The role of youth in governance and leadership in a post-COVID-19 world

This article is a part of a series on youth innovation during COVID-19 developed by the African Centre for the Study of the US at Wits University, the Youth Bridge Trust, and the Africa Portal.

Crises of the magnitude of COVID-19 often deepen the existing societal cleavages, exacerbate the structures of privilege and inequities, and worsen the avenues for social and political mobility. The emergence of such large-scale upheavals disproportionately disadvantage youth who suffer the ravages of declining employment opportunities, social welfare, and other measures meant to confront the pandemic. Moreover, as governments shift energies to meet the emergencies occasioned by the pandemic and address the plight of the most vulnerable members of society, they frequently ignore youth and their multiple concerns aside, purportedly as governments wait for the return to normalcy. Ultimately, the youth face diminished societal visibility and dignity.

Similarly, however, the socioeconomic and political recovery initiatives from such crises present vistas for youth to participate in changing the prevailing patterns and practices to enhance their stakes in leadership and governance. Thus while pandemics have the potential to disempower youth, they could also unleash vital stirrings that produce inter-generational change. However, youth contribution to such shifts hinges fundamentally on agency, creative leadership, organization, and willingness to seize opportunities.

The impact of COVID-19 on the youth

COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on youth in South Africa and Africa as a whole, primarily because it has heightened the already prevalent social ills that face them. With an unemployment rate of 35 per cent for populations aged 18-35, youth in South Africa have endured most of the effects of socioeconomic marginalisation, deterioration in livelihoods, and unprecedented poverty. Some estimates reveal that these unemployment numbers may double because of COVID-19, leading to further job losses and erosion of decent livelihoods. For the rest of the continent, there are reports that almost 16 million young Africans, around 13.4 per cent of the total labour force of 15-24 year olds, are facing unemployment.

Before the pandemic, there were popular depictions of Africa’s youth bulge as a time bomb waiting to happen, dramatising an alleged youth crisis that stems, in fact, from the absence of credible social investment policies in health, education, skills, and employment for the youth. Africa’s informal sectors that absorb the bulk of the unemployed lack meaningful social safety nets, consigning them to precarious livelihoods. The lockdowns and regulations that accompanied responses to COVID-19 have adversely affected these sectors, forcing many young people to sink deeper into chronic poverty. In most African countries, the International Labour Organization projected that in the first month of the COVID-19 crisis, the income of informal workers in the region dropped by 81 per cent.

COVID-19 and the opportunity for African youth

For many years, as most African economies have consistently failed to generate job opportunities to absorb the millions graduating from universities and other tertiary institutions, young people have innovated by appropriating new technologies to navigate the vagaries of modern life. Through social activism and entrepreneurship, they have projected Africa to the global technological map while also making visible differences in their countries and communities. It is this ingenuity and social power that COVID-19 has not been able to eviscerate. Most studies have reported that African youth are leveraging and harnessing digital technologies in the fight against COVID-19, serving on the frontlines as health care workers, raising awareness about the pandemic and launching advocacy and sensitisation campaigns in communities. These efforts are bound to increase as the pandemic takes its toll in Africa.

“In the post-COVID-19 world, African youth should demand that there should be no return to normalcy without their engagement in leadership positions.”

Most public health experts have described COVID-19 as a disease that primarily affects the elderly, providing Africa the opportunity to transform its youth bulge into a socioeconomic and political dividend. With 60 per cent of Africa’s population under the age of 25, African countries have a unique chance to elevate young people to prominent positions across society.

Such moments of widespread and acute challenges have historically produced radical and irreversible alterations in power dynamics that, over time, propel new leaders to the fore and invariably improve the governance of these societies. However, like the typical revolutionary circumstances, such moments do not come on a silver platter; instead, they require organisational resolve, strategy, and determination. Youth have to demand these changes because those in power will simply not supply them.

Young people in Africa are already leading in critical domains, but, for most of the times, they have shown reluctance to take politics seriously. This is, in large part, because under authoritarian regimes, youth associated politics with negative images of abuse and violence. In the ongoing democratic dispensations in Africa, youth started to take a more active role in politics, but COVID-19 should energize the digital generation to assume greater meaningful roles in leadership and governance.

In seizing the new opportunities for leadership in social transformation, African youth will need to recognise the significance of governance in the sound management of social and political affairs. To the youth, governance should be an everyday concern because it is at the core of resource allocation and distribution with tremendous implications for social and political stability. For instance, the consequences of COVID-19, in part, relate to the broad governance problems that have long afflicted our African societies. Like other public emergencies before, COVID-19 has occurred alongside decrepit and under resourced public health systems, most of which collapsed owing to corruption and mismanagement of resources. Similarly, COVID-19 has spread rapidly in informal settlements and slum-dwelling communities because governments have abdicated basic responsibilities in the provision of housing, water, and sanitation to millions of their citizens. Equally, government appeals for donation from the rich to meet the growing needs of the poor and vulnerable communities in times of COVID-19 belie the lukewarm taxation policies that would target the rich to fund social services. Elsewhere, progressive taxation policies have worked to reduce inequities and foster humane societies; in Africa, ruling elites conspire with the rich to deprive public institutions of sufficient tax revenues to build equitable and caring societies.

African youth need to be alert to some of these governance challenges in order to be ready to stand up to them and mobilise for new ways of doing things. These challenges stem, in large measure, from the profound chasms between leaders and their citizens. Bridging these divides requires accountable and responsive governance and, more critical, a citizenry that is informed and prepared to push for good governance. Although the past democratisation trends in Africa have started to improve governance, most African countries are still grappling with weak institutions that cannot deliver public services and guarantee that all citizens will be treated equally. This is where youth leadership matters: COVID-19 has potentially projected African youth to strategic positions that will make them leaders in championing rebuilding the socioeconomic and political fabrics in ways that reflect the ethos of hard work, entrepreneurship, and collective efforts to resolve problems.

In the post-COVID-19 world, African youth should demand that there should be no return to normalcy without their engagement in leadership positions. This engagement should transcend the traditional practice of “inclusion of youth” that often smacks of sterile tokenism. Youth have made the first step in social advocacy and community mobilisation in the context of COVID-19, but they will need to scale up these engagements to take frontal positions in agitating for fundamental transformations. They should first demand a place at the table of post-COVID-19 reconstruction, helping in designing and implementing the wide array of programs and policies that respond to the pandemic.

Concluding remarks

Generational change in leadership and governance is a steady learning process that always depends on the life-long accusation of skills, resources, and capacities. However, fortuitous moments such as pandemics have the tendency to jumpstart these transitions, allowing the emergence of new leaders with the energy, drive, and conviction. COVID-19 has had myriad consequences on health, economic, social, and political systems across the globe. In Africa, the consequences are just beginning to filter into the wider societal fabrics. Nonetheless, if COVID-19 produces new leaders and ignites generational change in Africa, it will have contributed to novel approaches to managing social and political affairs.

(Main image: UN Women Arab States – Africa Youth Conference, Nairobi, Kenya licensed under CC.20)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.

30 July 2020