Sifiso Mtsweni, the tenacious and forward-thinking chairperson of the National Youth Development Agency [NYDA], showed entrepreneurial prowess from an early age.
He started out selling an assortment of sweets and vetkoeks at primary school, procured from his mother’s tuck shop in Motetema, outside Groblersdal, Limpopo Province.
By the age of 12, the former COSAS leader was selling ice-cold drinks and national Sunday newspapers on the dusty streets of his township to school teachers, government officials and other ‘black diamonds’ in his neighbourhood.
Little did he know that one day he would be at the forefront of entrepreneurship and small business ownership, working with young enterprise owners across the nine Provinces after joining the youth development agency.
Since then, Mtsweni has assisted hundreds of young entrepreneurs to start up their own enterprises, attributing his business acumen to his ‘sharp’, ‘street wise’ character, and adding that being ‘a sweets seller’ at an early age worked in his favour.
Mtsweni, in a wide-ranging interview with Inside Education, says there’s nothing that makes him more happier than to see thriving enterprises owned by young entrepreneurs creating much needed jobs and contributing towards economic growth in the country.
“We must continue to support entrepreneurship and small business ownership. Is one of the ways South African can turn its economic fortunes around, like the Asian Tigers countries, who went through rapid growth by supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship at all levels.”
With the ever increasing unemployment and tough economic conditions that South Africa is currently experiencing, the youth development agency, under Mtsweni’s leadership has set itself a target to assist 1 000 businesses in 100 days- from March to June- to coincide with Youth Month activities.
The NYDA, in conjunction with the Department of Small Business Development, has embarked on a recruitment drive to fund 1000 young South Africans to start their own enterprises.
These 1000 eligible young entrepreneurs, says Mtsweni, will receive an NYDA Grant Funding.
The campaign also aims to support the young entrepreneurs through mentorship and financial resources to grow their start-ups and burgeoning companies.
During his State of the Nation Address in February, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that government would be implementing the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention programme, which will focus on six key areas.
These include creating pathways for young people to be party to the country’s economic growth.
“Our campaign is aimed at empowering young people to run their small businesses. Most of SMMEs in this country fail in their first three years of existence, largely because they have to service the loan they receive from many development finance institutions such as Small Enterprise Development Agency, National Empowerment Fund and the IDC,” says Mtsweni.
“We came up with a model where you apply for funding and we offer you compulsory training on how to run a business through an Enterprise Development Programme. However, we do not put money into people’s pockets. If you need material, we buy it for you and supply you with stock.”
South Africa has the highest rate of unemployment for young people in the world.
The recession announced by Stats SA has made matters worse, according to Mtsweni.
A new study by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation Charity has found that half of young people across Africa said that if they were offered 100 dollars, they would use it to start a business.
Some 17% of those questioned said they wanted to do so in the retail sector, while 10% of respondents said they would look to either start a business in technology or agriculture.
Social entrepreneurship, according to the study, was a popular theme among young people in Africa, with 63% of respondents saying that their idea for a business or social enterprise would benefit those living in their community.
When he took over as the Chairperson of the NYDA, Mtsweni says he found an institution which was perceived to be corrupt, and unable to create jobs for young people.
Mtsweni said he worked really hard to overcome these challenges by, among others, assembling a highly qualified team including a deserving young CEO.
He cited a number of other challenges during his two-year term, including restoring public confidence and trust in the organisation, fighting with government to increase the NYDA budget to at least R1 billion per annum, and increasing the number of NYDA offices from 15 to 48 today across all nine provinces to ensure that more young entrepreneurs have access to the organisation.
At the same time, the NYDA also formed a partnership with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme for applicants to use their centres to apply for the NSFAS bursaries.
As his term is coming to an end in April, Mtsweni is proud to boast that under his leadership the agency has managed to maintain the clean audits that it received in five consecutive years.
The Sub-committee of the Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, and the Select Committee on Health and Social Services is currently processing the appointment of new members of the NYDA Board. Mtsweni, who received praises from president Ramaphosa for turning the organisation around, has been asked to reapply to ensure continuity.
The president will announce the new Board in April.
Some of the things that Mtsweni counts as achievements include the concerted campaign that he put in ensuring work experience was no longer a requirement to obtain employment in South Africa for young people.
He said the agency wanted 40% of the workforce of private companies and government departments to employ youth graduates – even without work experience.
“We fought vehemently the notion that there are no jobs for young people. Saying there is no job is a myth. Jobs are there. The problem is experience. This has resulted in many graduates without jobs and placements because employers are demanding experience,” says Mtsweni.
“Why does anyone have to possess a five year experience to do a darn mere admin job, or become a driver? It is ridiculous. There is a South African Police Services warehouse that has over 50 000 stationery vehicles and there are no drivers to drive these vehicles. Why can’t we employ young people with driver’s licences to drive those cars and become police reservists – and help the country in combating crime?”
Mtsweni, who is 34 years old, has been approached by several ANC leaders to contest for the leadership of the ANC Youth League at an upcoming elective conference in May in Bloemfontein, Free State.
Mtsweni this week refused to comment about lobbying for positions but he expressed his views on how best the ANCYL could be revitalized to its former glory.
In the last ten years since the expulsion of Julius Malema and his cohorts, the Youth League tended to be entangled in internal issues of the ANC and factional battles.
“The youth league needs to change direction and reach out to more young people. EFF is currently occupying that space. Policies such as land expropriation without compensation, nationalization of the mines and other strategic minerals are Youth League policies,” says Mtsweni.
“We need to build structures on the ground and mobilize our youths in rural areas, universities … TVET Colleges, townships … suburbs … and those who are active on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to come home to the Youth League,” says Mtsweni.
He says the youth league also needs to mobilize young people in the creative arts space such as Cassper Nyovest, TV personality Bonang Matheba, rapper AKA, comedian Trevor Noah and Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi.
He says during the preppy 1950s and 1960s, the ANC youth league mobilized young artists and celebrities such as songstress Miriam Makeba, music superstar Dorothy Masuku, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, among others, who went on to mobilize the world against apartheid and the isolation of the racist minority regime.
One thing is for sure, Mtsweni still has a lot to contribute to youth development issues in SA and on the continent.