“Deepening Active Youth Participation in Democratic Processes in Africa! @WorldViewM


“The freedom and human capacities of individuals must be developed to their maximum but individual powers must be linked to democracy in the sense that social betterment must be the necessary consequence of individual flourishing.” – Henry Giroux

Youth participation is often used interchangeably with the term ‘active involvement’. This means more than simply taking part in an activity. It refers specifically to the involvement in the process of identifying needs, exploring solutions, making decisions and planning action within communities and organizations that seek to support civil society.

In relation to young people, youth participation is often regarded as the involvement of young people in decisions that are made that affect them. However many people believe that young people should be treated as citizens now (as opposed to the citizens of the future) and should be involved in all decisions that are made about the community and society in which they live.

The experience today in many African societies is such that low levels of civil involvement and political apathy remain a dominant feature among young people. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that youth participation in political processes is declining. This is reflected in the low proportion of newly eligible voters who register and/or cast their ballot, and the widespread attitude among political elites that young people do not have sufficient political knowledge to be included in national planning and decision making processes. Although participation in elections is only one measure of civil participation, many young people in southern Africa do not know who their political representatives are, much less know about how to effectively influence politicians. Because many young people are less likely to vote, their interests are less likely to be represented. It would appear that opting out of the democratic process is an indication of the cynicism that young people feel about politics and people involved in politics.

One key factor in democratic politics is that citizens become accustomed to participating in political processes through political institutions, civil society, political parties, the act of voting, expression of opinion between and during elections, making regular contact with elected representatives, etc. The design of democracy by the elite is not enough if citizens only engage with the diverse processes of democracy periodically. Unless citizens, especially young people, have faith in democratic institutions and unless they engage in large numbers with teh various processes of self-governance, democracy might end up being no more than an empty shell, devoid of substance and merely providing a veneer of democracy for dictators and authoritarian regimes.

The vast majority of Africa’s population is under the age of 30. Young people are accordingly the largest interest group in society: they are stakeholders in elections with few dividends from its proceeds. Young people are restless for opportunity and eager to claim their space, but the institutions of democracy have seemingly conspired against them.

Prior to the emergence of multiparty democracy in the region, the nationalist/democratic movements fighting for the liberation of citizens relied on the mobilization of young people as a vital source of resistance against colonial or white minority regimes. Young people were used as the foot soldiers of the liberation forces and accorded a great degree of opportunity for participation in the periods leading to political liberalization in the region. The pressure on institutions to admit and accept the participation of all citizens became a critical factor in legitimizing democratic governance. However, the opportunities and mechanisms for effective participation remain out of reach for young people, as conscious, active citizen’s participating in political processes.

It is a danger to democracy that young people are not considered, directly or indirectly, as anything other than a liability to democracy. Young people are, in many ways, under siege: marginalized by male adults and the elderly from decision making processes, faced with the prospect of mass death by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, denied employment and blamed for the increasing level of crime and violence. They are not in a position to make informed choices in the exercise of citizenship. They are at the mercy of political proprietors who take it upon themselves to interpret and decide what citizenship entails for young people. An added dilemma for democracy is that the majority of young people are women who live in rural areas and are subjected to all forms of gender inequality. The question then becomes, “How can young people make meaningful contributions to community life through their enhanced participation in politics?”