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Africa Day symposium: Harness Africa’s youth dividend

“Much has happened since [the founding of the AU], much remains finished, much is yet to be done. That is why we must focus on the youth. It is the youth of Africa on whose shoulders will lie the task of accomplishing this dream,” Tanzanian Ambassador Ombeni Sefue.



Africa must nurture and celebrate its youth and the power they have to change the continent’s narrative, said Tanzanian Ambassador Ombeni Sefue, chair of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), at the opening of a virtual 2021 Africa Day Public Symposium.

The youth-centred symposium on 24 May was hosted by the APRM and the African Union (AU) in collaboration with the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance (NMSPG). The next day marked the 58th annual commemoration of Africa Day, which celebrates the founding of the Organization of African Unity (now the AU), in 1963.

“Much has happened since [the founding of the AU], much remains finished, much is yet to be done. That is why we must focus on the youth. It is the youth of Africa on whose shoulders will lie the task of accomplishing this dream,” said Ambassador Sefue.

“It is the youth of Africa on whose shoulders will lie the task of accomplishing this dream.”

It is Africa’s youth who can change the continent’s narrative of health crises, unemployment, misalignment of education curricula, and forced migration because of conflict.


The symposium’s theme, “Youth development and participation on the African continent amid the COVID-19 Pandemic”, had three foci:

  • Youth participation in Africa’s peace and security amid COVID-19
  • Youth participation and contributions towards building a strong African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA)
  • The decolonisation of African education curricula.

The backdrop was the broader AU theme, “Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want”, and the African Youth Charter’s 15th anniversary.

Huge youth population

The United Nations (UN) notes that global youth (classified as those aged between 15 and 35) population is 1.8 billion, with 90% found in the developing world. Africa has the largest proportion of the developing world’s youth.

“We want to harness that [youth] dividend.”

Besides the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, high unemployment, war and conflict, the continent’s youth generation is expected to fulfil the mission of ushering in the “Africa We Want”, characterised by Aspiration 6 of the AU’s Agenda 2063. This is the AU’s blueprint for transforming the continent into a global powerhouse through inclusive and sustainable development. It envisages people-driven development of the continent, harnessing the potential of Africans, especially women and youth.

Mabel Nederlof-Sithole
Mabel Nederlof-Sithole from the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance served as co-moderator. Photo Lerato Maduna.

“We want to harness that [youth] dividend,” said co-moderator Mabel Nederlof-Sithole from UCT’s NMSPG.

However, it was important that Africa’s youth develop an understanding of their history, identity and destiny to foster the pride and pan-African ideas necessary to prepare the continent for the future, Sefue said.


But COVID-19 has been a major setback for the youth.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our lives and forced us to think innovatively about how to transform our economies and promote peace and sustainable development, as well as find durable solutions to poverty and governance challenges,” said Sefue. “In these times, building resilience has become a priority, and the role and contribution of women and youth are indispensable.”

Free trade area

He urged youth to take advantage of the opportunities created by the rise of technology and the African Free Trade Area.

“As a dynamic group, highly adaptable and resilient, the youth should be mainstreamed in all policymaking … across different sectors, whether political, economic, corporate or social. We at the APRM believe that active youth participation and engagement at different levels is a critical factor for good governance, economic growth and sustainable development. To see Africa’s youth rise to its full potential, it’s paramount for member-states to implement fully all the relevant key instruments.”


These are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention of Rights of the Child, the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child, the AU’s Agenda 2063, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the African Youth Charter.

“Additionally, we should prioritise meaningful cross-sectoral partnerships towards advancing the youth agenda in Africa, and promote greater accountability among stakeholders.”

Sefue said that the APRM welcomes initiatives taken by the continent’s youth. For example, last year they produced a youth policy paper which was published by the Youth Division of the AU, in collaboration with the African Centres for Disease Control.

“We also welcomed the initiative in May last year to create an AU Youth Advisory Board and the African Youth Fund on Coronavirus, a high-level policy and advocacy framework for young people to co-lead Africa’s response to COVID-19.”

The past is not a prison


In his statement of support, Michael Chukwuemeka of the APRM’s Youth Vanguard in Nigeria shared a powerful message of hope and action. As Nederlof-Sithole said, “[Chukwuemeka’s] powerful testimony of victory over drug addiction is a reminder to all of us that our past does not have to be our prison. If we can hope, exercise resilience and build support networks that pass on the love and generosity we receive, change is always possible.”

Chukwuemeka said that the APRM’s African Youth Vanguard offered the continent’s youth an opportunity to “amplify our voices and act together nationally and internationally to be global citizens in strengthening Africa”.

“As youths, I urge us to rise to the clarion call for our nation to take full responsibility in achieving [our] goals and aspirations by promoting the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2063 among the youth.”

Though conflict and unemployment are barriers, he urged the youth to get busy.

“We cannot sit around complaining … we have to do something about it and act now. Africa is our home … no matter [where] our second citizenship of residence in the diaspora.”


Nothing about us without us

In her welcome address, UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng cited the activist slogan born in the South African student protests between 2015 and 2017: “Nothing about us without us”. Professor Phakeng said there was good reason Africa’s youth should take the phrase to heart.

“In the first place, we want youth to participate in Africa’s development. They need to be able to own their role on this continent. Second, the young people are not even waiting for us to invite them … they’re not waiting for us to tell them to act on the future. Many of them are already active, but their future is also our future, and the future of our children and grandchildren. We all have a responsibility to engage with each other and work together.

“So, the slogan … can apply to all Africans, including those of us who have experience in leadership roles, and especially future generations who will be affected by our decisions and our actions today.”

A general collapse of trust in public leadership also constituted a crisis, Phakeng said. The youth “no longer believe presidents, CEOs, even university leaders … So we as leaders have a challenge to prove our credibility, not only in what we say but in what we do, too.”

 Mamokgethi Phakeng
Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng said that Africa’s youth should take to heart the student protest slogan, “Nothing about us without us”. Photo Lerato Maduna.

She said that UCT’s Vision 2030, with its aim of unleashing human potential, recognised the seismic changes introduced by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“And Africans need to take the initiative in managing how we will change, rather than waiting for change to happen and running after it. When change came to Africa, it was usually brought by a colonial power … But that doesn’t mean that we cannot initiate our own changes as Africans.”

However, it was important to understand the long-term effects of the changes youth want to see. An example of the kinds of engagements needed concerns the call by students for UCT to cancel all historic student debt – an eye-watering figure.

“The issue of tuition fees is a very emotional one in South Africa,” said Phakeng. “And helping the poor is the reason we have such an extensive financial aid plan, over and above what the government can offer.”

In her discussions with students, Phakeng said that she had asked if they wanted to be the last generation to study at UCT.

“Activism must benefit not only this generation, but it must benefit future generations.”

“Because if we use all the financial resources that we have to wipe out historic debt, that will be the result. If we scrapped historic debt, we will have to retrench staff, including our lower pay classes, and that won’t help the poor … It will not serve the future if we end up shutting down Africa’s highest-ranked university; shutting down the research that helps us to address health, social and climate change issues … So, we’ve got to be wise about this, and at least handle the debt of the students who are currently in the system.”


Phakeng added, “Activism must benefit not only this generation, but it must benefit future generations. And that’s the message we need for all of us who call ourselves activists.”

*Other news stories from the symposium will follow in Youth Month.