For Africa’s millennial generation, the rules of engagement have changed
There is an incident that happened in my childhood that I would like to draw your attention to. It occurred such a long time ago that its details are now a contested truth. But even with this, the essence of the story remains lucid. One morning in the early 2000s, a huge smoke enveloped the village of Zikhovane, where I was born, and it remained like this right into midday. When it finally cleared, it revealed a clear blue sky and much of the vegetation had been burnt. The confusion quickly turned into shock.
A young boy who had been seen looking after his father’s goat in the veld where the fire broke out was caught and taken to the chief. The boy was not the arsonist, and he was in his fragile voice relentless in pleading his innocence. But no boy argues against the chief’s retinues, consisting mostly of old people convinced that only children are capable of mischief. It had to be him or another youth, or the fire was a result of another force. It later emerged that the boy did not set the plantation on fire but that an ageing woman, smoking her pipe, did not hold tight to a match and the wind blew it away.
With that anecdote lingering in your mind, think about the #FeesMustFall movement, the use of WhatsApp to organise a protest in Zimbabwe, the uprising in Burkina Faso, the videos documenting the popular revolts in Egypt and elsewhere in the world, the live streaming of a protest in Baltimore. In all of these scenarios, one clearly sees the misconception of millennials, largely that they are apolitical and that they worry more about the cost of an iPhone than they do about the child labour that manufactures it.
This narrative is not entirely untrue, I must be clear, but speaking in generalities always defies logic. Now, more than ever, we see that millennials are at the centre of political and economic discourse in Africa. They are in fact not merely waiting for an invite into the conversation but they, in subtle and overt ways, are the catalyst for many of the conversations.
What is evident, too, here is the crossroad at which the militancy of millennials and technology intersect. The October 2015 #FeesMustFall movement — a reaction to a government proposal to hike fees by 10–15 % for the 2016 academic year — started at Wits University in Johannesburg and quickly spread across several South African universities.
A hashtag, a movement
With millennials at the centre of it, there was a sense that it was nothing but a trending hashtag, that it would be forgotten and social media, as it always does, would take to something else. However, the live updates of the protests, police brutality and pleas for help from the public did not stop.
Much to the shock of many, instead of dying out, the movement spread with the energy of a wildfire. A few weeks into the protests, with several tertiary institutions in South Africa unable to function, it became clear that this was far more than a hashtag. On 22 and 23 October 2015 – when students first marched to parliament and then, on the following day, to the Union Buildings that are home to the presidency — the young people involved demonstrated more than ever before that millennials are not only a connected generation but can, when called upon by the struggle, be militant.
On the day of the march to parliament, the toxic smell of tear gas hung in the air. The other smell, far more contagious and uncontrollable, was the students’ unwavering will, marching towards police who were holding big guns and ready to shoot. Many of them by then had been unclothed and skinned by rubber bullets. During these two days, if we are to consider them in abstraction from the many days before and after them, it was clear that the joke about millennials — that they are always on Facebook and Twitter seeking to trend — is now on the jokers.
One cannot speak of millennials without considering the internet and the levels of connectivity. For a long time, it would appear that the variety of things that trended on Twitter and Facebook were limited to nude pictures and unimportant hashtags, but now something far more meaningful is sweeping across the millennial generation. And with the growth of smartphones in Africa, the revolution is set to continue this way.
People will always seek to label generations. In South Africa, for example, the conscious and political youth is being referred as the ‘woke’ generation, a term that can be problematic but largely effective.
To attempt to define millennials becomes an impossible task, one that can only produce a lie. The conversation should not be: are millennials more obsessed with Wi-Fi, smartphones and technology trends than they are with democracy, education, housing, health, unemployed, but rather how do all of these converge?
Out of the shadows
Depending on who you ask, the answers will vary, but what cannot be ignored is that advanced smartphones and connectivity, as we have seen over and over again, allow millennials to express their grievances and protests and document police brutality, a systematic dysfunction. Take the Pretoria High School for Girls protest as an example: long before there were any meaningful articles about it, it had reached across the world. Singer Solange Knowles had tweeted about it and there were conversations in London about it.
Protest and activism in Africa is not new, nor is it any younger than it was before. Steve Biko, Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba were not old men. What has happened instead is that the rules of engagement have vastly shifted. The clandestine plotting and disseminating of information has changed and now, much more, plans of action are declared publicly. The plans, the protests and the effects of them are being shared widely and publicly via social media. It is no longer the conservative and traditional media that is documenting, and this includes not only protests but also the everyday lives of young people. They are doing it themselves.
Apart from the consumption of technology, there is also the forging of technology by African millennials. That will play an important role in economic trends on the continent. This is evident in the many acquisitions and the success of African tech startups. Mark Zuckerberg’s latest visit to Nigeria is testament that Africa is becoming a global player in technology.
A new report by GSMA’s Ecosystem Accelerator, a programme that facilitates partnerships between operators and developers in the continent, reveals more than 300 tech hubs spread across 93 cities in 42 countries across the African continent. More than half the hubs are concentrated in South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and Morocco. Strewn all over Pretoria, from morning into the night, millennials can be found using the public Wi-Fi there to develop their projects; in Cape Town, most coffee shops have Wi-Fi.
Old challenges, new thinking
Millennials are not going to make the next discoveries of gold or diamonds but will play their part in inventing technologies and systems that are relevant to the times that they live in. In thinking our problems anew, the continent might resolve old challenges.
The connected generation, whose lives are documented on the internet, sometimes to a cringe-worthy degree, have other benefits. One, perhaps the most important, is that varying views and lifestyles are publicly lived. This allows for anyone, at any given time, to have the opportunity to find something that resonates with them. It is easy to see this, though there is no concrete data for it, but as a poet, I am interested in the truth rather than the facts. A homosexual man living openly can influence another young man elsewhere to see himself differently. A Muslim woman, living on the internet, defying the myths that Muslim families are inherently repressive, might change the view of those who hold those myths as truth.
Here is perhaps an overt illustration of what the French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his dissertation ‘Division of Labour in Society’ in 1893 called the collective conscious. This is not to say that the internet is not abusive for many, but the plea here is that you see how it is at least a catalyst for the collective conscious Durkheim was talking about.
Millennials are not apathetic, they are engaging with politics, economics, culture and society. The rules of engagement have changed, as they should, to suit the times.
• Lidudumalingani Mqombothi is the winner of the 2016 Caine Prize for African short stories