IN AN age of rapid change and uncertainty, when the predicative value of long-held beliefs is being challenged almost daily, one of the few enduring and reliable pointers to the future of a country is the wellbeing of its young people. Far from being discarded as "yesterday’s wisdom", no reputable risk, investment or development agency will today dare to pronounce on such matters without a proper demographic diagnostic that thoroughly scrutinises a state’s youth cohort. Their energy, attitudes and empowerment to exploit opportunity are what determine the direction in which a society moves.

This emphasis on young people is also what makes the National Planning Commission’s (NPC’s) National Development Plan (NDP) a document worth engaging. It has already been hailed broadly for the sense of common purpose and direction it has induced in the search for a more equitable and caring society. While the devil may still be in the detail, its endorsement — even in a sector such as mining, in which relations with the government are currently strained — is a major step towards consolidating the elusive and, up to now, diluted South Africa Inc brand. But its real persuasiveness stems from the fact that it is not yet another scenario exercise but is grounded in a thorough, forthright and empirical engagement with South Africa’s demographic realities. Its bias, as one would expect of a forward-looking document, is towards the interrogation of obstacles and opportunities for this country’s young people.

The rationale for this emphasis is obvious. With 66% of our 51-million population younger than 35, we are not merely speculating about the future, it is already here. And when we digest this fact, together with the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey’s finding that about 70% of the working-age unemployed also fall in this category, we should conclude that South Africa’s "happily ever after" is far from secured.

Having drafted the first version of the NDP when the "Arab Spring" was sweeping across North Africa, one can only imagine that the images of angry, disillusioned young citizens must have weighed heavy on the minds of NPC commissioners. The document warns that the treatment of our youth will determine whether our demographic make-up will offer the "perfect window" for opportunity, or conspire with unemployment and a weak education system to create the "perfect storm".

Not insignificantly, the NPC handed the final version of the NDP to the government at a ceremony in Parliament a day before the Marikana massacre, which arguably offered a glimpse of what such a storm might entail.

It is against this backdrop that the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s (IJR’s) Policy and Analysis Unit prioritised an emphasis on youth matters last year. In December, it launched the findings of the 12th round of its annual South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey that was conducted in March and April among a nationally representative sample of South Africans. Highlighting the opinions of young South Africans, the report noted that although many older South Africans may view young South Africans as a ticking time bomb, they view themselves as creative, resilient and alive with potential. However, the data also pointed to a sense of disillusionment with the state’s responsiveness to their concerns, and widely held view that inequality is much more than a gap; it is a wall that excludes them from becoming part of a more inclusive society.

The IJR this week launched its annual Transformation Audit. Titled The Youth Dividend: Unlocking the Potential of Young South Africans, the publication tackles the triple complex of poverty, inequality and unemployment from a youth perspective. While it notes that young people’s economic vulnerability is not a peculiarly South African phenomenon, it is more pronounced given the deeply entrenched history of exclusion upon which it is superimposed.

This disproportionate effect comes to the fore in several contributions to this year’s volume. One, for example, shows that while just more than 25% of all adults find themselves in the poorest 20% of the population, the figure for children is 43%. Another, on the vulnerability of young people in the labour market, suggests that the effect of the global recession and pedestrian growth since has been devastating for young people. Between 2008 and 2010, for example, unemployment for females aged 15-24 increased by 4% and for young males in the same category it jumped by 6%. These losses have not been erased since.

Given the complexity of the youth unemployment problem, there are no simple solutions. While the audit contains support for the idea of a youth wage subsidy, the research also suggests it needs to form part of a more comprehensive suite of interventions — as a standalone intervention it is unlikely to make a major dent in youth unemployment. This is a view that was echoed recently in President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation speech. Albeit controversial, cash transfers to young people have been one such intervention that was mooted in African National Congress (ANC) circles last year. This year’s audit also explores this option and singles out different case studies, where it assisted in creating sustainable livelihoods and/or employment.

But measures that are aimed at enabling access to the labour market will remain of limited value without the requisite minimum entry qualifications to specific trades. As such, they constitute no replacement for proper education. In this regard, the audit makes a strong case for the prioritisation of second chances to pupils who have failed their senior certificate exams the first time around. It asserts that in an economy that places so much emphasis on skills and qualifications, it is of critical importance that young people possess at least this absolute minimal qualification that signifies employability. It may mean the difference between material dignity and abject poverty.

Without much fanfare, the first cohort of the "born-free" generation quietly reached the voting age of 18 last year. In coming years, they will come to constitute a growing part of the electorate. They will no longer only be recipients of policy, but will mandate parties to act on their behalf. While their world view may have been shaped under conditions of political freedom, an unresolved past that frequently itself manifests in a present of poverty and inequality constrains their sense of social agency and opportunity. For our democratic system to continue to function, our political parties will need to adapt to articulate their realities and contextualise it in a way that makes sense to them.

Neither denial nor manipulation of historical fact for political expediency will sit well with this constituency. Their numbers also dictate that their views will have to become more visible in party agendas. Two young and prominent public intellectuals, Mzukisi Qobo and Eusebius McKaiser, weigh in on this matter in separate articles, but come to the very similar conclusion that a noxious deference to seniority in both the ANC and Democratic Alliance makes this an unlikely proposition under current circumstances. And although written prior to Mamphela Ramphele’s announcement of her intention to enter party politics, it will serve such a grouping well to pay heed to these insights. Failure to recognise this will not only cost them dearly, but will also come at the expense of the vibrancy of our democracy.

• Hofmeyr heads the IJR’s Policy and Analysis Unit and edits the Transformation Audit.