In 1990, Mashinini died in exile in Guinea, his body was repatriated to South Africa where he was buried. His grave bears the epitaph “black power”. Today, very little is remembered about Mashinini and his vision of “Black Power”.

In the 21st Century, South Africa has managed to enjoy some successes and given birth to dynamic leaders. In 1998 Abey Mokgwatsane joined a group of “twenty something’s” to form Young Business South Africa (YBSA) – a non-profit organisation that aimed to empower a new generation of leaders. Over the last 14 years, YBSA has provided an opportunity for young professionals to network, gain insights, knowledge and experience from a diversity of leading business and political thought leaders. In his case, YBSA was where he met his partner, Wanda Shuenyane and years later, in 2005, they partnered to buy a stake in an experiential marketing agency VWV. The defining moment in his career and a steep learning curve was when VWV won the bid to produce the World Cup Closing and Opening Ceremonies. After working tirelessly in the industry he quickly climbed the ranks. At 34, he is now one of the youngest CEO’s in South Africa, having taken the helm at Ogilvy South Africa in 2011. In the same year he also made the list of top 200 young South Africans.

Abey outlines why he believes the organisation is making a difference in shaping a new generation of thinkers. He explains that YBSA’s vision is about giving young professionals exposure and allowing them to see the possibilities. He also acknowledges that the organisation could do more, perhaps by hosting additional events, networking forums or increasing the number of speakers. Despite these shortcomings, he believes that the organisation is playing its part in making a difference and emphasizes that while YBSA has created a platform, it’s up to its members to harness the opportunities.

At 19, Teboho Tsietsi McDonald Mashinini was at the forefront of the Soweto student uprising of 16 June 1976. One of his favourite poems was the Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson

Abey however is amongst a handful of achievers who managed to get access to quality education, exposure and a solid family background with parents who encourage him to pursue a dream with conviction. Yet despite all these interventions, South Africa is still haggling to find competent, visionary young leaders who are able to steer the country into the next chapter.

The overriding conversation in 2012 is the thousands of young South Africans who are slipping through policy, political and economic cracks. Less than 40 years ago, thousands of young South Africans were able to collectively contribute to the course of South African history and continue to be hailed as inspirational. Soon after 1976, the South African government bowed to political pressure and ramped up the number of schools for black South Africans. The downside, of course, was the quality of the training. Despite the deteriorating standard of education, the generation of 1976, had a shared momentum and a sense of unity that no longer exists in the youth of today. In the build up to the 1976 uprising, the teachers were instrumental in mobilizing students in the fight against Afrikaans as the language of choice. In the 21st Century many teachers are far less committed to tackling the modern day challenges. The 30 percent pass rate, for example, is often highlighted as being as damaging as the apartheid government’s insistence on teaching black pupils in Afrikaans.     

Another challenge facing South African youth in the 21st Century is undoubtedly, a lack of access to higher education. 40 percent of matriculants, who successfully complete high school, have little or no access to tertiary education. It’s then no wonder that the debate around a youth wage subsidy is so hotly contested. While a handful of South Africans enjoy the privilege of good education, university and possibly gap years, the majority continue to sit on the sidelines of society, with no national roadmap for the way ahead. What aggravates the situation further is that the issues have become politicized because of the key role that the youth had in bringing about transformation.

Topping the list is a desperate need for the political will to overhaul South Africa’s education system. For the last 10 years, South African pupils have slipped down the ranks and being Africa’s largest economy has done nothing to improve the level of education. Fred Swaniker, CEO of the Johannesburg based African Leadership Academy, recruits high school pupils from across the continent. He has spoken out on many occasions at the lack of maths and science competency in South African pupils compared to their African counterparts.

Since 1994, the South African government has worked on numerous policies to develop and nurture the youth generation. In the current context, it’s still difficult for young South Africans to understand the mandate of organisations such as the Umsombomvu Youth Fund (2001) and National Youth Development Agency (2009).

Prior to 1994, South Africans fighting for liberation expected nothing from the government. The pendulum has swung and young people are increasingly expecting government intervention to transform their lives or private sector programmes to support their ambitions. So the biggest hurdle facing South African youth is developing a ‘can-do’ social psyche.

As a marketer, social commentator, communicator, and leader, Abey has unique insights to the psyche of modern day youngsters. He argues that if he were to address the young revolutionaries of ‘76, he would articulate the reality that their struggle would continue well into the future. That political, economic and social emancipation would simply change form and be replaced by a new set of circumstances. He reflects on his success as a combination of exposure and being challenged to walk a tough path between success and failure.  

The negative and positive trends of South African society are sharply pronounced in the younger generation. Images of school pupils drinking on the way to school are splashed across the media, drug abuse is rife and exploits of sexual activity become viral on mobile phones. In 1976, pregnant teenagers could not go to school, today teenage pregnancy and abortion has spiked.

With internet connectivity and mobile phones, many young South Africans have access to free media, free expression and easy access to information - a comparable privilege to the generation of the ‘70s who only got exposure to television in 1976. In the media, celebrated youth leaders are in politics, sports and entertainment. Many of their achievements are notable, but they don’t provide sustainable, integrated examples of what the young generation can learn or aspire to.  

Abey argues that leadership is not just about technical knowledge and competence, but is about courage, practicing good judgment, emotional intelligence, empathy and passion. Although the generation of 1976 may not have had access to the best technical skills, their collective vision was able to change the course of history. Today, young students, live in a global context where they consume international media with little opportunity to think deeply or explore new possibilities.

In the early ’90s, South African youth culture was driven by optimism which turned into disillusion and then fragmentation. At the same time, youth became materialistic, apolitical and swept up in South Africa’s consumer culture. It is well documented that South Africa’s youth is described as a ticking time bomb, but the solutions to tackling the problem are very murky. But considering 40 percent of the population falls within the youth category, South Africa needs to take on the challenges with battle like precision.