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African governments need generational mix

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) – Unlike most African countries where the stay in office of African presidents has been prolonged, South Africa deviated from the trend, limiting it to two terms only, the writer says.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

There is a stark difference between what people say and what they do in practice. When a dream is not translated into reality it remains a dream indefinitely. In the same manner, it does not really matter how many times a promise is made. What matters most is when such a promise is kept by the person(s) who made it in the first place.

Against this backdrop, it is important to unpack this general perception about life with regard to the promise and its fulfilment. This goal shall be achieved by focusing on the fate of the youth in African politics, especially in terms of their participation in government or lack thereof.

For quite some time now, African governments in general and the South African government, in particular, have been talking about the need to bring on board the youth to form part of the government. The articulated rationale for this vision has always been to infuse new blood into the governance system with the hope of getting new ideas from the youth.

Importantly, the youth is credited for being knowledgeable about the Fourth Industrial Revolution [4IR]. As the entire globe embraces 4IR, Africa cannot afford to be left behind.

Sadly, despite the evident need for the youth to be involved in government as outlined above, they still continue to watch from a distance while their elders run the show. This dream of the youth’s active participation in government has been deferred for decades and yet there is no end in sight.

Now, if this is the case, the question is: what has gone wrong in terms of the youth’s participation in government? In other words, why is the youth still less represented in African governments?

To be sure, there is no simple answer to this question.

One way to try to address the question is to draw from history. Across the entire African continent, most of the nationalist leaders who took over power from their erstwhile enemies were generally old, with only a few exceptions. There was a sense of entitlement by these leaders.

Having liberated African countries from their colonial oppressors, they strongly felt that it was actually their earned and undisputed ‘right’ to remain in government almost indefinitely.

Intriguingly, society in general embraced this view and actually even sustained it. In fact, this has continued unabated up to this day.

Secondly, unlike the developments of the 1990s that saw many African countries embracing democratic practices and new constitutions, the independence constitutions of many African countries did not have a specified term of office for presidents.

Therefore, this meant that leaders could actually remain in office indefinitely. While this was happening, young leaders were not afforded the opportunity to occupy that space either as presidents or as ordinary Members of Parliament (MPs). This was yet another form of exclusion. It was not articulated as a deliberate move but this is how the youth was sidelined.

The points discussed above are applicable to the many African countries that obtained independence in the 1960s, 1970s, as well as the 1980s in the case of countries such as Zimbabwe, for example.

It is important to consider that, unlike most African countries, South Africa only became a democracy in 1994 – following the independence of Namibia (South West Africa) in 1990. Ideally, it was expected that South Africa would actually learn from the mistakes and experiences of other fellow African countries and do things differently.

To some extent, this was done. For example, unlike most African countries that crafted rigid constitutions that placed power in the hands of the political elite and prolonged the stay in office of African Presidents, South Africa deviated somewhat and was even applauded by many countries across the globe.

The country produced a liberal constitution – both the Interim Constitution of 1993 and the Final Constitution which was adopted in 1996. Section 88 focuses on the term of office of the President. Specifically, s88(2) states clearly that: “No person may hold office as President for more than two terms.”

This section of the constitution guaranteed the rotation of leaders.

Sadly, the leaders who were either in exile or at Robben Island were the ones who formed the first Government of National Unity (GNU) in 1994 and continued to do so after the GNU had collapsed in 1997 following the resignation of FW de Klerk as the Second Deputy President of South Africa after Thabo Mbeki.

While it was not wrong in itself for these returning liberation fighters to become political leaders in a democratic South Africa, the continued stay in office of many of these leaders made it impossible for the youth to get the opportunity to join the government so that they could also play their role.

Those who may have thought that this was only a temporary measure were soon disappointed when the status quo remained for much longer. In fact, to this day, the majority of parliamentarians (especially at the National Assembly level) fall within the 70-90 years old category. The continued stay in the government of these elderly people cannot be properly explained, especially given the fact that there are many youngsters who qualify to be in government.

Lastly, both women and the youth unwittingly contribute to this youth’s exclusion from African governments. During elections, these two stakeholders (women and the youth) contribute to youth exclusion by voting for old leaders to return to the government even when it is clear that they are at an advanced age. Some of them contribute less to the government because their concentration levels have been compromised by their age.

What is concerning is that the youth across Africa has contributed immensely to the liberation struggle. Across the African continent, the youth challenged the colonial governments in all spheres of life – including education, health, etc. This was the case, for example, in East Africa in terms of the Africanisation of the Federal University of East Africa which catered for Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania [formed by the merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar island in 1964).

The same youth activism replicated itself in other parts of the African continent.

Similarly, in South Africa, the youth played an active role in the opposition to the apartheid regime. It was the youth of June 16, 1976, for example, who faced the apartheid government and resisted being taught in Afrikaans, among other things. Therefore, there is concrete evidence to demonstrate that the youth qualifies to join the government and become leaders. But equally important is that agency in this exclusion cannot be given solely to the old politicians who have remained in government even long after the prescribed retirement age. The youth has also assisted in maintaining the current status quo.

Perhaps it would be important to sound a warning here. Removing all elderly politicians and replacing them with the youth would not be a wise move. The youth need experience before they can run countries on their own. As such, they must first learn from older parliamentarians, whom they will succeed.

In the final analysis, what African governments need is a mix of young and older leaders. Only once this is done can experience and innovation converge. It is true that experience cannot be bought. It is equally true that technological advancement gives the youth an upper hand. Therefore, continent should aspire to having a generational mix of leaders in African governments if Africa is to develop and prosper.

Picture: James Akena/Reuters (File) – Ugandan musician turned politician, Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, also known as Bobi Wine, arrives at a news conference in Kasangati, Uganda in July 2019.

Continuous talk about the need for a generation mix which is not accompanied by real action is nothing but a dream deferred. Since there are various role-players who have sustained the current status quo, finding a solution to this conundrum will also require a concerted effort by all stakeholders. While it is true that the youth is on the receiving end of this rampant exclusion, it would be foolhardy to completely remove agency from them.

If the youth was active in the 1960s and 1970s, it can still be active in the 2000s to pave their way into African governments, otherwise, the dream will forever be deferred!

Mngomezulu is Professor of Political Science and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.