It is said that someone turns 50 every eight seconds in the US and, in Japan, the percentage of people aged 75 and older was forecast to rise by 36% between 2005 and 2015.
During this century, the challenge of aging populations is going to be experienced in many parts of the world, including China and Europe. This has implications for national planning, particularly in the areas of tax planning, health and economic development. In some countries, this will force a greater shift towards technology, even in the military, as countries grapple with a shrinking pool of young people from which to source soldiers.
South Africa is facing a different challenge. It is estimated that 60% of our population is under 30. This makes us a very young popu- lation indeed. But this, too, comes with its own challenges when it comes to national planning. What this means is that South Africa still has the opportunity to unlock her social and economic potential. If we plan well and implement our plans successfully, the twenty-first century may become a South African and African century, as was predicted by former President Thabo Mbeki. If we succeed, our country will become the gateway to Africa, not by mere proclamation but through her contribution to the social, political and economic development of the continent.
Our young population means that we are a country that is pregnant with possibility. For us to give birth to a land of milk and honey, there are certain responsibilities we must all begin to shoulder. The starting point must be a continuous reimagination of our future and an unshakeable belief in the capacity of all South Africans, black and white, young and old, to be winners. On top of this, we must work towards building a future of fully inclusive citizenship, where to be South African is to have the opportunity to participate meaningfully in everything that will turn us into a winning nation.
All this calls for shared wisdom and collective leadership in how we divide national responsibilities between the State and society. A judicious sharing of responsibilities between citizens and the State must entail the inculcation of maturity in how we manage difference and differences. As inspiring as the idea of a collective national effort is, we must not be fooled into thinking we can eradicate tensions in the national discourse and other areas of South African life. The national project of turning our country into a winning nation must take into account the fact that social, political and economic resources will always be scarce, and the scarcity will be the creator of different kinds of cleavages.
So I am calling not for a Utopia but the creation of conditions for effective nation formation and building. Whether we succeed in this regard will depend on the kind of resources we are prepared to invest for our children. As I have said before, education must be the centrepiece of a ‘cradle to grave’ national development strategy. Educating this nation successfully must start with building confidence in the public education system. While a privatised system that exists parallel to the public education system is critical, no country, least of all one with our past, can afford the kind of intellectual and resource disinvestment from which the public education system has been suffering since 1994.
We also cannot afford the dualisation of the public edu- cation sector within which there exist pockets of privilege and an ocean of under- development. This kind of trajectory is not only bad for building sound social relations but is also economically and politically unsustainable. It is not possible to build a successful public education system when the underperformance of public institutions is the main reason the middle class is opting out.
In addition, it is difficult to build the confidence of the middle class when, through their choices, political elites avoid the consequences of their poor performance. In case you think the middle classes are the only ones who are opting out, poor communities who have given up on the State are beginning to start their own schools with the meagre resources available to them. They do this fully aware that, so far, the postapartheid democratic order may not have delivered heaven on earth to them, but investing in the education of their children probably will change the future for the better.
The responsibility we must all shoulder is that of lending intellectual, material and other forms of support to these communities and the State, irrespective of the politi- cal party in power. Another responsibility we need to shoulder is that of restoring the integrity and dignity of public service. At the centre of this mission must be an effort to restore the dignity of the teaching profession. Otherwise our youth will see no value in getting an education.