One of the key messages that emerged from the World Economic Forum (WEF) meetings in Cape Town earlier this year was that the future of the African continent lies in its youth.
Statistically alone this makes sense. According to the latest African Economic Outlook published by the African Development Bank (ADB), Africa’s population is becoming more youthful, with youth as a share of the total population estimated to be more than 75%.
It stands to reason that today’s young people will be tomorrow’s leaders and it is critical that they step up to the responsibility. The problem is that they are not necessarily lining up to do so. Despite buoyant economic growth in much of the continent, youth unemployment remains high. The ADB estimates that of Africa’s unemployed, 60% are young people. And youth joblessness rates are twice that of adult unemployment in most African countries. In the case of South Africa, youth unemployment stands at 48%.
Politically, too, youth are apathetic. A recent report by the Human Sciences Research Council on voting patterns in South Africa shows that young voter registration remains stagnant and turnout at the polls is also low among the youth segment.
More often than not, young people are portrayed as critical and disruptive, but not part of the mechanisms of leadership or social innovation and entrepreneurship needed to drive transformation on the continent. That needs to change.
There are many initiatives devoted to youth empowerment, but one of the simpler things we can do to change this trajectory of our youth is to facilitate a cross-generational exchange – allowing the elders to learn from and, in turn, give a leg up to the youth.
It is for this reason that the GSB teamed up with the WEF to facilitate such an engagement. Held under the banner of Community Conversations, the engagement saw more than 400 young people – mostly learners and students from local schools and universities – interact with seasoned African leaders around the crucial issues of leadership and entrepreneurship.
Key points to emerge from the leadership panel discussion was that young people ought to stop complaining about corruption and unemployment, and take contr ol of their destinies.
“Those who elect the leaders we have are you. Don’t just elect anyone…elect someone on the basis of a programme,” said Graça Machel, the respected social and human rights activist. She said that the youth needed to come up with tools to hold their leaders accountable. They also needed to develop strategies to ensure that they were taken seriously and were able to influence policy. In common with fellow panellist, Ben Barka, who became a Mali cabinet minister at 36, she urged young people to make it their business to actively shape governance and decision-making.
The role of entrepreneurs and small businesses, in particular, in propelling Africa forward was foregrounded in the discussions. Again the youth were advised that the power to make a difference was in their hands – even if they were not fortunate enough to be educated in the formal sense.
Ashish Thakkar, the founder of the Mara Group, a refugee who had to flee Rwanda in 1994, was one of five inspirational entrepreneurs sharing their story. “I am the most uneducated person in this room. I left school at the age of 15 and got a small loan of $5 000,” said Thakkar. With his $5 000 and his own determination, Thakkar began building his business, which now spans three continents and 24 countries, and employs approximately 11 000 people.
Africa in the current era is a continent in transition on many fronts: demographically, technologically, politically and economically. The direction we move in from here will depend very much on how we apply our minds and how we use our human capital. Young African leaders have the potential to play a major catalytic role in changing the continent’s fortunes and converting its resources into concrete economic opportunities.
We need to celebrate our youth and encourage them to step forward and assume their rightful role in the future of this continent. As Thakkar remarked: “The time is now and the answer is you. It is our time… Africa is shining.”