June 16th and the image etched in our minds and hearts of Hector Pieterson truly, never fades. There are the youth waves that make the headlines and then there are stories and struggles which are never really told. Every ounce of activism I believe begins to change the oppressive systems and structures which exist in our society, but have no doubt, and I don’t say this lightly, that being an activist is outright tough; words such as ‘sacrifice’, ‘isolation’, ‘intimidation’ and ‘courage’ have a lot more meaning when you’re on this path.
Youth face told and untold struggles.
There are more obvious large-scale struggles we face such as corrupt governments, lack of access to health, employment and education. These are all equally pressing and urgent for youth. Then there are the subtle undercurrents, the less overt struggles; these do not make headlines but happen within institutions, behind closed doors, and are rarely exposed.
I am a regular kid, grew up under extremely difficult circumstances, education or any of life’s opportunities were far out of reach, almost impossible; but I never stopped dreaming and working towards these dreams and passions. I can’t quite explain it, but I always felt the pulse of Africa flowing through my veins and the love of this continent grew even more as I travelled and worked on the continent. I really could not believe that I was appointed to the first-ever African Union Youth Council in late 2018; there was this deep sense of being ready to serve, lead young people, like never before, and have the opportunity to change things on our continent.
Youth often have the passion, the innovative ideas, the tireless energy and the commitment to break down and build up systems for the better; youth are the answer to the change we need. That being said, it’s almost next to impossible and extremely frustrating for youth to try and bring change, even when in positions of power.
My Experience at the African Union.
In a recently article in the Feminist Journal Agenda, published by Taylor and Francis, I recounted my experience in the African Union (AU), in the hope of honestly shedding light on systemic issues which we need to consider, because creating youth structures is not some magic bullet for addressing youth or development issues.
Despite the prestige, power, influence and dare I say the fancy title, holding the position of African Union Youth Council member meant to be a historic turning point on the continent turned out to instead be disappointing. As a ten-member Council, we were met with roles not being professionalised, not being effectively integrated within AU structures, an enormous part of our term was spent navigating bureaucracy and being pushed from pillar to post. When there was engagement it was quite superficial, for example attending a meeting or sharing social media posts, but nothing concrete to shape or influence policy and action. One of the most critical issues with the structure created is that it was not linked to regional bodies such as the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and national governments. The space to influence and bring change was extremely limited, next to impossible to navigate.
I have no doubt that there are so many youths, who face these untold struggles; from being paid less than their worth, experiencing job instability, being considered less competent and not having sufficient room to develop and lead programmes or policy work.
6 solutions to be implemented.
These are the untold stories of our generation, many are often afraid to speak out in fear of jeopardising future opportunities. Although, I learned, that this is the essence of activism, to speak out and stand up when no one else will, the less popular or rather unpopular path. Importantly, we raise issues with solutions in mind, below are recommendations that are needed to take the continent forward:
- Youth structures should be professionalised with supported budgets and appointees should provide technical expertise on designing and implementing programmes.
- Youth structures established at the AU or similar levels must be fully integrated at continental, regional and national level to cascade policies and programmes upwards and downwards to youth constituencies.
- An open application process provides pathways to having diverse youth representation in structures. There is a need for continuous engagement with youth structures to understand barriers and facilitate solutions to ensure that such structures receive the necessary support, are functional and play meaningful roles within organisations.
- Consideration and planning at continental level will need to be centred on navigating these deeply ingrained structural barriers, especially for inclusion, participation and influence.
- Youth structures need to be fully accountable to youth networks and constituencies and should be included in policy/programmes development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
6. It must be ensured that youth on the ground are able to manoeuvre within the bureaucratic structures and through them have their voices heard.
You can read my full article on the experience here.
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Dr Shakira Choonara is an award-winning Independent Public Health Practitioner, a bold activist, social entrepreneur, a Board Member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and served on the inaugural African Union Youth Council 2018-2020
You can tweet @ChoonaraShakira
*Opinions expressed in this article are the authors and not representative of any organisation