The essence of young success

Yusuf Cassim, SA's South Africa’s youngest Member of Parliament

South Africa’s youngest Member of Parliament, Yusuf Cassim, is a man who oozes confidence – this 24-year-old does not mince his words either.

In May this year, South Africa’s youngest member of parliament ever was sworn in at only 24 years of age. Uitenhage-born Yusuf Cassim takes on the role of Shadow Minister of Higher Education in the Democratic Alliance, with a commitment to effect change to what he describes as an unequal education system.

In an exclusive with Achiever, Cassim told us about the road that has led up to his involvement in politics and elaborates on the issues facing the youth in education. He also gives advice on how to make a success of your life.

Attending school at Muir College in Uitenhage, a small town close to Port Elizabeth which is now part of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, Cassim graduated top of his class and while at school also took on the role as student leader and prefect.

“At first, I never ever had an interest to get involved in politics and I never had ambitions to become a party representative. After I graduated, I registered at the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan University to study accounting, and I completed that course in 2012,” he says.

As a first-year student at university, he took on the role of the Muslim Student’s Association Chairperson. Through this involvement, he gained valuable insight into the type of governance that was taking place and the issues that arose in student parliament.

“I could then see the type of misgovernance and oppression that was taking place, even at an institutional level, by the ANC alliance. I then knew that we had to do something about it, and I availed myself to be of service,” he says.

It was then that he set out to establish an alternative on campus – a DA student organisation. “It took some time to get registered as a society, because we know how politics works. It was primarily a society to represent the students and present an alternative. During that period, I got to know more about the party itself, what its policies were, what it does, what it has already done.

“I remember in 2009, when the DA won the Western Cape, it was a very good time to get involved and to know what the party had become, because it was very different from the DA of the past. I was never a supporter of the party myself; my family were involved in the Struggle. I used that time to get to know the party. We worked in order to present a document to define the principles we believed in, and no one expected it.”

Shortly after his involvement with the student organisation, they had their first election in 2010 where they won 39% of the votes. “Considering that this happened at an institution named after Nelson Mandela, in the heartland of the ANC stronghold, it shows that there was a hunger for an alternative, a hunger for change, and we had a responsibility to do that.

“I was elected as an SRC member and as public relations officer, and in the next election we continued to serve the students through our efforts; in 2011 we won the election with a majority,” he says.

Cassim proudly says that they ran what was arguably the best SRC in the country, and certainly in the history of the institution. “We introduced projects that helped thousands of students so they can access financial aid, and new travel systems so students can access lectures.

“Till today I get calls from students whom I helped to get registered and whom I helped to get funding and accommodation when they first came to the university. Some of them I can’t even remember. They phone to tell me that they have graduated and got a job – and to thank me. It is those kind of things that inspired me to say I want to use my life to avail myself where possible to help others. And that’s what inspired me,” Cassim says.

After completing his BCom Accounting degree in 2012, Cassim decided to avail himself more closely to helping others and started on his master’s degree in Public Administration, which he is currently completing.

He says that the issues faced by the youth today are issues he has come to witness firsthand during his travels across the country. “These are challenges that we have identified and we have looked at how we can address those. We know that the quality of education is basically unequal. We have one of the most unequal systems in the world.

We have a huge issue with access to higher education and further education and training, which is also premised by the legacy of apartheid, which also informs how people can access education.”

He also highlights many issues with regard to opportunity and empowerment faced by the youth. He sums it up in one sentence: “The problem is that young people in this country do not have a fair shot in life.” Cassim attributes this primarily to the circumstances many young people are born into, but says the country’s constitution dictates otherwise.

“We need to address this as a matter of urgency. We are talking of access to education, quality of education, jobs and employment opportunities. We are talking about being able to start businesses – but there are certain things we need to do to get to that point. Firstly, it is growing the economy. Cross-sphere research has shown you can’t create jobs that can absorb the newcomers of the labour market, that can ensure we seriously reduce our unemployment without growing the economy by as much as 6% to 8 %.”

Cassim points out that this goes hand in hand with what is called an opportunity society. “It means that young people need access to education. We talk about primary education and quality of education. We have some of the worst scores in the world when it comes to literacy, science and mathematics. And it is not a money thing; there are countries that spend much less than South Africa which rank among the best quality of education in the world. It is a quality matter. It is about how education is administered,” he says.

Following basic education, Cassim talks about the issues faced in terms of higher education. “Trends have shown, and research has shown across the world, that when you have a higher number of young people who have access to higher education, in particular where the public spending on higher education is higher, your unemployment rate is lower. That is the current trend. When it comes to higher education in particular, we need to find a way that every person has a fair shot.

“It starts with basic education, because if basic education is not good then you’re not going to have a fair shot at higher education from a qualifying point of view.”
Cassim says besides equal and quality basic and higher education, funding is one of the key areas of concern for the youth at the moment.

“The question of funding is one of the most pertinent issues facing young people. During this year, government has failed students in particular. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme was close to collapse because there was not enough money. There was negligence in planning and political interests were superseding public interest. This is a massive problem. 

“Thousands of students were kicked back to the kerb this year who qualified, who against all odds were able to qualify, but now because of the lack of funding they have to quit. Next year a new batch of young people will enter the system and the issue will become even more unsustainable,” he says.

As Shadow Minister of Higher Education, Cassim says he will work to ensure all qualifying matriculates have access to higher education. “We want to make sure these things can happen for our country to go forward, so we need to take these issues very seriously – if we leave them unattended, they will escalate even further.”

For Cassim being in the public eye, especially in parliament, at such a young age, is of no concern. To him, there is a fundamental value that gives him the courage to take on this role with confidence. “When your intentions are right, there is nothing you will not do to be successful.

That is the main thing. Some people are doing things for other reasons and that is why they fail, that is what I believe. I have always been successful at what I do. There is nobody in this parliament or the national house who can intimidate me. Integrity – that’s what it comes down to.

“I have trained a lot of SRC members across the country and I always say to them: ‘The first question you have to ask yourself before sitting in this room today is why you are here. If you cannot answer that question properly, then maybe you are in the wrong room.

But you need to first understand why you are here, what your intentions are and if the why is noble in itself. Then I promise you, you will be successful in whatever you do’. Then you don’t have any fear, because you know you are doing your best. If you know that in your heart you are doing it for the right reasons, then you are the right person for the job,” he says.

He concludes with advice for the youth: “Each person has his/her own talents and aspirations in life. Don’t be guided by the wrong reasons. That is the mistake that many people make and that is why they don’t achieve what they have set out to achieve.

“Always ask yourself, what do you want to achieve and why do you want to achieve that, and if that remains noble then you will be successful in what you do.
“The fact is that if we don’t take responsibility for our democracy, for our future, then no one is going to do that for us.”

Michael Meiring

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Issue 58