/ 21 September 2022

Why is everyone in power in South Africa so old?

Mail And Guardian Illustration Old Ballot Box 02
Illustration by Tshepo Mosoeu

Why is everyone so bloody old? Please excuse the frustration inherent in this question. I do not mean to be ageist. Instead, I am outraged by the massive under-representation of young, and even middle-aged, people in positions of state power in South Africa.

Let me define my gripe more clearly. The problem is not that young people are absent from public service or politics altogether. In fact, during the local government elections, the majority of candidates were between the ages of 30 and 40. And, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa, a quarter of ANC candidates in 2021 were young.

The problem, however, is the chronic over-representation of extremely old voices in the highest positions. I recently shared a platform with the director general of public administration, Yoliswa Makhasi. She shared a fascinating insight. At the lower levels of public service, young people are well-represented. But, the higher one goes, the more youth representation falls. By the time one looks at the senior ranks of public service, youth representation is less than 1%.

Consider the cabinet. The president is nearly 70. The deputy president is 62. The minister of finance is 65. The minister of international relations and cooperation is 68. I could go on. Then look at the ANC leadership. The “youngest” national official in the ANC’s Top 6 is 60. At the highest levels of the ANC — and of the government — there are virtually no people in their fifties, let alone their forties, thirties or twenties.

One positive counterexample is Ronald Lamola, the minister of justice, who is 38. Another is Mmamoloko Kubayi, the 44-year-old minister of human settlements. But these exceptions prove the rule. Lamola and Kubayi are only young in comparison to their aged colleagues. In other democracies, ministers of their age would be a norm, not an outlier.

Look around the world. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, is 42. Liz Truss, the new UK prime minister, is 47. Her defeated competitor in the Conservative Party for that job, Rishi Sunak, is 42. Kenya’s new President William Ruto is in his mid-fifties — a veritable spring chicken by South African standards.

France’s Emmanuel Macron is 44, the same age that Barack Obama was at his election. Gabrial Boric recently became Chile’s youngest president at the tender age of 35. If younger people can lead these diverse nations, then why not South Africa?

The problem of age is age-old. South Africa has only known elderly presidents, from Nelson Mandela through to Ramaphosa. The custom has lasted so long that few question it. Ramaphosa’s main challengers for the ANC presidency in December — Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Zweli Mkhize — merely reinforce the trend.

In fairness, the problem is not a South African one alone. Our region, Southern Africa, is one of the world’s last refuge places for old men in politics. Namibia’s President Hage Geingob is 81. Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa is 80. Botswana’s Mokgweetsi Masisi is 60. Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi is also 60.

Perhaps the culture of Southern Africa’s liberation movements privileges old men, through a sense that young people must “wait their turn” before gaining power. But, at the same time, these liberation movements were ultimately birthed by energetic, young people. So the culture is not irreversible.

Contrast our leaders’ ages with the problems facing South Africa — youth unemployment, youth poverty, crime, gender-based violence, climate change and inequality. Compare also the demographic makeup of South Africa, a country whose median age is 27. An awkward mismatch between those who lead South Africa and those who are led.

The argument I am making is thus a democratic one — those who govern should have something in common with those whom they govern. Representative democracy should be representative. A major population is being shut out of South African governance by the gross over-representation of sexagenarians and septuagenarians. And this skews policy.

Consider also the massive technological changes which have gripped the world over the past three decades. Leadership in today’s world requires an appreciation of digital technology, social media algorithms and the rise of artificial intelligence. I sometimes worry whether some of our leaders have even learned how to send an email, let alone grasp the geopolitical consequences of autonomous vehicles.

I am not arguing that youth always trumps age. I am not saying that young leaders are automatically preferable, or more progressive, than old ones. I am prepared to concede that experience is vital to leadership and that young people can do evil things. I understand that many old leaders bounce with youthful exuberance.

Nevertheless, there is something strange about the extreme link between old age and power in South Africa, and the perspectives excluded through this link.

The converse is also true — if young people could vote for young people to lead the country, then we might see an improvement in youth participation in elections. This relates to the question of electoral reform, which is not just about how elections happen, but who is before the electorate. Reforming the electoral system is about convincing young people to aim for high office. Perhaps, the problem is — in the words of British political scientist James Sloam — “not just apathy but alienation”.

Placing young people in positions of power will not solve all of South Africa’s problems. But the lack of youth voices in high office suggests a missed opportunity. At the very least we should be asking, why is everyone so bloody old?

Dr Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is a lecturer in the department of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the author of The New Apartheid.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.