African continent’s estimated population is about 1, 2 billion, according to the United Nations (UN). About 70% of this population comprises young people under the age of 35 years. By any stretch of imagination, such a youthful spread in any country, let alone the continent with its rich natural resources and an impressive biodiversity, should be considered as treasure in as far as development and prosperity are concerned. The benefits of having such a huge population of young people are countless. As a continent, we should indeed celebrate our youth.
Four years ago, the African Union (AU) proclaimed 1 November each year as Africa Youth Day. The day in the AU calendar is dedicated to recognising the youth of the continent as agents of social change, economic growth and sustainable development. This year, Africa Youth Day will be celebrated throughout November under the theme: “Youth Voices, Actions, Engagement: ‘Building a better Africa’.”
Celebrating the youthfulness of the continent should, however, be preceded by an appreciation of the challenges faced by the youth in this continent. What constrains them from being the potential change agents we envisage them to be? What is stopping those youthful voices from engaging in changing their circumstances for the better? Where is the space for engagement with young people in order for them to build a better Africa?
According to a report published by the now defunct Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in 1999, more than 120 000 young people, some under the age of seven, are being involuntarily used as soldiers in armed conflicts. The lives and future careers of young people in our continent continue to be destroyed by child trafficking and sexual molestation. The girls that were kidnapped in April 2014 whilst attending school in the town of Chibok, Nigeria, most of them are still missing. Young women too are victims of gender-based violence and femicide.
Whilst the World Bank report of 2012 indicated that the poverty rate in the continent may have dropped from 56% to 43%, the population growth stills reflects more people living in abject poverty. Needless to say, young people are on the receiving end of this poverty.
The Coronavirus pandemic has also worsened some of the challenges faced by youth. Teaching and learning was negatively affected as schools had to close to minimise the spread of infections. Many young people in the low-level jobs were retrenched as companies closed down owing to reduced economic activities, particularly during the national lockdown in their respective countries. Some businesses of young entrepreneurs were also badly affected.
In the Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the second quarter of 2020, Statistics South Africa indicated the number of employed persons decreased by 2, 2 million to 14, 1 million compared to the first quarter of 2020. About 50% of this number comprises young people.
Africa is committed to driving its Agenda 2063 programme, which prioritises youth empowerment in its programmes. Its focus on silencing the guns seeks to divert our youth away from armed conflicts and direct them to become agents of change. A number of African countries continue to contribute to the UN peacekeeping missions in Africa.
The African Continental Free Trade Area aims to create a single market and consolidate the movement of people. It moves us closer to the realisation of an economic union as envisaged by our Africanist thinkers. The voice and active engagement in this great initiative should consciously support young entrepreneurs aspiring to drive the economic growth of their respective countries and create more employment opportunities for their peers.
Our continent has to remain steadfast in ensuring all children are in schools to enable them to get well educated and skilled as change agents envisaged through the AU Youth Charter and Agenda 2063. Children must be allowed to be the innovators of the continent. The South African Cabinet recently approved the country’s 2020-2030 National Youth Policy, which proposes to intervene in five key focus areas: the quality of education, skills and second chance; economic transformation, entrepreneurship and job creation; physical and mental health promotion; social cohesion and nation-building, and effective and responsive youth development machinery.
At the centre of the implementation of these far-reaching policies and Agenda 2063 programme should be the involvement of the youth themselves. Despite all the challenges the youth are facing in the continent, my view is that given the space, they have the capacity to be the transformative agents and drivers of socio-economic change in the continent.
If all governments in the continent were to create an enabling environment to allow youth the opportunity to be the agents of change, the future of this continent would be much better. Therefore, governments should desist from using our youth in senseless conflicts that destroy their lives.
We must all allow the youth of the continent to continue shining the light of the future and build the Africa we want.
Ms Phumla Williams is the South African Cabinet Spokesperson and GCIS Director General.