If you are not in the room with youth, you are not bullet-proofing the future
The people that are being interviewed are the next generation of leaders; they will have a major say in the direction that this continent takes.
SA has lived through tumultuous times recently. But Covid notwithstanding, we saw most of this coming and, perhaps more pertinently, we can see what will follow.
The reason for this is simple: the African Youth Survey, now in its second edition. Launched in 2019, it was an attempt to pulse the sentiments of the youth of the continent. Researchers have spoken to just under 10 000 youth between the ages of 18 and 24 since its inception.
Last year, they conducted 4 500 interviews with youth in Angola, Congo Brazzaville, DRC, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia. We collated the results this year. The findings make for compelling reading.
In SA, the results reinforce some commonly held beliefs and skewer certain popular claims for what they are: baseless agenda-driven statements backed more by hope than statistics. In some instances; the prognosis is gloomy: SA’s youth are less optimistic about the direction the country is going in. Only a third are positive, down nearly 20%. Just under half are actually negative.
Faith in the country’s leaders is also very low, the lowest of all the countries polled. A majority of the respondents believe religious leaders are more credible. The youth believe change in this country will be driven by local leaders and community organisations, which is not surprising when we think of some of the most meaningful interventions to avert catastrophe in the last couple of years.
Yet, most youth believe two of SA’s most visible politicians – President Cyril Ramaphosa and EFF leader Julius Malema – will have a significant impact on the continent over the next five years; greater even than US President Joe Biden or Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
But not all the findings are dire: the youth might be despondent about their leaders, but two-thirds still believe democracy is the best way to choose leaders – despite the very low turnout of first-time voters at the general election in 2019.
And 80% believe the country has to do more to protect women. The same number want the government to protect ethnic minorities. But at the same time, 44% are against the government helping refugees from other countries. It’s the highest number in this category in Africa and perhaps underscores the ongoing reluctance of government to unequivocally denounce xenophobic behaviour.
There are other messages, too. Foreign influence is the biggest single driver of negative change, according to 60% of the respondents. China is seen as the most influential foreign country but nowhere nearly as positively as it is in the rest of Africa.
The AU, the US and the World Trade Organisation are seen as far more benign. Tellingly, eight out of 10 youths believe foreign companies have exploited SA’s natural resources without investing in the local communities where they operate.
A quarter believe SA is an important “foreign player” on the continent in its own right. Almost two-thirds of the youth are concerned about political instability in the country, though less than half about the threat of terrorism, unlike their counterparts in the rest of Africa where this figure is much higher.
There are other findings that challenge widely held perceptions, like the fact that the public broadcaster, the SABC, is by far the most trusted news source – despite the difficulties it has undergone and the political contestation it has weathered.
The SABC enjoys a far higher rating than the BBC, Sky, Al Jazeera or CNN, while 60% see China’s CGTN and the Voice of America as not trustworthy at all. SA youth appear less concerned about the impacts of climate change than others in Africa, although a significant 71% are concerned about increasing pollution of air, water and land; 67% about the ongoing destruction of farmland natural habitats; 61% for the increased length of heat or cold spells.
Once again, a finding of great importance as the country wrestles with how to resolve the ongoing power crisis with Eskom and its reliance on fossil fuels and continuing to flirt with fracking, power ships or nuclear as alternatives.
Jobs are a major concern for SA youth: a mammoth 75% believe the government is not doing enough, but only 65% intend to start their own businesses in the next two years, unlike the 78% average in the rest of the continent, who appear far more entrepreneurial. Overall, though, they believe they have a good standard of life here.
Only 10% describe their living conditions as poor, compared to a quarter of the youth in the rest of the continent. And 75% believe they will have a better life than their parents did.
The African Youth Survey is an important snapshot of a vital demographic. We are starting to see trends and will be able to chart them with each edition. The people that are being interviewed are the next generation of leaders; they will have a major say in the direction that this continent takes. They have to be listened to.
In South Africa, at least, more than half believe their leaders are listening to them – even if those leaders aren’t doing too much with what they hear. Leaders need to do more than just listen, for this is a vital constituency.
What could happen in South Africa if the youth buck the trend by registering en masse for the general elections in 2024, rather than staying away as they did in 2019? The message for leaders, for investors, for analysts or futurists, is the same: if you are not in the room with the youth, you are not bullet-proofing the future – your own or the continent’s.
The corollary is as true: the African Century will happen despite you; it just won’t include you.
Ichikowitz is an industrialist and philanthropist. He chairs the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, which funds the African Youth Survey