The Sunday News
To define the people of a country, a common starting point is to examine their characteristics, determine what groups exist, and what are the largest groups, and the characteristics that they share.
Age is a particularly important characteristic in classifying populations, and when used as criteria to define the population of any African country, the most salient fact is that the largest groups are the young.
In all African countries, the median age of the population is 20 years or less that is, that half or more of the population are under 21 years of age, and up to one fifth between 15 and 24. Africa is a continent of young people, whose demographic structure demands a sociopolitical transformation. It is a continent of youth who aspire to forms of modernity-in terms of education, employment and family.
The re-emergence of the esteemed professor Dingilizwe Zvavanhu.
I had a candid discussion recently with a long time mentor, Professor Dingilizwe Zvavanhu who for most of 2016 predicted truly what transpired and still is. This time, our conversation was informed by his experiences from the field researches he was conducting across Africa on collective and participatory development in countries of the global south. Remember, the esteemed Professor is a staunch aficionado of decoloniality, a reverend of the legendary Samir Amin, a lover and critic of Frantz Fanon and a seminarian of his own thoughts. He was keen to share his stern intelligent opinion that one of the important challenges facing governance in Africa is how to mobilise the energies of the young, and how to transform governance systems so that young people feel themselves adequately represented by political systems and so able to work within those systems towards the changes they see as needed.
He further charged that failure to adequately address this challenge, and the failure of African political and economic systems to provide for the young, has contributed to governance crises in a number of African countries.
He asserted that there is a semblance of homogeneity in governance and tradition in Africa where in traditional African society, youth are seen as “children” and therefore, subordinate. This concept continues in many contemporary rural settings and influences the roles, expectations, problems and potential of youth in Africa. Young people, though a demographic majority, are marginalised in terms of the modern as well as traditional governance systems.
For most of them, the reality is of marginalisation in rural settings in the context of a patriarchal and gerontocratic sociopolitical order, in which males achieve true adulthood only after marriage and economic independence, and women, usually not at all.
In a continent of countries where youth are the largest group, youth and governance can hardly fail to be a key issue. In a range of countries moving at differing rates towards some measure of democracy, public participation and civic engagement and the like, it will be increasingly difficult, and counter-productive as well, to ignore this majority, or other large groups when assessing the problems and needs of governance.
There is no doubt about the truth pregnant in the discharge of observations across Africa made by Prof Dingilizwe Zvavanhu as the protracted political and economic crises affecting Africa for more than a generation that have left many of the continent’s youth frustrated and disillusioned. Even in our setting, youth see little hope for the future through education or sustainable employment. At the same time they have little voice in governance. Most political systems condescend to young people, relegating their concerns to the margins of debate and bracketing them exclusively with such issues as school and sports.
The sore experiences of an African youngster
The experience of African youngster is one of instability and uncertainty, exacerbated by war, displacement, economic crisis and the HIV/Aids pandemic. They are part of a socio-political category that emerged from the collapse of traditional societies under the impacts of colonialism and the post-colonial mobilisation of young people for a range of power struggles in which they have often been the major victims.
Young people are often frustrated by their environment. This contributes in many cases to militancy, impatience and risk-taking. Some governments, and their opponents alike, have exploited these tendencies to mobilise youth along militaristic and violent lines, for use in their own struggles. Different forms of organised religion, often of fundamentalist orientation, are also seeking to mobilise and capture the allegiance of youth.
Young people in search of alternatives: idle opportunities
Young people are also seeking their own alternatives. They present the vision of a social order struggling to emerge despite repression and economic hardship, and seeking to have a voice in societies whose basic structures are not conducive to listening to young voices. Nevertheless, the reality is that today’s youth no longer accept or respect those structures and increasingly demand a voice of their own. Young people are numerous, energetic, and increasingly, seeking alternatives.
This can be a problem for governments who often become the targets of their frustration. Everywhere, young people are a force for social and political change, but in a demographically very young continent, such as today’s Africa, they represent immense potential, as both threat and opportunity. Both those demanding change and those seeking to defend the existing order, seek to mobilise young people to their side.
This makes the vital problems of youth, their role in governance, their struggle for a livelihood, and the overwhelming threat of HIV/Aids, key issues for governance in Africa. African Governments need to find solutions for this youthful majority of their populations, that is rapidly growing larger, poorer, more discontented, and occasionally, more militant.
The Youth Agenda adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1995 recognised the critical importance of youth to development, and the need for young people to have the opportunity to participate fully in their societies. It also called on UN Member States to formulate national youth policies.
But operationalising the UN Youth Agenda requires that the youth voice should be increased through meaningful representation and participation in community and political decision making bodies.
Governments and policy makers need to focus on the theme of youth and governance with three priority areas: political participation, livelihoods/employment, and HIV/Aids; and the development and propagation of policies aimed at mainstreaming youth issues into all Government ministries and programmes.