The political birth of a generation?

Students demonstrating against university fees and wearing white t-shirt the WITS University Student Representative Council president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa. Photo credit: AFP / Marco Longari
Students demonstrating against university fees and wearing white t-shirt the WITS University Student Representative Council president Nompendulo Mkhatshwa. Photo credit: AFP / Marco Longari

The movement: Fees must fall

As we have been looking at the massive youth demographic change currently taking place in Southern Africa, the youth of South Africa has taken to the streets to protest against university fees. They have been rallying behind the slogan “#feesmustfall” asking for free education at university level.

The young protesters showed signs of high daring political strategies to reach their objective. They were not afraid to try to storm the gates of the Parliament in Cape Town on 21st October 2015 and then to demonstrate two days later, en masse in front of the Union Buildings, seat of the Government and the Presidency, in Pretoria. Each time the police stopped them but their messages and symbols overcame the teargas and fences.

The balance of power: the youth is taking over

There is a high level of perception of corruption in South Africa as well as real inequalities. If Apartheid fell in the early 1990s the new generation of youth going to universities now is born after this. They have not experienced it but have an acute sense of racism and a strong will to move on. South Africans are masters of demonstrations and know how to go to the streets to be heard. June 16, Youth day, is still widely celebrated and refers to the youth of the 70s taking the streets against the Apartheid regime and its decision to impose the Afrikaans language in schools in 1976. If you add this to the fact that one young South African in two is unemployed, you get an interesting cocktail. Furthermore, in the South society of 2015 young people (18-34) represents more than one potential voter in two (53%). The 19-29 year old group is made up of more than 10 million people in a country with a total population of approx. 55 million (CIA world fact book for 2014). The median age is 26 y.o. Meaning that one South African in two is between 1 day and 26 y.o. The youth is a powerful and large group in that society. No doubt that South African leaders must have taken this into account.

The born free (from Apartheid) generation must sound like European baby boomers sounded in the late 1960’s: thank you to the elders for what you have done (putting an end to Apartheid on the one hand and rebuilding Europe on the other) but times have changed and we want something else (same thing: more opportunities to live their lives and being acknowledged by the glorious preceding generations).

On Friday, 23rd October 2015, the South African President, Jacob Zuma announced that the freeze of fees increase in 2016. He used twitter to do so. He is a smart politician and he gives the impression of listening to the youth without giving exactly what they want which could help divide the movement and push the students back into the classrooms.

This is not what the youth wanted but it is still a victory. What is happening now in South Africa should not be underestimated. It is nothing less but the political birth of a generation. This is the realization that politically, the youth matters. This generation is becoming the largest in its society and will have huge influence over the official leaders long before they occupy positions of leaderships themselves.

Youth Voter in South Africa

Unlike other Southern African countries where elections are just for the façade, elections in South Africa do matter. The ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) sees its comfortable electoral results dropping constantly (from 69% in 2004 to 65% in 2009 and 62% in 2014). It is now attacked on the left by the ex-leader of its youth league, Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Party. He organised a well-attended march on October 27, 2015, for Economic Freedom in the streets of the economic capital, Johannesburg. A couple of tens of thousands of people gathered on that day under his banner. The ANC’s star shines less and less brightly. They have lost at least 450,000 members between 2012 and 2015 according to themselves. They should be 769,000 now. Many parties across the world would dream of that number but the trend is negative and accelerating. In this context, they surely cannot afford to be perceived as going against the larger group of the country: the youth.

The icons: great stuffs to get the media on your side

The student movement attracted a lot of attention nation-and worldwide. Sébastien Hervieu from the Le Monde, the French newspaper, called it the “South African Students’ Spring”. South Africa is a well connected country and many of the demonstrators seem to be twitter addicted. A couple of iconic pictures did a lot for the cause of the movement. Some young fresh faces have emerged like those of Mcebo Dlamini with Shaera Shaeera Kalla, Nompendulo Mkhatshwa and Vuyani Pambo. The picture I chose for this post is indeed iconic and spread across pro-and social media faster than a bush fire on a hot dry day of the South African summer.

An agitated but exciting future

Of course the youth is not a monolithic group thinking the same thing and having the same political orientations. We still have to get accustomed to requests rising from the youth and the potential of tensions they carry. Adopting a confrontational strategy will be the worst choice by the South African leaders but showing authority will be key to demonstrate the strength of the rule of law and the institutions. This new state of the balance of power within the South African society will inevitably have for consequence a more pro-youth political agenda, a rejuvenation of the political elite and a change of methods by decisions-takers to remain relevant to the largest group within their population.

