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Politics won't change Africa - her children will

Verashni Pillay

It isn't just struggle heroes who have earned the right to offer solutions for our continent, argues Verashni Pillay.

Africa's youth has  much to offer.(M&G)

"Do you have any ideological framework outside of Twitter? Any ideal you are prepared to die for in the interest of good governance?"

The volley of questions was delivered by an old man behind a lectern, frowning over a pair of spectacles at a young one sitting at the back of the room.

The scene was an African Union (AU) conference I had the privilege of attending; the speaker was a respected leader of an institute dedicated to good governance on the continent.

And the unfortunate young man at the receiving end of the interrogation was a twenty-something Kenyan. He had made the mistake of pointing out to the venerable elderly gentleman that our politicians' endless talk of ideology alienated the youth of the continent. We are a different breed, he tried to explain. If you want to improve democracy on this continent, start talking to the issues we really care about on platforms we actually use.

But his point was silenced in the subsequent lecture.

The young man has his own tech start-up and later delivered an incredible presentation on how technology and open data could transform the work the AU was trying to do on the continent in pushing the 53 states under its umbrella into a healthier state of democracy.

The tools used by the organisation to do so were as familiar as they were increasingly dull: longwinded talk shops and dialogues, where anyone under the age of 30 was likely to lose interest after about 10 minutes and resort to checking their Twitter stream.

But to dismiss that key cultural difference between the generations as some sort of deficiency on our part was to miss the point – and the massive opportunity it presented.

The people who run our continent are by and large old men. That is changing, for sure, but it is fact, and one that commands respect at that. There was a sense that the older man revelled in the wars and struggles our liberation icons of old had fought for, and dismissed the smaller, more individual, battles of younger generations as trivial in comparison.

Considering that the theme of the conference was shared values, and that the continent was by and large a young one, I mourned for the missed opportunity. The world is changing incredibly fast in ways we can't always comprehend. And these technological changes are no mere shifts in methods of communication or processing. They signify a change in the very way we as young Africans perceive ourselves in relation to others and the world.

It is no longer enough for us to be swept up in a grand narrative with a great chief at the helm. Where our forefathers were sold out on a singular cause, we are fascinated by pluralities and myriad interests mushrooming across Facebook groups and tumblr blogs like Mao's hundred blooming flowers. While older generations saw themselves as part of a collective with their place neatly mapped out in a social hierarchy, we are increasingly seeing ourselves as individuals with greater autonomy than our grandparents could have imagined at our age. And when history talks of protracted battles across the continent in light of a greater good, our future sparkles with the possibilities of instant changes, such as a lightning-fast Arab Spring that could topple a dictator in a flash.

This is not a world to keep at bay with talk of our lack of courage and our unwillingness to sacrifice our lives at the altar of democracy. Our fight for democracy looks entirely different but it is no less important.

In South Africa the prejudices are apparent. We prefer our struggle stalwarts over the new vision that a fresh generation of "born frees" can bring. Even the revolutionary youth of our country, the 31-year-old Julius Malema for instance, feels compelled to talk up his own struggle history at an attempt at legitimacy. We must be subjected to his ridiculous stories of being a 10-year-old revolutionary in the service of the ANC, if he is to be taken seriously. Good ideas, the kind that can change the world with the force of their brilliance, are no longer enough. And that's the real tragedy of Africa's future: the notion that we have to earn the right to be able to offer solutions.

In a series of cultures across the continent where age and seniority have traditionally held so much weight, this is understandable. But it is not tenable.

And it is not particularly an age thing: it's a mind-set. Africa is moving fast, thanks in no small part to technology and our concomitant changing sense of self and society. While institutions like the AU try to reach out to an alienated youth, some within their ranks may shake their heads at how disinterested this lot seems. But really, they're just as passionate as you once were. They just happen to speak a different language and use different methodologies. The heavy top-down approach that once won the political battles our continent faced won't work for the new challenges before us: economic, social and environmental. An all-encompassing institution like the state or a regional organisation can't effectively tackle these problems in their bumbling, bureaucratic way. But a number of bottom-up initiatives led by energetic, tech-savvy and forward-thinking people, who are not tied to state and political interests, can.

And this is not about the jingoism and window-dressing of "generational change", as the ANC Youth League would have it. The change they offer is merely surface-level. It is about a fundamental shift: of efficiency over politics, administration over grandstanding, and servant-leadership over powerful rulers. It's about making all your country's data and numbers and contracts available for us to scrutinise, to play with, and to apply to the way we live our lives on this continent. And it's about educating the millions of young people we have failed so they won't feel a need to burn down what little they have in at attempt to be heard but can effect change legitimately using the burning passion they carry inside.

It's time we unleash that power.

Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. You can read her column Background Noise every week and follow her on Twitter here.


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