Africa’s future generation has spoken

It might not seem so at the moment, but things will change in the next two years in Africa – for the better. That’s not an idle wish, but rather one that has been empirically proven. It’s one of the key findings of the second edition of the African Youth Survey, conducted last year as the continent struggled through the last of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The survey, first conducted in 2019, is an ambitious attempt to gauge the aspirations and ambitions of the next generation of African leaders. Spread across 15 countries, including five new ones from the inaugural survey, researchers spoke to just over 4,500 respondents, all between the ages of 18 and 24.

Another important finding is the drop in Afro-optimism, not in the continent, but rather in their own countries’ ability to manage their expectations of the future. The biggest drop has occurred in Rwanda, Kenya and South Africa. There could be many reasons for that; the pandemic itself, instability, and the economy. Instability is something that really does vex the youth, 75% of them are concerned about it, with half of them extremely concerned. In Kenya, understandably, this rises to 91% and 89% in Mozambique, further south, both of which are still dealing with terrorist insurgencies.

Half the youth interviewed have been personally impacted by terror, insurgency or conflict, with a quarter of the respondents in Mozambique either having been recruited or knowing someone who had been recruited to join a terror organization. Only 40% of African youth believe their governments are doing enough to combat the instability.

Those concerns are followed very closely by worries about corruption, the standard of education, the creation of jobs and, significantly, ways to make it easier to start businesses. The entrepreneurial spirit flows strongly through this generation; they will not be the ones depending on international aid to subsist, nor will they be entering politics as a means to access patronage and enrich themselves. Three-quarters of them want to start their own business, but access to capital is their biggest barrier. Technology will be critically important in most of their start-ups.

This is a generation that wants to control its own destiny. Two-thirds of them will marry later than their parents did, 72% intend to have fewer children. Most of them aren’t happy with their career prospects in their own countries, so half of them are intending to leave, with South Africa being the best option continentally followed by Europe and the US, if they can. Of those that do leave, half of them won’t go back home. Three-quarters of them believe owning land is vital for their financial wellbeing, and 77% are scared they won’t be able to buy their own homes. Yet for all that, 77% believe that life will improve in the next two years and more than two-thirds are convinced they will have better lives than their parents.

The youth overwhelmingly believe in the power of democracy for Africa, although most of them think the continent should develop its own indigenous version free from western influence. They believe in free speech and regular free and fair elections and they abhor the prospect of one-party states, military juntas and dictators. They are well aware of the danger of climate change because they are living through it with half of them spending a quarter of their income every month buying fresh water. They don’t think their governments are doing enough to become carbon neutral, but they are committed to doing what they can in their own lives.

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Like youth the world over, African youth increasingly view Wi-Fi as a basic human right, especially because two-thirds find the cost of data high and only 12% can afford to buy it every day, even though three-quarters of them spend an hour a day on social media. They used to use it to keep in touch, but more and more are using it these days to access news. They are increasingly aware of fake news and particularly on the lookout for national leaders using it as a tactic to push their own agendas and win the support they might not otherwise deserve.

African youth are fully aware of the importance of foreign relations, with China being seen as the most influential – and positive – player both in terms of aid and goods for sale across the continent, followed by the US, the AU, the EU, the WTO and the UK. But there is also a growing negative perspective about China in terms of it extracting raw materials without properly re-investing in local communities and the countries in which it has done so. But this isn’t isolated to China, though, it’s a widespread feeling that many multinationals have come to Africa and taken far more than they have given. More than a third of South Africans, Ugandans and Ethiopians see foreign influence as negative.

The survey tells us much. It warns us but it is also a source of great hope. In a continent that is often wracked by violence, dominated by patriarchy and divided by xenophobia, it is heartening to discover how 83% of the respondents are concerned about ethnic minorities, with as many again concerned about gender-based violence and 64% believing that their countries have a duty to assist refugees. But there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to protecting the LGBTQ+ community and it’s terribly sad to read how almost half of the youth have suffered some form of identity or other discrimination.

The next group of African leaders will be very unlike the current generation and almost unrecognizable from the generation before. When this survey was first launched, I believed that the time was right to test the pulse of this youth group because they are like their age group in South Africa, ‘born frees’. This African generation is free, not from white domination as such, but from the inter-generational burden of emerging from the shackles of centuries of colonialism. This group knows what it wants, how to get it and what to do if their initial plan doesn’t work out. They know the risks and the dangers of living in Africa, they’re street smart and they certainly aren’t naïve about foreign influences or strangers bearing gifts in terms of ‘investment’ and ‘aid’.

It is always said that Africa’s greatest resource is not her treasure trove of miners, but rather the treasure trove of people. AYS 2022 bears this out – and that’s great news for those of us who truly believe in making the African Century a reality in our lifetime.

Ivor Ichikowitz Is An African Industrialist And Philanthropist. He Chairs The Ichikowitz Family Foundation, Which Conceptualised And Funded The African Youth Survey.

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