It is also likely to see techniques being developed and implemented to limit the influence of the most turbulent sides of the new generations. One can think of offering top positions at party, government or parastatal levels to the leaders of the movements. Offering some key and visible reforms benefiting a large group of the youth would be useful to reduce the influence of the most radical activists. Another usual and efficient technique is to use the electoral system to counterbalance the weight of a turbulent political group that is urban based by a less turbulent group in rural areas.

Eventually, the situation in South Africa is watched carefully by students in countries like Namibia and Botswana especially which due to historical, economic, media and personal links. It would not be surprising that the debate around the costs of studying reappears in those countries in a way or another in the coming weeks and months influenced by what is happening in South Africa. The Botswana College of Agriculture was closed at the end of October 2015 after violence took place during a movement of students asking for better living conditions. These movements are already frequents and could be nourished by the ones next door.

The coming months and years in South Africa and the region at large are extremely exciting and major changes are to happen.


Youth – Southern Africa and the big demographic change

Images of students’ demonstrations against fees are common in Southern Africa and they are important, as they are one of the tensions brought by a massive demographic change in the region. If you imagine, three young citizens from the region: Kagiso in Botswana, 20 year-old, Cecilia in Malawi, 15, and Thabo in South Africa, 22, have all something in common. They are part of the largest group population in their respective countries. There is a global youth wave that has started to flood the region and more widely the whole continent. South African youth showed how powerful they could be when in thousands they demonstrated against university fees increase in front of the Parliament and the State building in October 2015. Jacob Zuma, the SA president, announced the freeze of the fees increase as a matter of fact.

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A youth wave on the go 

55%[1] of citizens in age of voting in SADC[2] region are between 18 and 34 years old. 61%[3] of SADC citizens are between 0 and 24 years old. The majority of people in this region are born after the end of the Cold War, and more and more after the end of the civil wars in Mozambique, Angola and the end of Apartheid in South Africa – there they are called “the born free”. Indian Ocean apart, the oldest population in the region is in South Africa where half of the population is below 26 years old. Many countries are even younger like Zambia where half of the inhabitants are under 17 years old!

Youth: an old political concept

Youth is an old political concept. It has always been understood as a tool to promote change when politically controlled to fight the colonial and the white minority regimes in the region. It can also be perceived as a group that agitates for change. In 1950, Nelson Mandela became the head of the African National Congress Youth League of South Africa (ANCYL) that was founded in 1944 – already. In 1976, the youth of Soweto stood up against apartheid regime and up to this day, June 16 is remembered and celebrated across Southern Africa as a tribute to the commitment of the youth against oppression. More recently, Julius Malema has emerged politically by heading the ANCYL too.


Political opportunities and challenges in Southern Africa

The current demographics in this part of the continent are opening a period of social tensions and opportunities. Considering youth as a minority group within a population while they are by far the majority will, obviously, be a political mistake. All ruling and opposition parties are wondering how to handle this situation and how to make the most of it to remain in power or to access it.

These demographics will test political and socio-economic systems in the region. The Western world and Japan in the 1960s and more recently Arabic countries faced similar tensions. The one thing it taught us is that there is no single answer but the more solid a system is, the more stable it is.

Mid-August this year, in Botswana, Heads of State of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) signed a Declaration on Youth Development and Empowerment. This is a new development showing that rulers in the region understand that demographics are changing quickly and that they need to do something about it to remain relevant.

A regional divide: urban versus rural Southern Africa

However the breadth of the change is still to be well assessed across the region. Furthermore, one can observe changes in behaviour and many societies are also evolving towards more individualistic behaviours with less appetite for the community approach and a certain respect for hierarchy. It is interesting to see many ruling parties in the region losing ground in urban centres where the youth is more present and more educated. If you check the graphs attached to this text, you can notice the Southern states and Angola have a relatively high percentage of urban population (more than 60%) while the rest of the sub-region varies from very to extremely rural like in Malawi (84% of the population live in rural areas). This would require a country-by-country study but one can assume that social structures controlled by the elders operate better in rural areas than in urban centres where competing structures are present.

