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Africa is a youthful continent: We need a new generation of young leaders


Noxolo Ntaka works as a project manager at the Democracy Works Foundation, leading the organisation’s newest flagship project, the Democracy Works Academy: a seven-month civic education and dialogue programme aimed at upskilling youth across South Africa. She holds two masters degrees in African and political studies, from the University of Oxford and Wits University respectively.

Much more needs to be done to engage young people on the challenges South Africa and the continent face and how best they can contribute towards making the ‘face of leadership’ more inclusive.

A new report by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), has highlighted the urgency for the South African government to take the rising unemployment statistics in the country seriously. As it stands, the number of people who were looking for employment between 2008 and 2019, but could not find any work, increased from 6.5 million to 10.3 million. 

The reality for young people in South Africa aged 15 to 34 is even more dire. The report indicates that between 2008 and 2019, the number of young people increased by 2.2 million, yet the number of those employed fell by more than 500,000. In a country where the youth make up almost a third of the population, this is most concerning. 

Beyond this, there is something else that requires further scrutiny: Africa’s youth population (aged 15-24) was reported in 2015 to be 226 million – making up one-fifth of the global youth population – but why are its leaders old? The continent’s growing youth demographic has nothing to show for it as political positions still remain predominantly in the hands of the older generation, with an unwillingness from its leaders to make space for the next generation. 

The discussion around Africa’s youth demographic needing to be harnessed has often been used by African leaders, particularly in 2017 when the official African Union theme adopted by heads of state was, “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in the Youth”. 

One might ask, however, what results and what investments have been made in the youth since then with regards to the provision of jobs? In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa has previously stated his commitment to tackling youth unemployment, however, the picture is seemingly bleak in the absence of sustained economic growth. 

Research conducted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicates that to make headway with unemployment – youth unemployment in particular – stable economic growth and decreasing inequality levels are required. If anything is clear, South Africa’s youth unemployment pandemic is one that will only worsen if it is not adequately addressed in conjunction with economic growth. The last time significant reductions in unemployment were seen, was between 2004 and 2006 when South Africa’s real GDP growth rate averaged about 5% for three years in a row. 

A second factor related to the country’s high unemployment rate includes the country’s poor education system and low skills’ levels, both of which are critical for entry into the labour force. This tells the story of a generation of young people who have not been adequately prepared to meet the necessary requirements of what the economy needs. 

The kind of investment that is ultimately required is one that will need to take a multi-pronged approach in its reforms: the focus should primarily be on sustaining inclusive and equitable economic growth in order to attract international investment while the state invests in youth development by providing training, and opportunities that enable young people to enter the job market. 

As part of this understanding and the need to grow a new generation of leaders, Democracy Works Foundation established the Democracy Works Academy. The academy is a seven-month leadership development training aimed at helping young people develop skills while increasing their knowledge on the challenges South Africa faces. 

The training provides an online learning platform – developed in partnership with the University of Pretoria – which provides a project management course that fellows must complete. Additionally, three residential seminars are hosted throughout the year. 

In 2019, the inaugural class of Democracy Works Academy fellows was admitted into the programme. Thirty young people from across South Africa received the opportunity to be a part of an initiative that provided them with hands-on mentors who would support their development; a space in which they could learn about the key socio-economic challenges South Africa currently faces; and to engage leaders in government, civil society and business. 

This is an initiative, which at no cost to the participants, provides young people with the chance to enhance their skills set and networks. Much more needs to be done to engage young people – rather than leaving them on the periphery – regarding the challenges the country faces and how best they can contribute towards making the “face of leadership” in the country more inclusive, and to plough back into their communities on what the academy has taught them. 

Democracy Works Foundation’s commitment to work with young people is a stepping stone towards contributing to the creation of a country that centres on and addresses the challenges faced by young people. This comes with the understanding that in order for democracy to thrive in a healthy environment, it needs to engage with those who are marginalised in society in order to create impactful change. DM


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