Thursday, 15 June 2017

Empowering Youth to Beat the Odds: A National Priority for South Africa

16 June 2017

Imagine a South Africa where every at-risk underprivileged youngster has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.  A South Africa in which the starting line for each youngster is at the same point from the finish line, and in which each has the same quality and quantity of training in preparation for the race. 

Today, with most economists agreeing that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, this utopian dream seems as out of reach as it was 41 years ago, when Hector Pieterson and at least 175 other youngsters died for similar ideals.

At NICRO, we deal with the social consequences of that inequality on a daily basis. 

The childhood profile of the average juvenile offender we work with is something like this: born into a poor and broken community, dysfunctional parental influences (with parents either working far away or simply absent, whether literally or metaphorically), exposed to emotional, physical and/or substance abuse and violence from a young age, inappropriate male role models (family members who are gangsters, criminals and/or addicts), lack of structure and discipline in the domestic environment, lack of play and creative physical spaces, and the product of a sub-standard education system that is neither designed nor able to plug all the gaping holes in that child’s survival armour.  What chance does a youngster have to make it with that sort of start in life?

It is at this tipping point that NICRO’s Youth Justice Programme intervention is critical.  Armed with the newly-acquired social skills and tools (which many of us take for granted as a product of a normal childhood), vulnerable youngsters are empowered to choose to change their lives for the better. 

Not all of them do: some go back to the safety of what they know, and perpetuate a lifetime cycle of crime and imprisonment, with the negative cumulative impacts on their families, communities, taxpayers and society at large. But the majority of NICRO’s juvenile offender clients do choose to beat the odds, and make different decisions, better decisions.  They choose to rewrite their life stories.

So successful are our juvenile offender interventions that NICRO is advocating for national-scale, similarly-designed psycho-social behaviour change interventions for at-risk youth, way before they enter the criminal justice system.

NICRO believes that a specialised and intensive focus on life skills (defined by WHO as ‘abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life’) is a critically important component of a holistic education.

Without it, we are setting up our youth to fail.  

Science and maths alone will only take them so far.  Turning that knowledge into successful income generation and a stable family and community life requires an investment in their personal development, equipping them to deal with the multitude of perils an underprivileged young adult faces in South Africa.

Crime costs South Africans about R1.84 trillion a year, or roughly R34,160 per citizen (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2016).  Large-scale investment in youth life skills (so it becomes a well-resourced, foundational tenet of national education policy) is a cost-effective and efficient way of reducing this economic burden. 

It is also a cost-effective means of beginning to address the rampant inequality gnawing away at our dreams of national prosperity, and of equipping current and future generations of youth to reach their dreams and achieve their full potential. 

Again, imagine a South Africa where every at-risk underprivileged youngster has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

Belinda Bowling is NICRO’s Head of Business Development and Marketing.