In response to the youth-led Arab Spring in 2011, African youth have received renewed attention from policymakers, economists and the media alike. Africa is the world’s youngest continent, with people under the age of 35 constituting about 65 percent of the population, according to the African Union. Unfortunately, much writing on the topic mobilises binary images that label youth as either an asset – “the demographic dividend”, “the continent’s most valuable resource” – or a liability: a “demographic time bomb”. Such discourse does not only gloss over the complex realities and different contexts African youths find themselves in, it also tends to ignore the agency that young Africans have and fails to ask what it is that they want and to what extent they are able to realise their aspirations.
Even though the continent may be “rising”, as four African countries rank among the ten fastest growing economies of 2013, it is clear that speed is not everything and that the majority of African youth continues to face difficult socio-economic conditions. In the words of Alcinda Honwana, many young Africans find themselves in a state of “waithood” deprived of the opportunity to become economically independent adults by the lack of decent jobs, bad governance and unfavourable international trade relations.
Despite these challenging conditions, young Africans evidently are not just sitting around. They try to make ends meet with whatever work they can find and many have become politically active, either in street protests or through more formal engagement – countering the perception of apathetic youth.
Against this backdrop, this edition of Perspectives seeks to shed light on a number of related questions. What frustrations are causing the youth to turn to the streets? How do they mobilise today? Are conventional politics and parties able to attract young people or do they seek alternative ways to engage? How does their political participation manifest? Have they been successful? Are the youth a political force?
Judging from these reflections on protest movements such as Occupy Nigeria and Senegal’s Y’en a marre (Enough is enough!), and to some extent on the struggle by the Egyptian youth after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, it seems that transforming the often reactive expressions of youth discontent into pro-active, programmatic and sustained political action that can influence national politics is one of the greatest challenges. On the other hand, where the youth have become part of the formal party political system (as in Kenya) or have been for some time (South Africa), they have yet to show that they stand for a different kind of politics with a greater vision than the old guard’s pursuit of wealth and patronage.
What appears common to all young people when they decide to engage in politics is that breaking through the hierarchical and patrimonial governance order that has historically precluded their participation in decision-making in most communities in the continent (and indeed the world) is a slow and gradual process.
By providing these and other insights on youth politics and youth in politics from various countries across the continent, we hope to help expand the debate on Africa’s youth beyond questions of economic outlook and risk management.