By Mandla Lionel Isaacs

As a nation, we have a lot of work to do.
The fundamental challenge of our time is twofold: to build a dynamic, inclusive, knowledge economy based on comparative advantage and value addition, increasingly integrated with the broader African economy; and, a nation and society which is in harmony with itself, safe and caring for all citizens, inclusive and diverse, yet African in character.
How to achieve this? Empowerment of youth is a huge part of the answer, for several reasons.
Firstly, young people are the majority, constituting two-thirds of the population. Quite simply, if South Africa’s youth are not empowered to succeed, the country itself cannot succeed.
Secondly, youth are ideally suited to come up with new ways of thinking about and doing things. They are typically the least wedded to the way things are, and the most imaginative, audacious and impatient about the way things might be.
Finally, youth have always been instrumental in dramatic social progress, locally and globally. Examples abound. Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela, and the other young people who formed the ANC Youth League, pushed the ANC to adopt a more radical, mass-based programme of action which would change the liberation struggle for ever. After the apartheid regime’s brutal response in the 1960s, it was the young students of the Black Consciousness Movement who gave the oppressed confidence and a new impetus in the 1970s. This was followed by the defiance of the youth of 1976, and the young activists on the streets and leading vibrant civic movements in the 1980s. In recent months, young students and activists have ignited a much needed national debate about the persistently white, anti-black character of our universities as critical sites of intellectual programming.
In other words, people in their twenties and thirties have been directly responsible for some of the most important turning points and periods of progress in our history.
The above, however, would not be obvious when you look at the main sites of political power in the country. Our President is 73 this year, our Deputy President will be 63. The youngest person in the ANC’s top six officials is 59 (Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize). While acknowledging that ANC branches will only deliberate on successors in late 2017, depressingly, the front runners mentioned in political circles and the media are all basically 60 or older today, four years before they could even be sworn in as state president! With a bit of digging, I was able to find the ages of two-thirds of our Cabinet Ministers, of which the median age is 57.
To be clear, age is not deterministic. Being young does not make you automatically dynamic or progressive; being older does not make you automatically stodgy or conservative. And those qualities alone are not enough. They exist in addition to other qualities I’ve argued previously are required for transformational political leadership, including thoughtfulness, vision, and ethical excellence.
That being said, it is striking that in the spaces where decisions are being taken which will shape the present and future of our country, there appears to be a dearth of those people with the biggest stake in the future: youth. Average global life expectancy is 72. Do we want the most important decisions to be made by people who may only be around for 10 or 15 years? How will that effect their decision-making? Might they be more willing to make decisions with short term benefits and long term costs? Or to defer confronting difficult trade-offs to the next generation?
Is a room full of people who are 57 or older the right collective to be deciding which opportunities to bet on, which innovative approaches to adopt, which experiments to embark on?
Three of the world’s 10 biggest companies by market capitalization- Apple, Google and Microsoft- were started by twenty-somethings, and stand in stark contrast to the established industrial, health care and consumer goods giants which fill out the list. Silicon Valley, the epicentre of the global technology innovation which is changing all aspects of our lives, is dominated by innovative young developers and entrepreneurs, like Mark Zuckerberg who founded Facebook in his Harvard residence. What they had in common was world-class education and resources (particularly access to technology and connectivity), and a conducive environment for risk-taking.
Is there any reason to believe that young people are capable of revolutionizing business, technology and the arts, but not politics and public service?
We need generational balance, in the same way that we need gender balance and racial diversity in all spheres of leadership. And the good news is, that our political system- proportional representation based on party lists- allows us to do it. We are a world leader in the representation of women in politics because parties can promote women up lists to achieve gender balance, rather than insist they emerge through patriarchal structures and electoral contests in equal numbers to men, like less enlightened countries do.
The same should go for youth. Youth should demand 30% representation in all legislatures and executive cabinets, including deputy ministers. Perhaps as an initial interim measure, we can start by using 40 as once-off extended age for determining generational representation in executive cabinets. The principle remains, we need more people in centers of power with the majority of their careers ahead of them rather than behind them.
Young people don’t need free concerts, t-shirts at election time, or even just a listening ear from older politicians. We need a seat at the table to speak for ourselves, and participate in decision-making.
In some ways, the age dynamics of our political leadership are due to our history. A generation of politicians and activists were only able to seek careers in the state- and crucially, build pensions to sustain themselves after retirement- after 1994. Many of our current national leaders would have served in their current positions a decade or more earlier and be retired by now if democracy had existed then. With our history of dispossession and denial of educational and professional opportunities and problem of youth unemployment, it takes our youth a bit longer than their counterparts elsewhere to acquire the qualifications, experience and profile which would allow them to compete for leadership positions.
Youth voter turnout is also low relative to older voters in many democracies, which is a main reason why politicians deprioritise their issues and perspectives. Young people must channel their energy and passion into political organizing and voting in numbers, if they are to shape the political agenda and parties’ choosing of public representatives.
But the fact remains, Africa is the youngest continent with the oldest leaders. This must change, substantially and quickly, if we are to rapidly transform for the better.
Mandla Lionel Isaacs is a public servant, he writes in his personal capacity. He blogs at and tweets at @lionofjozi