Although democracy has presented many lucrative opportunities to propel Africa’s youth out of poverty, growing inequality experienced globally has also resulted in these opportunities being limited to only a few. The majority of the continent’s youth are still confined to the structural barriers inherited from its colonial past.
The internet, coupled with the speed at which information spreads through social media platforms, has seen a rise in ‘positive’ stories emanating from the African continent. Often these stories centre round Africa’s youth and their ability to rise above their individual circumstances which may otherwise have doomed them to a life of poverty and destitution.
Stories of these individuals demonstrate that Africa, much like the mineral wealth it possesses, is beaming with human capital that may well lead the continent out of the perpetual conflict and poverty so easily attached to it.
But, although it cannot be disputed that democracy has presented many lucrative opportunities to propel Africa’s youth out of poverty, growing inequality experienced globally has also resulted in these opportunities being limited to only a few. The majority of the continent’s youth are still confined to the structural barriers inherited from its colonial past, as well as having to cope with fluctuating economic busts without the necessary social safety nets, a common experience in developing economies.
You have been denied too long
Fill your lungs and cry rage
Step forward and take your rightful place
You’re not going to grow up
Knocking at the back door
For you there will be no travelling
Third class enforced by law
With segregated schooling
And sitting on the floor
The rivers of our land, mountain tops
And the shore
It is yours, you will not be denied anymore
Cry rage – freedom’s child”
On 27 April South Africa celebrates 21 years of its democracy, while its youth continue to cry rage. South Africa has frequently been reported one of the most unequal countries in the world, riddled with poverty and joblessness. In 2013, Oxfam released a report noting that inequality in the country is greater today than it was at the end of Apartheid. According to StatsSA, roughly 36% of the country’s youth aged 15-34 are unemployed, while 60% of South Africa’s poor are under the age of 25. However, instead of grappling with the root causes that lead to their rage, the vast majority of South Africa’s youth, who also constitute the majority of the country’s population, continue to be excluded from decision-making processes that directly affect their lived experience.
The experiences of South African youth are no different to that of their counterparts across the continent. According to AfricanEconomicOutlook.Org, between 2001-2010, six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa, in spite of the 2008 financial crisis. However, despite this apparent growth, the continent’s youth aged between 15 – 24 constitute roughly 60% of the continent’s unemployed; 72% live in extreme poverty on less than $2 per day. Millions are living in conflict. Although it is refreshing to read inspiring stories about promising young individuals listed by internationally renowned institutions such as Forbes Magazine, it becomes difficult not to recognise that these stories do not represent the daily reality of the vast majority of African youth. It appears that renewed emphasis on ‘Africa Rising’ has less to do with overcoming the structural inequalities that inhibit communal sustainability but in following the trend of placing emphasis on the individual to become active contributors to the needs of the (global) market economy. Noting that the social definition of ‘success’ has moved beyond the confines of monetary income alone, these individuals are also lauded for the number of charitable initiatives they have been involved in.
While charitable efforts that benefit a broader community should indeed be welcomed and celebrated, especially in an age where individual success is emphasised, these initiatives have not had the desired impact of narrowing the inequality gap experienced by African youth. Rather, it could be argued that these efforts have contributed to the widening gap, as those recognised as potential leaders continue to receive individual acclaim, while the majority of youth they form a part of continue to lag behind. This becomes more worrying on a continent that bears the world’s youngest population, and life expectancy continues to increase. The social structures and fissures that prevent all African youth from achieving such success remain firmly entrenched on the African landscape. Young people across the continent continue to experience the pitfalls of conflict and inequality, together with weak governance institutions prone to corruption and acts of terrorism. Just recently in Kenya, 147 people at Garissa University College were reportedly gunned down by Al-Shabaab militants. The 270+ girls kidnapped last year in Nigeria have yet to all be found, notwithstanding the #BringBackOurGirls campaign being endorsed by international heavyweights such as Michelle Obama or Malala Yousafzai.
Moreover, African youth are often represented in dichotomies. We are viewed as either successful and driven, or violent and lazy; politically conscious and savvy or apathetic and disinterested; educated and worldly or mesmerised by pop culture and labelled narcissistic as the ‘selfie’ generation. The fact that we can be a multiplicity of these at any given time is often missed. The nuances of our political, economic and social struggles are often overlooked. However, despite these (mis)representations, young people across the continent – regardless of age, race, religion or class – continuously demonstrate that rather than remaining victims of circumstances beyond their control, they are indeed active agents of change capable of influencing their countries’ political trajectory. In North Africa, the Arab Spring was borne by the region’s youth stifled by the draconian laws limiting their political rights coupled with economic difficulties; while at South Africa’s universities, young people are actively engaging on their own terms with the broader concept of ‘white privilege’ and other issues that may make many of the generations preceding them uncomfortable.
On Tuesday, I attended the People’s March Against Xenophobia. We walked through the streets of Johannesburg’s Central Business District, home to many foreign nationals. In that crowd were young and old, people of many races and religions, school children of different backgrounds in uniform. We danced as we were led through the streets by a brass band. We showed a side to South Africa that refutes the violent scenes recently witnessed or the pictures published. There were no machetes or guns or bullets. We showed that we demonstrate peacefully, that we are not a violent people. We showed that we are a society that values diversity and humanity.
Indeed, it is when one analyses the continent through the lenses of its youth who continue to dismantle the barriers that prevent their collective success – rather than focusing on single individuals who were able to realise their dreams despite the various challenges presented to them – that one can proudly proclaim that much like their predecessors, Africa’s youth continue to rise. We refuse to be limited by the baggage that history may bestow on us, or be defined by the unrealistic binaries older generations may impose on us because they cannot connect with our lived realities. We stand united as we continue to cry rage, as many of our forefathers did, and strive to live in a world based on the values of dignity, equality and freedom. DM