A test of the ruling parties

In any case, the best way to deal with these major demographic changes should be about embracing them. In South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, all the ruling parties are facing a similar challenge in that sector: reinventing themselves beyond the topic of the Struggle for independence and against White-minority rule to seduce the “born-free”. Obviously some disarray and disappointment is not to be excluded from the older generations that fought a tough fight to be able to rule their own countries. It must be something similar to what European parents felt in the 1960s when their kids who had many more opportunities made them understand they would not listen to them just quietly.

youth-in-southern-africa_20151103192436_1446578676479_block_1In DRC and Angola, political youth activists not at the order of the ruling systems have been jailed without any or with little  legal basis, proving a certain level of fear from the rulers. The Arab spring brings some clues about another demographic change and how different regimes resisted it. In Tunisia, the system fell but the country has remained more stable than some of its neighbours like Libya or Egypt. It could be thanks to a better flexibility and inclusiveness of the new political regime that has so far enabled Tunisia to cope better with the situation. In other countries, the system relied on a strong security system to regain control or maintain it like in Egypt and Algeria. It is also a question of internal and external factors of instability and capacity for the youth to actually be violent and the security sector to follow them or crack down on them.

Testing the current political systems

The political tests have already started. In Botswana last year, during the general elections and the primaries preceding them, a major generational change took place in the ballot boxes. This was confirmed in the general elections in October 2014 with a majority of MPs being below 50 – which is still considered as young in political terms. 32 out of 57 MPs were elected for the first time. This is a massive renewal of the political representatives especially as the ruling party remains the same. It is a rare combination showing as well the capacity of the ruling party in Botswana to adapt. The electoral system in that country has proved to be able to absorb the tension so far.

In some countries like in Botswana the relative power of the youth in the demographics is also a consequence from HIV-AIDS as the generations between 35 and 55 are less numerous, therefore increasing the percentage of those below 25.

The lines I am writing are maybe not of such news to many actors in the region. Many politicians seem to have understood the importance of the youth for their own future. Ian Khama, the Botswana President has appointed a very dynamic and very close person to him as the minister of youth: Thapelo Olopeng. Although he is in his 50s, he is a newcomer to politics and has brought a fresh and energetic style. Since the elections last year, he has been one of the most active ministers in Khama’s cabinet, launching many initiatives on youth employment. He is also very present on social media and guess which part of the population uses these media the more?

The flexibility of the different regimes in Southern Africa will be tested.

For regimes in the region, solidity facing this wave will come from the strength of the flexibility of a democratic system of the effective control over the security sectors. Without one or the other, it is going to be difficult. Nobody is protected from some sort of tensions and it is better to be prepared for it.

Youth, wealth, perception of inequality and opportunities

There is clear divide in the Southern African region in terms of economic wealth. The countries with the biggest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are also those with the lowest poverty rates but with high inequalities – scientifically captured by the high Gini coefficient. It is a paradox creating a fertile ground for tensions. The paradox is that the richest countries in the region are those where the youth is the most educated but face the highest levels of unemployment. In South Africa, the economic powerhouse of the region, 62% of the region GDP, one citizen in two is under 26 years old and youth unemployment is at 51.5%[4]. No political party can ignore this factor in order to win elections but also to rule. In Madagascar, the socio-economic situation is the opposite: lower level of education, higher level of poverty but officially only 3.8% unemployment.

One of the criteria that will determine the capacity to handle the demographics wave is inequality. It is about the perception of an acceptable sharing system for the pieces of the wealth cake. Another criterion is the urbanization. One has to take into account education and the economic diversification. In South Africa and Botswana, the numbers of years actually spent at school are superior to 7 years but the vast majority of SADC it is less than 7 years with the lowest being in the DRC with only 3 years. The ability of the economic system to integrate these youngsters and to provide them with jobs is fundamental. The level of expectation and potential frustration comes also from the level of education.

Tensions on the rise to be expected but not necessarily crises to happen

Each generation has its own set of values and way of doing things. They can clash but they can find their own space too. Changes will happen but there should be room for everyone. The Red Cross was decried by European Baby Boomers who founded another kind of non-state actors with Doctor Without Borders in 1971. In 2015, both organisations still exist. The Red Cross has not disappeared. It has evolved. The lesson is that it is possible to accommodate everyone and that the older generations have nothing to fear.

Regimes with some space for the youth, a disciplined and well controlled security force – in case of social tension turning sour – a certain level of affordable education, of job opportunities and some good governance will be in the better situation to handle the youth wave that is now flooding the region.

[1] Based on data from 2014 from the CIA World FactBook – consulted in October 2015

[2] SADC is the Southern African Development Community. It is made up of 15 countries: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe

[3] Based on data from 2015 and 2013 from the UN consulted in October and November 2015

[4] Data from UNDP HDR report 2015 – for 2013