The headline “Let the young lead” in the online publication howafrica.com, caught my eye. The article was about Kofi Annan’s views on today’s youth. Kofi Annan is a former UN Secretary-General, Chair of the Africa Progress Panel, founder of the Kofi Annan Foundation and co-recipient of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.
The youth are often criticised for being apathetic and disengaged; Annan does not share this view. He is quick to point out that today’s youth are “the best educated, most connected and most informed generation.”
Annan believes political leaders and institutions have failed to keep up with rapid changes in our world. Issues around climate change, high levels of unemployment, and economic downturn attest to this fact.
There are many other issues that we can add to the list. Conflicts – in 2013, the US alone had Special Operations in 134 countries. Will this number increase under Trump’s presidency? We could also add the refugee crisis, starvation, health issues, child trafficking – the list is endless.
Eager to engage with the youth, Annan has held a series of online conversations with young people, worldwide called ‘Kofi Annan dialogues.’
Conversations with the youth have convinced him that we have much to learn from the younger generation. Annan believes solutions could be found if we engaged young people to participate and lead.
This is particularly important in Africa, given the fact that Africa is the world’s second most populous continent (South Africa is the fifth most populous country on the continent), and even more so when one factors in the fact that 41% of the continent’s population are under the age of 15.
A good starting point is to ask whether there are enough young people in leadership positions in government, since this is where real power lies and where leaders are able to influence and make real change.
Youthful leaders in office are like the proverbial hen’s teeth. President Robert Mugabe (93) is the oldest political leader in Africa, and Joseph Kabila, President of the D.R. Congo (43) is the youngest President in Africa; he assumed office at the age of 29. King Mswati of Swaziland (43), is the second youngest Head of State in Africa.
Turning to South Africa, President Jacob Zuma is 74. Possible successors, Cyril Ramaphosa (64), Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (68), Baleka Mbete (67), Zweli Mkhize (62), Gwede Mantashe (61). Leaders of other political parties in South Africa, Julius Malema leader of the Economic Freedom Front (36), Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance (36).
President Mugabe represents the Silent Generation; President Kabila and King Mswati are Generation X; President Zuma, the Silent Generation. Perhaps this is why President Zuma and President Mugabe seem to get along so well. Ramaphosa, Dlamini-Zuma, Zweli Mkhize and Gwede Mantashe are Baby Boomers. Malema and Maimane are Generation Y. However, 41% of the African continent are Generation Z.
The generational divide is huge; this mitigates against a meeting of true minds and a real understanding of the needs and opinions of younger generations, who are in the majority.
But are leaders in Africa engaging with the youth, and are the youth consulted in decision making on major issues that affect them? This happens minimally, if at all. Unfortunately, the disgruntled youth often register their dissatisfaction by boycotting the ballot box.
Africa does not have a great track record for consulting the youth. High levels of youth unemployment – 83% in Zimbabwe (2016), 51% in South Africa (2016) and 42% in Swaziland in (2014) drive home the fact that arguably the youth’s greatest concern is not being addressed. The lack of government-led opportunity is a ticking time bomb for the continent as a whole.
We need to consult our youth and we need to find ways to do things differently. Globally, the Silent Generation, and Baby Boomers have not been particularly successful at finding solutions to pressing problems that confound the world today. We must guard against insanity. Albert Einstein’s words resonate: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
We need to view the world through a new lens; we also need to listen to the chorus of young voices.
I am very inspired by the fact that many inventions by young Africans are changing the world – 19 year old Evans Wandogo invented the MwangaBora (solar lantern made from 50% recycled material); Verone Mankou (28) invented the Way-C tablet, Africa’s answer to the iPad; Arthur Zang (24) developed Africa’s first medical tablet that helps diagnose heart disease; Ludwick Marishane (24) invented the world’s first and only bath-substituting antibacterial and biodegradeable skin gel.
Africa has talent. Kofi Annan has good reason for turning to the youth to find solutions to global problems. We need to tap into the youth in Africa. We need to listen to their voices, and try to meet their needs. We need to be brave enough to give young people the opportunity and space to lead and to contribute.