Creating Political Space for Africa’s Young People

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog
Program Officer, Southern Africa


Mmusi Maimane, National Spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance in South Africa.

Photo Credit: The Democratic Alliance

Much has been written on the importance of neutralizing sub-Saharan Africa’s “youth time bomb,” the supposed demographic explosion that could contribute to future crises on the continent, as if there are not enough past and present crises to list. Yet many authors focus solely on the need for enhancing African youth’s employability—in other words, their economic co-optation by existing elites—while ignoring the harder-to-define social and political dynamics affecting youth. Indeed, youth employability in a modern, global economy remains of paramount importance, but equally crucial is affording youth the space and investment in their principled leadership for them to have a greater say over their future.

Asking half of the sub-Saharan African population, everyone under 25 years old, to reap some economic benefits without wielding comparable political power could produce a brewing crisis in itself. And the answer is not simply for young people to speak out. African youth need good and ethical peers who can lead and genuinely represent their interests. Character matters in politics, and it is ignored at great cost. Too many African rulers to date have lacked the ethics required of a true servant leader, one who builds consensus among followers around an agenda for positive change.

To better understand how to create real space for the legitimate and constructive political expressions of African youth, one must examine specific cases in which youth have successfully amplified their participation, and leadership, in political affairs.

Having originally developed as service-delivery protests in response to power outages, the Y’en a Marre (Fed Up) youth movement in Senegal evolved into a nationwide social and political campaign, seeking participation by all demographic groups. The target of the campaign eventually became then president Abdoulaye Wade, who ran for a third term in office by arguing that the 2001 constitution’s two-term limit did not apply to his first term, which had begun in 2000. Y’en a Marre succeeded in defeating Wade at the polls in 2012 by connecting with young voters and other segments of the population during the country’s registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Using pop culture and art to mobilize youth in support of political aims, Y’en a Marre demonstrated the positive potential youth could fulfill when led by socially conscious and goal-driven peers. Y’en a Marre continues to be an important force in Senegal, advancing its agenda of broad political participation and greater awareness of the social, political, and economic challenges facing the country.

The Y’en a Marre case demonstrates that young people can be effective leaders who inspire positive change not only among their peers, but across the population, when they are afforded the opportunity. Another such case can be seen in South Africa, where the Democratic Alliance (DA), the official opposition in the country’s parliament and the only party other than the ruling African National Congress that governs at the provincial level. The DA’s Young Leader Program trains up to 20 people from its youth membership annually. It has graduated 125 young leaders who are involved with the party in various capacities and are expected to take up senior positions as their careers advance within the party.

The results of the DA’s investment in young leaders is most visible in its national leadership structure. Its parliamentary leader is Lindiwe Mazibuko, a 33-year-old woman, and its national spokesperson, Mmusi Maimane, is also 33. Among the eight highest-ranking national leaders of the party, three are under the age of 35. In the upcoming elections, the DA national list has 33 candidates who are graduates of the Young Leader Program. The DA remains one of the few political parties in Southern Africa that have clearly implemented their youth development policies and consistently invested in training young leaders.

The task of promoting youth participation and ethical leadership is not for the faint of heart. It requires incumbent leaders to establish clear succession plans, with definite dates for their own political exit, moving aside for those behind to move ahead. In the examples described above, two very different paths are taken by existing elites. One path, followed by Wade in Senegal, resulted in a massive public backlash, while the other, taken by the DA in South Africa, is apparently offering youth real opportunities for greater political competition based on a long-term vision for electoral success. Those of the older generations who promote youth and their active leadership see that their own political causes depend on the contributions of future generations. Those who do not promote youth leadership only understand their cause, if they have one at all, as living and dying with themselves.

Despite some notable exceptions, Senegal and South Africa both provide space for youth to express themselves peacefully without repercussions, and both are rated Free in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World survey of political rights and civil liberties. Indeed, an open and democratic system of government remains a key ingredient for the genuine political empowerment of youth.

However, creating political space for young people is not sufficient on its own. It is equally important to train and invest in young leaders, those of strong character and ethical backgrounds, as the DA in South Africa seems to recognize. Taken together, these two complementary actions can produce a society that generates young people who have the ability to construct and realize a forward-looking vision for their communities and, collectively, their nations.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

Share this story