The man behind the youth

NOTE: This article first appeared in The Citizen newspaper on June 21, 2014.

It has been a little over a year since Yershen Pillay became the executive chairperson of the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) – and while he has been in charge, the agency has reached over two million young people through its programmes.

“Matching our reach with the 7.5 million youth who needs support in the country makes what we’ve done seem small,” said Pillay. “The R400 million we get in funding cannot reach them all, but we set realistic targets to reach as many as we can.”

The 30-year-old comes from a political background, having majored in politics and economics at the University of Cape Town in 2002.

In his first year he joined the ANC Youth League and “from there things just took off”. Pillay’s involvement in politics at the university made him realise the need for transformation at the institution – and the need for social justice in the country.

He started out as the deputy chairperson of the Young Communist League’s UCT branch and is now the national chairperson of the league. “I believe in the principles and values of communism. More than anything, socialism is about building a more humane society, bridging gaps and providing access to basic services for all.”

He described his work with the youth as a natural and “subconscious” continuation of the youth movement that started during apartheid. “We don’t always take note of it, but our youth is very vocal.” He cited a 2013 Youth Development Index Survey which found South African youths are the fourth-most politically active in the world.

The NYDA is a “political institution; a part of the presidency and constituted by Parliament,” explained Pillay. Because of this, it does not surprise him that he is at the helm.

National Youth Development Agency Chairperson Yershen Pillay speaks to The Citizen in Midrand, Johannesburg, 19 June 2014. Picture: Nigel Sibanda
National Youth Development Agency Chairperson Yershen Pillay speaks to The Citizen in Midrand, Johannesburg, 19 June 2014. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

He became chair of the NYDA in March last year – and said firmly the agency has been on an upward trajectory over the past year. “The agency repositioned itself to become more capable, credible and visible.

“We have to be honest with ourselves: we were not the most efficient or effective organisation. But that era is gone. We’re now spending money on young people and not on ourselves,” said an earnest Pillay of the agency’s checkered past.

“Young people are hungry for jobs and hungry for opportunities, irrespective of who brings that to them. The nature and character of the youth movement is changing to become more in line with socio-economic needs. This reflects the maturity of our democracy.”

The NYDA runs a number of programmes which focus on skills development and entrepreneurial support.

Speaking on youth unemployment, he said: “There are jobs – but we don’t have the skills to match” – and he uses the example of Korean welders contracted to work at Eskom’s Medupi power plant because there is a shortage of those skills in this country. This is one of the reasons the agency places an emphasis on career guidance programmes.

But Pillay said 20 years of democracy is too short a time to expect everything to have changed in South Africa. “It is not enough time to eradicate over 300 years of colonialism and subjugation.”

However, the youth needs to channel the anger and frustration they have and focus on solutions to their problems instead, he said.

His job has changed him – and the success stories of some of the NYDA beneficiaries keep him going.

“We are changing lives, one life at a time. There is reward in service,” he said as a smile spread across his face.

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