Keynote speech: David Magang

Batswana Youth are our greatest resource

The times we live in today are truly extraordinary. Economic, social, and technological transformations are linking us in unprecedented ways. The world constantly shifts from being organised around repetition to being organised around change. In every progressive society, the ruling paradigm is becoming “adapt or die, change or perish”.

What is change? It is simply letting go of old ways of going about things — work, conduct, interpersonal relations, governance — which have yielded little if any fruit, to embrace radically new and transformative approaches.

For instance, let us assume you are the superpower known as Uncle Sam. If half a century of crippling economic embargoes on Fidel Castro have failed to rein him in, you may decide to simply let bygones be bygones and offer a new rapprochement, in a gesture known in international diplomacy, as constructive engagement.

Yet change is not readily espoused. Typically, it is resisted. When Jesus walked into the Jerusalem temple, whip in hand, to object to the fact that it was riddled with corruption and a haven for moneylenders, he was crucified a few days later.

In 1645, Frenchman Blaise Pascal invented the calculator with a view to help his tax collector father do arithmetic without the usual mental strain. Paris erupted in riots, disquieted by the prospect of machines replacing men. But the calculator has made both education and working life easier for all.

The Luddites — English 19th century textile workers — revolted against the introduction of mechanisation. It substantially increased productivity and boosted the economy, but all the Luddites foresaw was a precipitous loss of jobs.

Change is needed when the props and practices of the past no longer work. One may ask: which cohort in society is best positioned and best suited as a viable agent of change? It is the youth of course, the very people we are here to salute, herald, and celebrate. Young people are pivotal to any society’s development.

The stability and sustainability of a nation state can only be ensured by engaging youth in conditions that make them equal partners in its design and development. One country that particularly excels in nurturing youthful expression — arguably the secret behind its runaway success — is the United States.

Bill Gates, today the world’s wealthiest man, was only 20 when he co-founded the now iconic software development behemoth Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975. The late Steve Jobs, acknowledged as one of the greatest inventors of modern times, was 21 when he, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne co-founded Apple in 1976, a multinational technology company whose communication gadgets are now an everyday feature of our lives.

Jeff Bizos was 30 in 1994 when he founded amazon.com, the electronic commerce and cloud-computing company and the largest Internet-based retailer in the world. Larry Page was 25 when he co-founded Google, the leading Internet search engine, with Sergey Brin in 1998. And who can forget Mark Zuckerberg? In 2004 at age 20 he and four fellow youths founded Facebook, the world’s most popular online social media and networking service. 

Pakistani wonder girl Malala Yousafzai, a fierce advocate of education for girls, strikes a particular chord with me. Her activism started at the age of 11, when schools in her region began to ban girls from attending school. In response, she launched an online journal in 2009 to document this reverse and to advocate for girls’ rights to education. Two years later, she was awarded Pakistan’s first National Peace Prize for children under the age of 18 who “contribute to peace and education”. Less than a year later, in October 2012, Taliban gunmen boarded her school bus and shot her in the head in front of her classmates. Incredibly, she survived, and has continued her global campaign.

In 2013, Yousafzai was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was announced as the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle against the suppression of children and for the right of education for all children. She was just 17, the youngest to have ever received the award. That same year, the non-profit Malala Fund was established in her honour to expand and amplify the voice of women leaders working to improve their communities. In her acceptance speech, Yousafzai dedicated her win to the world’s “voiceless children” in whom the Malala Fund now invests.

Yousafzai’s story is eloquent testimony that you are never too young to create change. Age is just a number: one must never use it as an excuse not to take that bold step to impact others.

How inspiring it is to know that 50 of our own Malalas with the drive and savvy to lead major social change initiatives exist in our country. They may as yet be unsung, but they are still worthy of note.

If a critical mass of youth is invigorated, the whole globe can be positively influenced. And if youth are the best-fit agents of change, that agency ought to be catalysed through a systematic approach to dealing with change, known as change management. The best medium of this change is education.

Sadly, our education system in Botswana suffers from the chronic malady of stasis. It is outdated, outmoded, and almost totally out of sync with today’s trends, with little relevance to the requirements of our economy.

A United Nations Development Programme report puts Botswana’s literacy rate at 84%. But literacy is not simply the ability to read and write. As University of Botswana dean Dr Lillian Mokgosi rightly puts it, literacy “involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and the wider society”.

Sadly, many of our students leave high school without the knowledge and skills to engage in the world effectively and responsibly. University graduates do not simply measure up when they join the working world: at best, all they are concerned about is a source of livelihood. I call them “educated illiterates” as more often than not, they have to be retrained at enormous cost to the organisation they work in.

Institutional curricula lack the balance between theory and practice. They are not geared to making graduates self-reliant, innovative, and inventive. By the same token, at primary and secondary school level, preparatory education is not relevant and dynamic enough to enable a school leaver to viably run a semausu (tuckshop).

That our educational system leaves a lot to be desired 50 years after independence was acknowledged by government when in 2015 it introduced the “Target 20 000 Initiative” for the rapid upskilling and retooling of unemployed youth to meet current industry demands. A five-year strategy, the programme targets 20 000 youth with the focus areas of finance and business services, tourism, creative industries, mining, energy and water resources, agriculture, construction and transport — all fields identified as being in high demand.

Despite the initiative’s good intentions, however, it is deficient in some respects. For example, unemployed degree holders are entitled to no more than six months of retraining, which is insufficient time to impart and embed a skill or competence.

Coming back to the corps of 50 youth celebrated in these awards, to them I say, know your power. No matter what obstacles come your way, never stop dreaming and achieving. The brains of young people are biologically wired to find innovative solutions to today’s pressing problems. You are never too young to create change. Embrace your age and raise your voice.

The likes of Malala Yousafzai and Mark Zuckerberg took heed of this summons to greatness and have consequently made their marks on history that will live on long after they are long gone. They are the Mother Theresas and Albert Einsteins of posterity. The Batswana Change-makers will attain the same glory. They have every attribute and all the time to conquer the world, and will be the architects of change in the communities they live in. May God stand by them in their every endeavour.

David Magang is chairman of Phakane Estates 

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