Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Are activist youth our agents of real social change?

By Zukiswa Mqolomba

Today’s youth are no longer the “lost generation” apathetic about the societies surrounding them. They are acutely conscious of their marginal structural position. Now, they no longer trust the state’s willingness and ability to find solutions to their problems. In their shared marginalisation, young people have developed a sense of common identity and a critical consciousness that leads them to challenge the established order.

In Africa, young women and men engage in civil-society associations, in popular culture, in debates through cyber social networks, and in political demonstrations. If we pay careful attention to the lyrics of their songs, the verses of their poems, the scripts of their plays, and the discourses propagating in their Facebook pages, blogs, tweets, and SMSs we uncover a strong critique of the status quo.

Youth protests throughout the world have shown us that youth can be a force for social change when their energies are harnessed through conscious activism — not necessarily just a resource for violence. Youth have played a central role in sparking protest movements across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South America and North America, optimising the power of youth agency through mass organisation and peaceful protest. They have catalysed democratisation of their nation states, showing that youth solidarities have the same capacity at articulating freedom for themselves and achieving this freedom through the power of youth agency.

African activism
We now have a youth in Africa that continues the struggle for the total liberation of Africa started by their forefathers by fighting for equality, freedom and justice. In the past couple of years, apart from the well-known events in Egypt and Libya, young people took to the streets in anti-government protests in Sudan, Angola, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Nigeria, among other places in the continent.

For example, they have been central to resisting a sit-tight president in Niger and mobilising subsequent changes in Senegal. In Dakar in June 2011, rallying around the movement “Y’en a marre!” (Enough is enough!), Senegalese youth came out to the streets, clashed with police, and managed to stop the approval of constitutional amendments that would benefit former president Abdoulaye Wade. Galvanised by this victory, and using the slogan “Ma carte d’electeur, mon arme” (My voting card, my weapon), the young Senegalese helped to remove Wade from office in February 2012.

Thousands of young Mozambicans also staged riots in Maputo in early September 2010, to protest a substantial rise in the prices of bread, water and fuel. Using text messaging to mobilise their age-mates, they blocked the streets, burned tires and confronted the police. The escalation of these protests forced the government to concede and reverse the price hikes. Youth from diverse social strata in Tunisia in 2011 also articulated grievances ranging from unemployment and corruption to the denial of free expression. They not only mobilised other Tunisians to oust the regime of Ben Ali but also inspired similar activism on the continent, in the Middle East and globally.

Africa’s 52 million Facebook users, mainly young citizens, have shown they are up to date and well-equipped to function effectively as part of the information and communications revolution.

We can safely assert that Africa’s youth have made an impact on the democratic evolution of the continent and pushing for the economic empowerment of young people. In Africa, pan-Africanism has been a tool and the engine of these struggles. Now, Africa’s young people are its future and the most important contributors to its structural transformation.

But youth protests have become a global phenomenon, not just an African story. The Middle East, Tunisia, Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Turkey, have all witnessed youth riots.

Global activism
The 2011 global youth revolts, beginning with the Arab Spring, to the Wall Street Occupation, the “Lost Generation” of Europe, the movement of the indignados that took over public squares across Spain and Greece, to the ongoing mass demonstrations of Chilean students and other protests, riots and revolutions all affirm that young people truly have authentic rights to self-determination.

In Portugal, in March 2011, the so-called “precarious generation” came out to the streets to denounce unemployment and the high cost of living. Since May 2011 the indignados (outraged) movement in Spain has been protesting economic inequalities and the lack of prospects for youth. In the UK, in August 2011, the killing of a young black man from Tottenham, in North London, sparked violent youth riots. Youth from the poorest neighbourhoods (and certainly not only from immigrant communities) burned cars and buildings and looted luxury goods, forcibly taking the desirable symbols of a consumer culture from which they feel excluded. In South America, Chilean students filled the streets of Santiago to demand high quality, low-cost public education. In the United States, the Occupy Wall Street Movement rallied many young Americans to protest corporate greed and corporations’ undue influence over government.

This wave of youth protests can best be understood in the context of this generation’s struggles for economic, social and political emancipation. The recent protest movements, led mainly by young people, stem directly from the economic and social pressures they suffer, and from their pervasive economic and political marginalisation. They have clearly moved from a dispersed and unstructured social and political stratum into more organised street protests.

Only the starting point
Looking at worldwide protests, it is clear that youth activism is just the starting point for young people to have a voice in their societies. For there to be sustainable change, there has to be a group of those still holding some power that is willing to keep listening to young people and address the substantive issues they are fighting against.

Zukiswa Mqolomba is a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, senior researcher, policy analyst and scholar activist who works for the government. She previously worked as a consultant for the World Bank in Washington DC. She has master degrees from the University of Cape Town and University of Sussex. Her ideological inclination is pan-Africanist. She believes in the African renaissance and that her generation of peers can make meaningful strides towards achieving it. She writes in her personal capacity.

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