Youth In Africa: Dominant and Counter Narratives

This Issue of BUWA! interrogates – from a feminist perspective – the current narratives on youth on the African continent. Understood in this context as a series or groups of stories that are told by individuals and groups as part of a causal set of events,1 narratives play a significant role in shaping the politics of the day in any given society.

Youth in Africa: Dominant and Counter Narratives
Youth in Africa: Dominant and Counter Narratives
Alice Kanengoni's picture

Gender and Women's Rights Programme Manager

March 5th, 2018

This Issue of BUWA! interrogates – from a feminist perspective – the current narratives on youth on the African continent. Understood in this context as a series or groups of stories that are told by individuals and groups as part of a causal set of events,1 narratives play a significant role in shaping the politics of the day in any given society. They give an insight into how people make sense of their lives and if recounted often enough and not challenged, they become dominant perspectives that develop ideologies and influence how people interpret and understand the world around them.They often become the basis for constructing social meaning, shaping policies, allocating resources, accessing and defending political positions, as well as determining solutions to given personal, group and national problems.

However, where these dominant narratives are challenged, new ones often emerge, usually constructed to offer counter views that can result in different courses of action. This implies that through narratives – or collectives of stories – ideologies are shaped, challenged, and new meaning is constructed around the realities and experiences of particular groupings in given contexts. It also means that when they become part of a narrative, stories are political as they can potentially shift power dynamics, depending on how they are told, who tells them, for what reasons, and – perhaps more importantly – to what audiences and with what effect.

In this volume, we explore how power and the politics of space and voice are – if at all – differentially shifting the dominant narratives for young women and men on the continent.The Issue offers insights into who is and how they are constructing the dominant stories, and with what effects. Some articles highlight how these are in turn challenged and deconstructed and new meanings negotiated. Other pieces unpack the politics of the various sites where narratives are contested, including through the arts, media, academia, and the resultant contested ideologies on culture, religion, politics, economics among others.Some articles also highlight the various movements and groupings that seek creative solutions to Africa’s current and envisaged youth challenges.

The place of young people in socio‑political and economic processes has historically been contested in Africa. Stereotypically, youth have tended to be portrayed as angry, restless, victims, vulnerable, venerable, impressionable, troubled, and sometimes violent. Institutions such as the media are seen as playing a significant role in the shaping and construction of such narratives. That seems to be changing though, of late, with youth themselves constructing new and multiple other narratives fanned by many factors. For instance, social media and other creative spaces are perceived by many as having opened up opportunities for youth to not only challenge these dominant narratives but to also create counter‑narratives that paint a different picture about their lives and their role in global and local politics. Although this is not new, what is new – which is the motivation for this Issue ofBUWA! – is how there seems to be renewed interest globally and locally to “engage youth” resulting in some observable shifts in policy and practice.

Its essential to highlight upfront that the concepts of ‘youth’ and ‘narrative’ are not neutral, especially when considered in the context of policy, activism and social justice discourses. There is, therefore, need to problematise them. In this Issue, we adopt the African Union definition, which categorises those between ages 15 and 35 years as a youth. The UN limits its meaning to those between 15‑24 years old, while the African Youth Charter stretches it to those up to 35 years. It is also common that some states on the continent do stretch this to 40, for various reasons and conveniences.

Similarly, in the body of literature on policy, advocacy, and social justice, ‘narratives’ tend to be used interchangeably with ‘stories’ and this is acceptable to a certain extent. We have adopted the more expansive definition offered by BrettDavidson(2015)citingJones and McBeth (2010); Frank (2010) and Fisher 1984) which goes further to understand a narrative as:

“…a collection or body stories of characters, joined in some common problem as fixers (heroes), causes (villains) or the harmed (victims) in a temporal trajectory (plot) leading towards resolution within a particular setting or context (Jones & McBeth 2010; Frank2010)”. 

This explains how in any given context there will emerge narratives that become more dominant than others, and there will inevitably also arise other stories that are constructed to counter that dominance; to capture specific audiences, sympathies, empathies and solidarity and action. Sisonke Msimang supports this view in a 13 January2017 TED Talk in which she flagged potential limitations of storytelling in any given context there will emerge narratives that become more dominant than others, and there will inevitably also arise other stories that are constructed to counter that dominance; activism for social justice. Msimang advances the argument that in and of themselves, “stories are not as magical as they seem”; and that it is the link they have to specific broader issues and how they compel audiences to act and do something about those concerns that matters.

In tracking developments in youth discourses and narratives on the continent and globally, there are discernible patterns of dominant and counter‑narratives on their realities and engagement in the socioeconomic and political arenas. On the one hand, there is an observable pattern of a global drive towards an agenda for ‘engaging youth’ and ‘bringing them into the mainstream of these arenas. A narrative of patriotism and nationalism apparently informs this opinion. For instance, at the global level, the UN in 2013 – for the first time in its history– appointed a Special Envoy on Youth (Ahmad Alhendawi).

