and they are impatient with politicians who do not see hear their voices. As leaders, we must create space for youth to lead and for their voices to be heard.

For young people, the connection between the environment and family planning is clear—they understand consumption and they understand inequity. They want to act now, to preserve our natural resources and to build healthy communities. The politics of the new conversation on global sustainability only makes sense to them if we are planning to act and not simply talk.
Our job as leaders is clear—we must work with young people to create a more just future for all—in practical terms, we must make increased investments in education—secondary school must be of high quality and accessible to all, and this education must be relevant to young people’s economic futures. We must insure that all youth are free from gender based violence and that gender equality is not merely words on paper, but the lived reality of all our citizens—and finally none of this is possible without increased investments in health care especially family planning services.

My mother understood, and I have seen clearly the link between a women’ health and the health of her family, community and nation. Family planning is planning for a healthy family a healthy nation. That is why I am proud to be a part of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health. The Global Leaders Council is calling for accelerated progress on achieving universal access to family planning and reproductive health.

The future of South Africa is bright—but only if we have the audacity to believe that our youth are not a bulge to be managed but a dividend to be realized. Investing in youth in an expression of our faith in the imagination, goodness and passion of our young people—and our faith that they can create a better future for all people.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was deputy president of South Africa from 2005 to 2008. She was the first woman to hold the position and is the highest ranking woman in the history of South Africa.