There are a number of reasons to be discouraged about South Africa’s prospects right now. At the macro level we are confronted by the recent down grade of the country’s credit rating. Or the recent news that out of 148 countries participating in a World Economic Forum Report, South Africa came exactly 148th in terms of the quality of our mathematics and science. It is more than I can manage to look and see which failed countries stand ahead of us in the Mathematics and Science pecking order. And this follows a few weeks after we had to process the news that the South African “Born Free” generation had turned their back on active citizenship with more than a million of them (a third of the total cohort) not having even registered to vote in the election. Instead of leading us into a new future as a democratic dividend of our freedom, it seemed we were instead lumped with apathy and disengagement.
It was into this rather depressing context that a fresh wind of optimism came bursting into the Foundation last month following the deadline for the annual matric application for the Allan Gray Fellowship. Every year all those matriculants who feel that they wish to shape the future as catalysts for the common good enter into the rigorous Foundation selection process. Well over a thousand of these applications were received, all having navigated their way through the detailed questions around their previous track record, current activities and long-term entrepreneurial aspirations. And it is the content of these applications that paints a completely different picture of the future of South Africa.
Reading through these documents with applicants describing their inspiring and powerfully held dreams and explaining some of the extraordinary achievements they have already undertaken, all perceptions of a disengaged, unskilled next generation are shattered. These submissions provide a unique window into the future and it is a future about which it is worth getting very excited.
From every corner of the country, in leafy suburbs and deep rural communities, orphaned or in more traditional families, children of truck drivers or executives, these ambassadors of change, a real rainbow nation group, describe a new way, a way fueled by innovation and focused on solutions rather than problems.
Outside of the global recognition in fields as diverse as debating, sporting codes and world knowledge olympiads, it is the deep felt passion and strategic understanding of how to go about shaping the future that is most impressive. A consistent thread through the thousands of answers is a deep sense of empathy and an earnest compassion that the status quo must change. Interestingly there is no word about politics nor any suggested reliance on government to provide the solution. It is clear that this group at least appreciates their own agency over change and is not afraid to do things differently, starting with themselves. They show an enlightened understanding that they become responsible for poverty if they do not seek to stop it.
The range of different activities is refreshing: From selling chickens, to importing technology and products from overseas, to a plethora of potentially powerful education initiatives or simply selling enough produce to ultimately provide their family with a proper home. In amongst the many forms we learnt about a new platform for future designers, a sophisticated network for the selling of wholesale luxury items, a clever way of harnessing surplus capacity while people wait in queues, apps to facilitate greater productivity or another addressing the fundamental need for developing computer coding capacity in our future learners. All of this describing initiatives that haven’t taken place before anyone has even finished high school.
And while some might have a concern as to whether this energy and activity will actually lead to real future endeavour, it is not one shared by the Foundation. Over the last few years we have become more convinced that such potential, when properly nurtured, is difficult to stop. It was not too long ago that we were reading similar applications from the likes of Kholofelo Moyaba and Douglas Hoernle and many, many others. It has been our experience that great imagination is the precursor to powerful action and there is no shortage of imagination in the pages of these applications.
As we acknowledged the contribution of youth to our past on 16 June, I am reminded of something Mr. Allan Gray often says – “We should have great confidence in the ability of youth.” Indeed we underestimate them at our peril. Reading through the 2014 Fellowship Application forms, I can’t help but think that he is right. And I can’t help but be optimistic about what the future holds when the potential of these young South Africans is realised.