Tahrir Square seen through South African eyes

By Oliver Meth
Posted on Thursday, 3 February 2011 11:57

In the Middle East, youth are claiming their place. South Africans should be doing the same, writes Oliver Meth

I wish I were in Tahrir Square right now, I’d like to see and feel this historic moment myself. The hustle and bustle of traffic in the heart of Cairo has been replaced by throngs of exuberant protesters.

While the street demonstrations across Egypt have drawn citizens from across generations, religions, political persuasions and socio-economic backgrounds, there is no doubt that much of the energy fuelling recent events has been generated by the country’s burgeoning youth population.

Two-thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are below the age of 30 and 90% of the country’s unemployed are youth. Egyptian youth are fed up — frustrated by the lack of job opportunities, disgusted by rampant corruption and poor governance, and tired of having no voice. It appears that they are now on their way to changing their leadership — President Hosni Mubarak is quoted as saying he will step down after his term ends in September. Young people with similar complaints brought down the government in Tunisia and kicked off protests in Yemen.

In South Africa, youth played a key role in the liberation struggle. The class of 1976 bravely took to the streets and overturned the long held notion within the liberation movement that the working class was the essential force in challenging the apartheid regime. The 1973 Durban strike and the 1976 student’s revolt brought together the most significant forces and changed the face of South African history by challenging the apartheid regime.

Today, a grim picture has been painted for school leavers, with statistics showing that one in two youth and two out of three young African women – are jobless.

Massive youth unemployment

The unemployment rate among all 15- to 24-year-olds is 51%, more than twice the national unemployment rate of 25%, according to the latest survey published by the South African Institute of Race Relations.

The governments Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) provides average jobs that last for no more than 48 days, which is worrying because the longer young people are unemployed, the more unemployable they become.

In some countries, such as Sierra Leone, the number of young people lacking proper work exceeds 50%. The statistics are even more alarming in Nigeria, a country that churns out hundreds of thousands of graduates each year into a system that is bedevilled with corruption and unemployment. This is not just a social disaster and a huge wasted economic asset. Ever-rising joblessness among youth and the desperation that accompanies it undermines the possibility of progress in those countries in the region that are emerging from conflict. But it also risks destroying the political and social structures even of countries that are currently stable, especially when combined with West Africa’s alarming demographic trends.

As the former secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, put it, youth employment offers “the most obvious bridge between the development and security agendas embodied in the Millennium Declaration”, since a poor economic and social environment can foster conditions in which people are recruited into armed conflicts in their own and neighbouring countries. The burden is borne by “all those living in communities and societies where youth unemployment is the root cause of destructive and self-destructive behaviour, ranging from activity in neighbourhood gangs to membership of local militias, where unemployed young people desperately seek not only income, but also recognition and a sense of belonging.”

The uprisings in Egypt should be a lesson to all leaders that no one can stop the will of the people, while government tolerates nepotism and corruption while the masses of the people suffer daily grinding poverty.

Hard work ahead

People can, will and should no longer allow the misrule by individuals driven by a hunger for power and self-enrichment. What the uprisings are also telling us is that good leaders are those who are willing to relinquish power in the name of democracy.

Those who fail to learn from this will eventually come to face the essence of people’s power. I’m quite certain that the kind of resistance we are witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia will advance and spread.

This should be a lesson, especially to African leaders who tend to cling to power, while projecting themselves as saviours who can deliver their people from the evils of neo-colonialism and poverty.

I am humbled by the determination and courage of young people in the Middle East who are finding their voice and peacefully but defiantly advocating change. And I am continuously inspired by the youth I meet across the African region who are working on a daily basis to address critical challenges in their communities. Young people in this region are not the leaders of the future — they are the leaders of now.

But while this may be an exhilarating moment for people in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, the social and economic challenges facing the Middle East and its youth will not be solved quickly. Years of hard work lie ahead. Youth in the Middle East want the same thing as young people everywhere: a sense of hope, opportunity, and a chance to be active, productive members of their communities and societies.

Our job is to support them in achieving that vision. When the dust in the streets eventually settles, it is critical that governments, the private sector, and civil society organisations join together in support of youth, ensuring they have access to the tools and opportunities they need to build a dignified, peaceful, and productive life for themselves and their communities.

Oliver Meth is a social advocacy journalist.

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