Brian Eagar, CEO of Towerstone

Quality education for all, youth empowerment, and collaboration were arguably at the top of Madiba’s wish list for South Africa. “We can only succeed as a nation if we build one another and build our country together,” he once stated. Those words ring as true today as they did almost three decades ago when he said them. But as a country with the second highest youth unemployment rate in the world and a society marred by socio-economic inequality and financial desperation, how do we even start addressing the wrongs and setting ourselves on the right course?

To honour Madiba’s wishes, we, as business leaders, must drive collaboration. Collaboration with local organisations and educational institutions supports the development of human capital, which is vital for long-term business sustainability. By actively participating in grassroot-level initiatives, companies not only meet their ESG goals but also enhance their brand reputation, attract top talent, and build strong relationships with stakeholders. There are numerous ways to get involved and below I share a few thoughts.

The education dilemma

One of the key contributing factors to South Africa’s high youth unemployment rate is the poor state of our country’s education system. Insufficient resources, inadequate educator training, and a misalignment with market demands have resulted in a significant skills gap. As business leaders, we hold a unique position of influence, and we have a responsibility to engage and contribute to transformation and help drive the necessary changes to enhance the quality and accessibility of education. Without this, our youth is neither empowered nor equipped for the demands of the modern workforce.

We can do this by investing in educational initiatives, such as scholarship programmes, infrastructure development, and curriculum enhancements. Corporate leaders can create opportunities for quality education, especially in underprivileged areas. They can also engage in mentorship programmes, where employees serve as mentors, sharing their expertise and experiences with students and educators. Furthermore, corporate leaders can support vocational training programmes that equip young individuals with practical skills and align them with industry needs.

Collaborative solutions

A powerful and thus far very successful collaborative initiative is the government-backed and business-led YES programme, or the Youth Employment Service initiative. This endeavour has seen power players such as Investec, BMW, Volkswagen SA and 2,200 other companies create over 100,000 employment opportunities for previously unemployed youth and inject R6 billion into the economy.

By joining forces through initiatives such as these, government entities and corporate leaders demonstrate their commitment to driving systemic change and making a tangible difference in communities by bridging the gap between education and employment. Internships, job placements, and training opportunities create room for individuals to gain valuable work experience, develop essential skills, and enhance their employability, contributing to the sustainable development of local talent. Through this programme, the private sector, government, and individuals create a dynamic synergy that addresses both immediate employment needs and long-term skills enhancement.

The youth a have a crucial role to play in tackling the unemployment crisis. As future leaders and change agents, they possess unique insights, energy, and a fresh perspective on the challenges they face. It is imperative that we as business leaders empower them to actively participate in finding solutions. Empowering the youth with agency means involving them in meaningful ways, engaging them in dialogue, and actively seeking their input in designing solutions to the challenges they face. By doing so, we instil a sense of belonging and ownership, making them feel like valued participants in the journey towards finding solutions.

Empowering communities

While systemic changes are crucial, engaging with local communities and understanding their unique challenges provides leaders opportunity for impactful leadership at grassroots level. In the work that I do, relationships are all-important. The connections leaders have with their people make the difference between having a highly functional, engaged workforce, or not.

Leadership is not just about making decisions and driving results; it is about fostering deep and meaningful connections with the very people who drive the engine of our organisations – the workers, the individuals on the ground, and the members of the communities in which they operate. These relationships form the foundation of a thriving and cohesive ecosystem. When leaders invest time, energy, and empathy into building strong connections, they create an environment where trust, loyalty, and mutual respect flourish. They become not just leaders but allies, mentors, and champions for the aspirations and well-being of those they lead. The power of these relationships extends beyond the workplace; it spills over into the community, inspiring collaboration, social cohesion, and a shared sense of purpose. In these connections lie the heartbeat of authentic leadership – cultivating leaders who genuinely care, listen, and understand the aspirations and challenges of their workers. It is through these relationships that leaders can truly ignite the flames of inspiration, unlock the untapped potential within their teams, and make a profound and lasting impact on the lives they touch.

Measuring impact

To successfully bring about change, all stakeholders involved in the process need to be held to account. As business leaders, it is crucial to track and measure the impact of our initiatives. By setting clear goals, establishing key performance indicators, and regularly evaluating progress, we can ensure that our efforts are making a tangible difference. Transparent reporting on employment outcomes, skills development, and community engagement fosters accountability and inspires others to take action.

Of course, initiatives undertaken not only have long-term economic benefits, but it also aligns with companies’ ESG targets. By actively engaging in initiatives aimed at empowering the voiceless and creating opportunities, businesses demonstrate their commitment to social responsibility and sustainable development, which directly contributes to the social pillar of ESG.

In closing, collaboration doesn’t always have to be grand and encompassing. Even small acts can hold profound significance. When individuals come together, pooling their resources, expertise, and passion, they can create a web of interconnected support that uplifts and transforms lives. And considering that people are the lifeblood of every business, neglecting this means failing all our stakeholders, including our shareholders.