The wretchedness of African youth

With the majority of its population under the age of 40, Africa is the youngest continent on the planet. Conventionally, these under 40s are categorized as “economically active”. An ironic category becasue the majority of them are economically inactive, either unemployed or underemployed. In West Africa, they are in dire straits that some feel forced to hang their lives on the Sahara walking to Casa Blanca from where they can hopefully swim or sail across the Mediterranean over to southern Europe. In a country like South Africa many of them have been downgraded from unemployed/underemployed to unemployable — here the situation is truly one of the saddest in the continent, especially given the promise of South Africa at the dawn of its independence. Let’s keep it real – for the unemployable, there is no future.

In a recent speech, president Kikwete of Tanzania singled out the unemployed youth as a serious threat to security and peace in Africa — a common chorus in South Africa. But a threat to security and peace? Whose security and peace? In this social chaos, social location (where you are positioned on the social order) matters a great deal. Let’s face it. The unemployed and unemployable are a threat to security and peace as far as those who are enjoying security and peace are concerned – the older generation of the elite. Liberation from colonialism did not bring security and peace to the youth. On the contrary, the so-called liberation unleashed other forms of vulnerability, violence and uncertainly among youth. Hebert Hoover was right. “Older men declare wars,” he said, “but it is the youth that must fight and die”. Even in Africa. Especially in Africa. In Africa government officials, war lords and rebels have recruited youth and children to fight and die like mangy dogs. And for what? Look at what is happening in Mozambique. Here old men are arguing against each other. They have armed and dangerous young men lined up to fight and die for them.

What we have seems to be a clear case of generational conflict between the older (particularly the elite) and younger Africans. On the one hand, the older generation wants to cling to power at all cost, control all the means of survival, and perpetuate its interests till its dying days. This is the generation of Joseph Desire Mobutu who changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga – The all powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake. On the other hand, with nothing but vulnerability and violence to show for their liberation, the youth have lost patience and want an immediate end to their misery. To their credit, in order to achieve a life worth living, rather than counting on governments to hear their grievances, they have decided to take the matters into their bare hands. Violence – the only language the old elite seem to respect – is one of the means through which they have begun to express their discontentment and construct a future. Another is entrepreneurship. Young people have long recognized that government officials have never been interested in the public good but in self-enrichment whilst everyone else (including youth) goes to hell.

The rebellions of the youth in Nigeria’s Niger Delta (against government and multinational oil corporations), North Africa (against theocratic tyrants), Mozambique (against food and transportation costs), South Africa (against abysmal service delivery), etc, are microcosms of a continental youth discontentment.


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