NYDA chair reflects on term in office

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) has worked hard to turnaround its fortunes from the glaring negative spotlight it found itself under a few years ago - to become an institution keen on moving with the times and requirements of young people in a state of constant change.

Nobody knows this better than soon-to-be former Chairperson of the agency, Sifiso Mtsweni. The agency is primarily tasked with tackling challenges faced by the youth. 

“When I was first told that I will take up this role, I was quite worried  because when we came in, the NYDA brand was not necessarily covered in glory,” says a frank Mtsweni, who took over as chairperson in May 2017.

At the time of Mtsweni’s appointment, it could be argued that the agency was yet to shake-off negative publicity generated by the infamous 17th World Festival of Youth and Students in December 2010, among others.

Among the top things that needed to be done when Mtsweni - who admits to having an affliction to the use of “big English” [verbosity] and power-point presentations that don’t speak to how to address pressing societal issues- came into office, was to build a relationship of trust between the agency and the country’s youth.

The agency, which in previous years battled with its finances and governance issues, today has had five consecutive clean audits, including in the 2018/2019 financial year.

This as government has over the years reiterated the importance of ensuring the wellbeing and prosperity of young people.

This was also evident in the recent State of the Nation Address (SONA) where President Cyril Ramaphosa made several pronouncements relating to young people who make  up a large portion of society.

Among the pronouncements was that the agency, together with the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD), would provide assistance to 1000 young entrepreneurs in 100 days.

The agency has already kicked off this campaign and often its social media platforms are abuzz with daily updates of youth owned enterprises that have received assistance.

Elaborating on this, Mtsweni said while there is much talk on the ease of doing business, very little is said on the ease of conducting small business.

“We’ve developed the Grant Programme where at the beginning we said we should stop giving people loans. When you give out a loan for a person to start a business, that loan becomes a liability for that particular business. Business owners spend three to four years paying back the loan instead of growing their business,” he said.

Through the programme of which updates leading to the 100-days mark, can be seen on a regular basis on social media, young entrepreneurs are provided with an opportunity to access both financial and non-financial business development support.

Through the programme, entrepreneurs also benefit from mentorships and market linkages.

“For example, if you want to open an industrial car wash, you need machinery. We would then ask the entrepreneur to go and source quotations for the required machinery and once they bring back the quotations, we go and buy the required machines,” he said.

The agency came up with this mechanism as a way to cure the ailment of buying “expensive shirts and shoes” with funds meant for their budding businesses.

Mtsweni said the agency is pleased that the DSBD has partnered with it in moving the programme which has a 67% success rate, forward.

“We want to do this thing in a smart fashion. [In a manner that is] measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound. Through social media, we are releasing the names of the young people we are assisting,” said the chairperson.

Also in the SONA, President Ramaphosa said R64 billion, over the next couple of years, would be availed for student accommodation purposes given the challenges faced by universities and Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges.

In addition, nine TVET college campuses are being built in the various provinces.

Reflecting on this, the chairperson said the conversation around higher education has predominantly centred around universities and not necessarily on the needs of TVET colleges.

The flow of conversation revolved mostly around tuition and not necessities like accommodation, the cost of textbooks and the sustenance of students at campuses.

“I think the President is on the money on this one. This is the product of a President that listens to young people. We’ve consistently said the nature and character of our economy currently requires young people who have technical skills. Those technical and vocational skills can only be attained through TVET colleges.”

He commended the strides made in ensuring that more young people gain access to institutions of higher learning.

“When the Higher Education Act was passed in 1999, you only had around 108 000 students in our country most of which were white students. If you looked at statistics of graduations at the time, 70% of graduates were white males [who had studied] at universities like the University of Cape Town, Wits University and Rhodes University.”

Statistics today paint a picture of where 70% of students are made up of young women, he said, adding that there are more black graduates today than ever before.

While South Africa provides free higher education for poor and working class students, historical debt as well as ensuring campus safety, particularly for young women, remain as bugbears.

This is despite a March 2019 announcement by the Department of Higher Education and Training to allocate nearly a billion rands for the scrapping of historical debts for National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funded students.

In its daily work, the NYDA has also not forgotten the plight of young people with disabilities.

To prove this, Mtsweni in January started taking Sign Language lessons prior of the President’s announcement that government is in the process to finalise the recommendation by the Parliamentary Constitutional Review Committee to make Sign language South Africa’s 12th official language.

This process said the President during the SONA, followed the Department of Basic Education’s recognition of South African Sign Language as a home language.

Mtsweni hopes to use his new skill at an upcoming disability conference.

“One of the things I’ve promised is that I would take sign language lessons and address the conference in Sign Language,” he said.

Deliberations at the conference scheduled for April 2020, will form part of Mtsweni’s handover report.

But just how well have those lessons being going? “It was a big tough in the beginning,” he said.

The agency which has seen a growth from 15 to a total 49 offices across the country, also distributes its material in braille.

Among the issues raised by graduates in recent years is that of pre-requisite experience that many employers seek in entry level jobs.

Describing it as a “demon” - Mtsweni said many a graduate were sitting at home as a result of experience needed as a pre-requisite in the workplace.

At the commemoration of Youth Day in Polokwane last year, the President echoed the chairperson’s call for work experience, particularly for young people, to be done away with.

The outgoing chairperson also recommended that a job-seeker’s grant be established for unemployed youth.

The fund, he said, could be used to fund  the costs of applying for work, including the printing of CVs and transport costs involved in the dropping-off of CVs at prospective employers’ premises.

As his term comes to an end, Mtsweni is of the view that the NYDA has become an attractive institution to young people. This he said can be seen by the over700 applications received for the agency’s next board.

In December 2019, Parliament’s Sub-committee of the Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, and the Select Committee on Health and Social Services put out an advertisement calling for applications of individuals to serve on the board of the agency.

Applications for board members who will be tasked with the management of the operational policy of the agency, as well as exercising control over its powers and the execution of its functions, closed in late January.

 “It was for the first time that the NYDA had over 700 applications from young people. If you contrast it with 2015 when the process was opened, a lot of young people did not apply [at the time]. Having skimmed through some of the applications, one can tell that the future of the NYDA looks bright because we see a lot of young people with various skills and qualifications,” he said.

Mtsweni, who describes his experience at the agency as “interesting”, is confident that the organisation has been stabilised and will be able to address the needs of South Africa’s young people.

“I think we leave the NYDA in a very stable environment and whoever comes in next will find a well-oiled machine. We’ve done our best,” he said. –SAnews.gov.za