Niel Swanepoel, a University of Cape Town (UCT) alumnus, is one of four young leaders from across the country who will represent South Africa at the G20 Youth Summit (Y20) in Jakarta, Indonesia, in July 2022. The Y20 is one of the most important annual youth policymaking summits in the world.
Originally from Windhoek, but with citizenship in both Namibia and South Africa, Swanepoel attended UCT (2017–2021), where he completed his Bachelor of Social Science in Economics and English Literature.
“This was, admittedly, a strange combination, but it gave me a great balance of creative expression and analytical thinking,” said Swanepoel. “I went on to complete my honours in political communication in the Media Studies department.”
“As a young South African leader, I am interested in the impact of technology on society and how it can address Africa’s most pressing problems.”
During his studies, Swanepoel was a part-time parliamentary reporter in Cape Town and served in various student leadership positions. In 2021, he was selected as an International Monetary Fund (IMF) Youth Fellow, connecting young leaders to discuss global economic issues and receive guidance from senior IMF staff.
“I am currently completing an internship at the United Nations in Windhoek. In February 2022, I was selected as one of four young South Africans to represent the country at the G20 Youth Summit in July 2022. As a young South African leader, I am interested in the impact of technology on society and how it can address Africa’s most pressing problems through diplomacy and youth-led solutions.”
Swanepoel’s university experience was deeply intertwined with his experience at Upper Campus Residence (formerly Smuts Hall). From 2018 to 2020, he served as secretary-general, head student and then sub-warden of the residence.
“[Those] three years were some of the most meaningful of my life and helped me discover and develop a commitment to servant leadership,” he said.
“It was during my term as head student that UCT was at the center of national demonstrations against the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). It was a wake-up call for Upper Campus Residence, and that we weren’t doing enough to ensure the residence was not complicit in SGBV. Our leadership team coordinated a consultative process with female-bodied residences, SGBV spokespeople and the UCT Office of Inclusivity & Change to create meaningful awareness of SGBV in our male-bodied residence.
“Sometimes we become the best versions of ourselves when we have the responsibility to honour the trust that others have put in us.”
“It was a challenge to balance our accountability to students while still respecting institutional rules and processes. This experience taught me about humility, multi-stakeholder engagement and consensus building; principles which have informed my approach as a South African delegate to the Y20.”
As a sub-warden, Swanepoel’s portfolio was Health and Safety. The year 2020 turned out to be quite an eventful year for that portfolio, he said. “In March, I helped coordinate the unprecedented emergency evacuation of all students from the residence and their eventual return later that year. Initially I was really scared; scared for myself, my family and my future. The warden, and my mentor, Professor Kelly Chibale, reminded our team that the 240 young residents felt those same fears and it was our responsibility to support them. It showed me that sometimes we become the best versions of ourselves when we have the responsibility to honour the trust that others have put in us.”
Swanepoel tutored an Economics class in 2020, where he witnessed how the lack of digital infrastructure affected the most vulnerable students. The tutoring team had to innovate with new teaching platforms and tools to ensure students could best complete the course.
“This experience influenced my interest in the Digital Transformation thematic area of the Y20 because I realised that, in an already unequal society like South Africa, the digital revolution can become another frontier of inequality,” he said.
His academic interest in international relations and diplomacy were stimulated further at the London School of Economics–University of Cape Town Summer School, where he researched and wrote about China–Africa relations.
“Last year I completed my honours and received the top marks for my thesis on Chinese public diplomacy in Africa. The resources and rich intellectual environment of UCT has helped me explore topics and issues that excited me about the Y20 and its role in multilateral youth diplomacy.”
The G20 Summit is an important date on the calendar of international policymaking, where world leaders of the 20 largest economies come together to discuss the most pressing global issues. The Y20 is an official engagement group of the G20 and most direct channel to advocate and lobby for the youth agenda in G20 decision-making.
“In the Y20, the youth are more than just a spectator – they are a player on the pitch.”
“Y20 delegates are young leaders and changemakers from the G20 countries selected through a rigorous process in their home countries. In the four months leading up to the summit, the Y20 delegates consult with local youth and experts to develop their national youth priorities. Through regular online engagements, delegates negotiate and collaborate on policy recommendations that will be finalised at the Y20 Summit. The final document – The Y20 Communiqué – will be presented to G20 Heads of State and adopted as an official document at the G20 Summit,” Swanepoel explained.
The Y20 Summit is one of the most important annual global youth policymaking gatherings. According to Swanepoel, it provides access and proximity to high-level policymakers and policymaking. “Because we are an official subsidiary group of the G20, we have the same formal rights and influence as members of national parliaments (represented in the P20) and Business leaders (in the B20). Through the Y20, young people have institutionalised rights and resources to contribute to the policy agenda at the highest level of global decision-making.”
Given the importance of this responsibility, Y20 delegates are some of the “brightest young leaders” from their countries. “This ensures that the policy recommendations are highly competent and realisable,” he said.
The Y20 Communiqué, as a consensus-driven, official G20 document, has the legitimacy and support to continue being promoted after the summit. “Delegates are encouraged to continue advocating for the recommendations in their own countries. This is an important consideration to ensure that the needs and ideas of young people are continuing to receive notice at the highest levels of national government.”
Often youth summits are organised around seminars, simulations or networking engagements. These are all necessary for meaningful youth engagement but not sufficient, Swanepoel noted. “In a recent Y20 webinar in partnership with UNICEF, a prescient take-away was that meaningful youth participation needs to be institutionalised. In the Y20, the youth are more than just a spectator – they are a player on the pitch.”
Over the past few months, Swanepoel said, he has learnt so much about ICT policy and how South African youth perceive the challenges and opportunities associated with a digital future.
Three policy priorities identified through his consultations are:
- Digital infrastructure
“Youth are the drivers of digital adoption, but inclusive digital transformation cannot be realised if 60% of South Africans don’t have meaningful internet access. To this end, our delegation is advocating for new approaches to fund digital infrastructure and encouraging public–private partnerships to design affordable data bundles for youth [to incentivise] productive internet use.”
- Digital literacy and uptake
“South Africa needs to increase trust and deepen community use of digital technologies through incentives and support for grassroots digital social entrepreneurship and the establishment/expansion of digital community centres in partnerships with community leaders.”
- Digital well-being
“A common priority among the Y20 delegates is that digital well-being and safety of youth in online spaces need to be prioritised if we are going to become a more digitised society.”
This, Swanepoel said, is only one part of South Africa’s youth policy agenda. “The other delegates are doing great work in other focus areas related to youth employment, diversity and inclusion, and sustainably living.”