At a continental level, African leaders seem to have also woken up to the fact that Africa is home to the majority of young people globally, with 200 million people aged between 15 and 24.3 It therefore comes as no surprise that the AU has declared 2017 the ‘AU year of harnessing the youth demographic dividend.’ This apparent desire by policy actors to ‘engage youth’ is often viewed by youth as not necessarily driven by the need to allow them to define their polity and shape the rules of the game, but rather to co‑opt them and get them to behave, be cultured and maintain the traditions set for them by others.

On the other hand, there isa school of thought that advances that youth themselves have moved ahead to retell their stories, thus generating new narratives of the role and place they occupy as national and global citizens.4The reason given for this shift is a perception of youth’s disillusionment with failed neo‑liberal economic policies, increasing poverty, unemployment and other challenges that increasingly disproportionately affect them. Young people seem to be well ahead of their game; dictating to the world their role and how they want to contribute to development processes. The proliferation of youth‑focused and ‘owned’ spaces and communities of practice, movements and solidarity initiatives that youth have carved for themselves globally – which in some places have significantly influenced the social, economic and political agendas in some countries – is evidence of this.5

Young people in this generation are creating and appropriating new languages, new symbols, new styles and creating new meanings and expression, both online and offline – albeit, with differential experiences. Factors such as geographical location, educational background and access to tools such as information and communication technologies to mention just a few enables different lived realities among youths. Proponents of this narrative argue that the new reality is ‘disruption and non‑conformity’ (in this case driven by the youth) as the new norm. The argument is that protests and related forms of engagement have shaped what some have labelled ‘a revolution without an ideology or a project’ where the protesting in itself often seems the end goal of the protest action. The pattern is of a revolution of youth who appear to distrust the state, distrust elites, distrust mainstream media, distrust adults, distrust markets and reject formal established institutions and organizations, and resist any idea of a dominant leader.”6 Social media, information and communication tools and the reconstruction of the arts and culture are often viewed as the vehicles through which this disruption is being created, contested, and played out.However, not all youth are finding voice and space in this manner. There are also arguments that the youth movement, in general, has tended to be elitist, and is appropriated by the youth of better economic and educational social standing, those in urban areas compared to those in rural and peri‑urban settings, to note a few differentials.

Grace Chirenje aptly illustrates how youth in Africa have journeyed through many stages of definition,from being regarded as mere children and spectators to their development, to them occupying centre stage in contemporary development discourse as a 6 See for instance Ivan Krastev, 2014, Democracy Disrupted: The Global Politics of Protest, University of Pennsylvania Press, USA. result of the demographic dividend factor. It is therefore not surprising that the definition of ‘youth’ on the continent tends to be fluid to suit certain agendas. Alcides André de Amaral makes this point even more poignant in his argument that“youth is a lie!” He critiques the apparent tendency to approach youth as a ‘homogenous herd’ that needs to be “grazed and fed” by the ‘elders,’ before they can be trusted to participate in social and political processes efficiently.

There is need to unpack the power dynamics among this ‘youth herd’ as it were, and a feminist lens allows for such. However, even where a feminist lensis applied to dehomogenize the ‘herd,’ there is still need to appreciate the nuances of differential young women’s groups and realities. Consequently, while Rekopantswe Mate firmly places young women’s counter‑narratives in the picture – especially in issues of health, sex and sex‑uality–shealsocautionsagainstthedangers of underplaying the inevitable controversies and contradictions that characterize these counter‑narratives. She argues that some of these narratives do not necessarily challenge nor change gender relations.
Lauren Tracy-Temba provides an analysis of how regional and continental policy and legal frameworks have failed to create comfortable seats for young women in politics and decision‑making, arguing that this has limited the power that young women’s narratives have had to influence global processes. Three cases from Angola (Florita Cuhanga Telo); Botswana (Resego Natalie Kgosidintsi) and Zambia (Namakando Simamuna) illustrate how youth are making an effort to change this reality at national levels. The often missing piece, however, is the nuanced gendered dimensions of these truths.

Telo demonstrates how in Angola it took a separate Facebook page created by young feminists in the country to make visible the two young women who were part of the famous ‘15+2’ activists who made international headlines for mobilizing youth voices for political participation in the country. Similarly, Kgosidintsi’s article demonstrates how university and student activism have become sites of mobilizing young people to challenge those in power to account for their actions or lack of them in Botswana. Simamuna shares the case of youth self‑organizing under the banner of the ‘Triple V’ campaign in Zambia’s 2016 elections,which became a game changer and influenced the voter patterns in a country that had had concerning levels of voter apathy.

