MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Sidelining opinions of the youth keeps Africa on the backfoot


A few years ago, I was appointed as a Southern African Development Community (SADC) ambassador of the African Youth Charter.

As a result of this appointment, I had to attend several meetings within the SADC region and the broader continent, to make representations for youth on issues of importance. One of these was food security.

I was appointed to represent the youth in the SADC Food and Nutrition Security Committee, a body established in Malawi by the SADC Secretariat. This body would ultimately produce the SADC Food and Nutrition Security Protocol, which we finalised and adopted at the Food and Nutrition Security Forum in Gaborone, Botswana, in 2014. Something happened at the forum that would later shape my thinking on the impediments of cultural expectations on youth leadership development.

While we were engaged in very intense discussions, several elderly women would repeatedly send me on errands – from making tea to bringing them throws to shield against the chilly weather.

Being a 22-year-old, and the youngest person in the room, I obliged. In doing so, I was unable to participate fully in the ongoing discussions. I missed parts of some important presentations by food and nutrition experts – presentations that were intended to shape my contribution to the protocol on behalf of the youth.

But as the saying in Sesotho states: “Lefura la ngoana ke ho rongoa” (the value of a child is in running errands for elders/children benefit from serving elders). I could not refuse to be sent on errands by elders – even as I knew that it was affecting my participation in the forum.

It was only later that I began to appreciate the severity of how such cultural chains bind young people, and limit their capacity to contribute meaningfully to serious discussions that affect their lives and futures.

A senior official in the African Union would later raise the issue at a summit, arguing that young people at such gatherings shouldn’t be reduced to servants – and that such a “cultural” norm undermines the fact that the youth must participate fully.

She posed it to the elders in the room that young people are sitting at the discussion table as equals, and as activists and intellectuals with something meaningful to contribute. It did not go down well with the elders, but an important and necessary message had been communicated.

I was reminded of this on the 13th of April when the Member of the Executive Committee (MEC) for Human Settlements and Infrastructure Development, Lebogang Maile, launched Never Too Young To Lead.
The book is a compilation of conversations/essays with prominent young and old activists, artists, and public intellectuals on the question of leadership.

These include the co-owner and co-founder of Kalawa Jazmee Records, Oscar “Oskido” Mdlongwa; renowned lawyer and academic, Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi; seasoned activist and former ambassador to Poland, Fébé Potgieter-Gqubule; the Rector of the United Nations University, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala; the youngest Member of the Provincial Legislature in Gauteng and #FeesMustFall activist, Fasiha Hassan; the former MEC of Education in Gauteng, Mary Matcalfe; former Cabinet minister and recently appointed director of the School of Leadership at the University of Johannesburg, Dr Sydney Mufamadi; and young climate activist, Ayakha Melithafa.

Their chapters focus on different aspects of leadership, drawing on their own personal experiences with their leadership journey. Significantly, they all reflect on the histories, meanings and place of young people in the re-imagining of South Africa’s future.

During the panel discussion, an important question was raised from the floor about how young people should navigate the complexity of leading within the cultural context of an Africa in which the young are expected to be seen, but not heard.

I found the question particularly important, not only because of my own experiences with the SADC Food and Nutrition Committee, but also because it begs for reflection on how an Africa that is the youngest continent in the world continues to be led by gerontocracies.

According to the World Economic Forum, more than 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25. By 2030, young Africans are expected to constitute 42% of global youth. And yet, the continent also has the oldest leaders in the world – with many of its presidents being in their late 60s, 70s and even 80s.

Some of them were elected and re-elected when they were already sexagenarians and septuagenarians, such as South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa and Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, who were elected at the ages of 66 and 73, respectively, to name but a few.

But the issue is not only about age, for that, as Professor Marwala argues in his chapter, would be too arbitrary.

The real issue is about their lack of vision for a young continent, and their sidelining of new ideas by younger generations that they have little in common with and no understanding of.

Dr Mufamadi in his chapter argues for generational mixing, contending that the young have a lot to teach the old, and vice versa.

In theory, this is sensible. In reality, the young are often relegated to the margins, their contributions disregarded, and their interests treated as nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. This is done both covertly through laws that make it difficult for young people to lead, such as in Zimbabwe where there’s no presidential age limit, but the minimum age to contest the presidency (and to sit in the senate is 40).

This means a 90-year-old can become president, but a 39-year-old cannot.

It also happens overtly through cultural practices that are reflected in such beliefs as “Lefura la ngwana ke ho rongwa”.

In one of his chapters, Maile reflects on how the youth demographic dividend that is not harnessed can become a youth demographic threat.

The evidence of this can be seen in South Africa, where increasingly marginalised and economically disenfranchised young people are at the forefront of crime and violent service delivery protests. And perhaps more worryingly, it’s also the same youth that is opting out of participating in democratic processes such as elections.

Never Too Young To Lead is the foundation on which critical conversations about our continent’s future can be built.
If we are to re-imagine ourselves into a meaningful existence, as human beings of value, in a continent that harnesses our potential as young people, then the starting point must be in challenging regressive notions about youth leadership and the transformation it has the potential to facilitate.

The continent hurls young people at the margins at its own peril.

Malaika is a geographer and researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, and the author of 'Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation'.