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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#teamvuvu: Ray Mahlaka

Always ready with a pose. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
Always ready with a pose. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

While there was relative calm in the newsroom yesterday , I stole Ray for a few minutes to have a wee chat.

*Disclaimer: “Ray” is not his government name…

Me: How would you describe your outfit/style for the day? 

Ray: I usually go for a professional/workplace look but today I had to get dressed really fast, so I have a relaxed and casual look. 

Me: How would you describe your style in general?

Ray: I dress in a way that’s adaptable to many social situations, as a rule I always try to go for a professional look. 

Me: On to the more serious, are you sure about this journalism thing?

Ray: Yes, I’m in it for the long haul. Journalism teaches you about this country and it’s nuances. I’ll only leave the industry in 20 years or so to settle down.

Me: If you weren’t doing what you doing this, what would you be doing?

Ray: I’d be a certified gold digger *laughs* No, I would be probably be an economist, I really like finance and business so ya. 

Me: How have you found your honours year?

Ray: It has been an intense year but it’s also been very pleasurable. I’ve learnt valuable and priceless skills this year and now I can honestly say we’re competitive journalists. This course has enabled us to call ourselves journalists and I’m sure that that there’s a place for me in the industry now. 

Me: What’s been the most challenging thing and the most rewarding thing for you this year?

Ray: Challenging: Time management, balancing my personal and work life has been tough. My work dominated my schedule to the point that it consumed my life. 

Rewarding: Seeing our work making a difference. With our sexual harassment stories we helped how people view this institution and it’s structures, the VC award we got is proof of that. 

Me: Where will you be next year and what will you be doing?

Ray: I can’t say specifically where, I’m still considering my offers but I it will definitely be in this industry, financial journalism to be specific. 

Me: How would you describe #teamvuvu in three words?

Ray: Fucking awesome (that’s two but whatever), diligent and family. 

Me: A word of advice for the incoming team for 2014?

Ray: Hmmm, they shouldn’t have any expectations coming in and they should always try to work with what they have. In this course what you put in is what you’ll get out. And lastly they should just have fun.