[A version of this article was published in Daily Maverick on June 15, 2018.]

In South Africa we fetishize ‘youth’, even as we underdevelop our young people, squander their potential, and exclude them from leadership.

I’m skeptical in general about some of our national days (and months): Youth Day, Africa Day, Women’s Day. We are great at performing celebration and commemoration on these occasions. We are not so great at leveraging youth, uniting as Africans, and respecting women in the other 364 days, or 11 months respectively.

Consider Youth Day. We rightly commemorate the courageous sacrifice of the 1976 generation. What is as important, and where we fall short, is drawing and applying the right lessons from this pivotal moment in our history.

Where many older South Africans had been cowed by the repression of the Apartheid state in the 1960s, the youth stood up in defiance to a powerful regime. Rather than take the path of least resistance, the youth of 1976 – to some degree assisted and inspired by Black Consciousness Movement activists and ideas – chose to grapple with the issues of their time. With the recklessness and fearlessness of youth, they put aside the hesitation and equivocation and forced the issue.

Let us celebrate youth by harnessing the unique qualities of young people: their impatience and hunger for a better world; their new perspectives and lack of attachment to the way things are currently done; their energy. Let young people into the corridors of power to influence decisions which will influence the society they will live in for the next 50 years or more.

So yes, let’s commemorate, but then let’s act.

Youth day/month means little alongside a broken education and training system, an economy which does not create sufficient opportunities for our young people, and a stagnant political leadership which has run out of ideas.

Investing in human capabilities through high quality education and training is one of the most powerful enablers of national development, citizen empowerment, social mobility, and self-actualisation. We are in the era of the knowledge economy. People with advanced skills have many options to earn a good income doing work they enjoy, and build the life they want. People with less advanced skills have far fewer options to earn a livelihood. A 2013 CDE study on graduate unemployment found that based on their highest educational qualification, 5% for South Africans with a university degree were unemployed (comparable with the most developed countries), 16% of those with non-degree tertiary education, 29% of those with a matric, and 42% for those with less than 12 years of schooling.

With that in mind consider that half the learners which start school in Grade 1 do not graduate. 80% of our Grade 4 learners cannot read. Our learners were last in science and second last in math of 39 countries assessed in an authoritative international study. This is devastating evidence that we are actively limiting the potential of our youth.

I suspect we talk about youth more than any other leading democracy. And yet we are a young country with old leaders. Our population’s median age is 26, but most of our political leaders are in their 60s and 70s. This is in contrast to transformative leaders globally like Emmanuel Macron who took office at 39 (France’s median age is 41), Barack Obama (47), Bill Clinton (46) and Tony Blair (44). Even Chinese leader Xi Jin Ping, who assumed leadership in 2013 at 59, compares well by South African standards.

While age alone is not a determinant of whether one can be a transformative leader, combined with what we know about post-colonial African history and the political, economic and social challenges which have held back our development, it indicates that we have a political culture which is dominated by stale, outdated leaders often unwilling or unable to bring new ideas, energy and leadership approaches to bear on our development agenda.

There are also subtle ways in which age matters, which we don’t explore. A 40 or 50-something leader will have to live with the consequences of their decisions and the judgment of their citizens for decades. This is a significant incentive to get it right. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has tried to strengthen this incentive with a cash prize.

Successful ex-politicians become respected elder statesmen (Carter, Mandela, Mbeki), sought after speakers/authors (Clinton, Obama). Disastrous former leaders can face isolation (see Nixon) or even prison.

60 or 70-year olds might not expect to be around for much longer and may not much care about the long-term impact of their decisions or the perceptions of the public in their remaining years. Morbid, I know, but leaders have the potential to influence our society – and even the natural environment – profoundly for better or worse, and so it bears thinking about. I’m not arguing that 60 or 70 somethings should never lead; I am arguing that they should not exclusively lead.

Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch was asked in an interview how you know when it’s time to go. He explained that when he stepped down in 2001 after two decades in charge of the company, he was successful (he’d been named ‘Manager of the Century’ by Fortune Magazine), enjoying the job and had the energy to keep doing it. Rather, he says, the talented leaders beneath him in the organization “…expect movement. And I would have expected it when I was there. There’s a certain rhythm.” What’s South Africa’s leadership rhythm?

The pace of technological change and globalization has increased at dizzying speed. As I’ve written elsewhere, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are transforming the economics of the world, and the world’s most developed countries. In the West, the industrial titans of old have been replaced by Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google, all of which were founded by twenty and thirty somethings. Naspers constitutes almost 20% of the JSE’s market capitalization, in large part due to its stake in Chinese tech company Tencent, whose most prominent founder – Ma Huateng – was 27. Here our young people look on as leaders who failed to complete the third industrial revolution attempt to navigate us through the fourth. We cannot afford to be left behind again.

So here are three starting points to demonstrate our appreciation of the importance of youth over the next 364 days and beyond.

First, make improving education quality a national priority in action, not words. Appoint an actual accomplished and respected education expert as Minister of Basic Education. Someone like Jonathan Jansen, Graeme Bloch or Mary Metcalfe. Give them the political support to drive necessary reforms which are unpopular with vested interests. Reform the system to make non-performing public schools improve or lose students (with their state funding) to private education groups. Make clear the raison détre of our education system is to develop our young people to be globally competitive, and nothing should conflict with this.

Provide fee-free education to poor, working class and lower middle class students on merit, in a sustainable way. Give students support, and hold them accountable for finishing their degrees in a reasonable time. Fix vocational and technical training and adapt the German apprenticeship model. Get business heavily involved in shaping university and college curricula. Invest massively in teaching our young people STEM subjects and core 4th industrial revolution skills like software programming, coding and advanced manufacturing.

Second, leverage young people to help find solutions for economic growth and transformation. The economy needs to grow faster to create opportunities for the many young people who are unemployed, and who enter the workforce each year. We need to resolve the political inertia, policy blockages and other factors which limit our economic competitiveness. Our economic policy discourse has become stale, which is why policy areas like mining, telecommunications and land reform have ground to a halt. We need new ideas and perspectives on how to advance growth and transformation. Young South Africans are increasingly making their presence felt as thought leaders, and we need much, much more of this.

Finally, young people must take several seats at the table. History shows us that the establishment is never eager to cede power. I am convinced that for our development to take off, we need a new generation of leaders which are formed in the democratic era, are at the forefront of policy, business and technological innovation, are dynamic, woke and comfortable operating at local, African and global levels. Leaders who are forward looking, who can anticipate, welcome and indeed shape a better future for us all. This generational shift is required to unlock the progress our country, and youth, deserves.