The academia is worth exploring in this inquiry, especially given that it is an important site shaping thoughts and ideologies. Literature abounds on the limitations that education systems in the region have in creating scope for progressive thinking and action, and how they have short‑changed especially girls and women (see our previous Issue BUWA#7). Lieketso “Dee” Mohoto shares how this manifests in the discomfort and sheer absence of young Black women in tertiary institutions as lecturers, professors, and associate professors in South Africa. She argues that it is not enough to employ young Black women into an academic system that has not significantly shifted regarding creating an environment that supports active mentorship.

Another vigorously contested site given prominence in this Issue is the economy. There has been a growing narrative pushing for youth entrepreneurship asa panacea for their economic participation. The failure of most formal economies and rising unemployment among young people in Africa has fanned this perspective.7Given the declining formal economic and business environment, entrepreneurship has been touted as ‘a viable route to success for young people.’ In pursuit of this, there have been Global Entrepreneurship Summits hosted in the past decade, one notably on the African continent. Takingintoaccount, of-course,the realities of a patriarchal continent whose economies are mostly enclave, and the informal sectors are invariably growing more prominent and are mostly unregulated and operate on a ‘survival of the fittest’ models, young women’s stories in such a context differ from those of young men.

The impetus for entrepreneurship appears to be solely due to many assumptions, including the proliferation of information and communication technology platforms that are seen to be enabling people to Taking into account, of course, the realities of a patriarchal continent whose economies are mostly enclave, and the informal sectors are invariably growing more prominent and are mostly unregulated and operate on ‘survival of the fittest’ models, young women’s stories in such a context differ from those of young men. conduct business with relative ease. Based on this argument, some countries including Kenya, Zimbabwe, and others have developed E‑Hubs predominantly for youth. Rudo Nyanguluwrites about the innovation value‑add of such Hubs in Zimbabwe, arguing that there is potential in these for creating opportunities for young women in the informal economic sectors. Sadly, there has been a limited interrogation, at all levels, of this theory of change for the economic advancement of mainlyyoung women on the continent. In this economic sphere, there seems to be dissonance in how policies seem not to be tapping into the potential that one of Africa’s primary economic resource – land – could offer to its youth dividend, an argument advanced by Eugene Maiga. The advent of social media and ICTs have significantly changed the political and socio‑economic realities of many youths on our continent. Sarah Chiumbu shows how cyber‑connectivity has enabled youth to reimagine their identity as global citizens; giving themselves a right and ability to participate in political and other processes thousands of kilometres beyond their national borders. Chao Mbogo highlights that the terrain of access to education and skills to use ICTs and science and technology is, however, not balanced for young men and young women on the continent, as her life story and experiences in science and technologies typify. RachelChavula-Sibande and MarthaChilongoshi share a real example of how they have had to deliberately ensure gender‑responsive access, through establishing a Girls’ Coding Club Initiative, to balance the scales in the youth technology Hubs they have created in Malawi and Zambia.

There has been an escalation of religious fundamentalisms on the continent, which have significantly influenced how others view youth, and how they see themselves. Nyaradzo Mashayamombe contends that in countries such asZimbabwe, where politicians have closed the space for youth participation and where politicians have manipulated and abused their power to milk citizens of their wealth, “those not in political thuggery turn to religion” to harm young people. She further argues that there is widespread manipulation of young women in religious institutions. Tsitsi Fungurani shows differences in how these realities of young women in rural and urban spaces tend to construct different narratives of their respective existences; with rural youth comparatively at a disadvantage.

Beyond the concepts and the sites of youth narratives construction, one of the critical questions we also explore in this Issue is an understanding of the vehicles and channels that are enabling and/ or blocking these processes. There is a definite pattern of closure of most formal channels of voice and participation (e.g., in mainstream media, in parliaments, in family structures among others) for youth in most countries on the continent. Anthea Garman, Vanessa Malila and Thandi Bombi collectively argue that young women’s voices are notably absent in mainstream media, and poor listening skills on the part of journalists are to blame for this status quo.

In such contexts where formal channels of voice and communication seem to be closing more than opening, the arts and cultural expressions have resurged as potent channels for youth across the continent. Youth ‘activism’ for social justice seems to be getting entrenched by the day, and many articles in this volume explore the various art forms that seem to be picking momentum on the continent. If the increase in scholarly inquiry into this is anything to go by, then this is evidence of the resurgence of interest in the arts for social justice activism. Richard Benza explores and affirms the centrality of storytelling in activism for social justice, with a special focus on digital story‑telling. Sisonke Msimang however,highlights the potential contractions and ironies that may result from ‘stanning’ our favourite story tellers.

VidadeVoss Links offers a case study of how Sister Namibia magazines have provided space for young women to share their stories  in the country. FungayiPercy Makombe makes a case for why theatre, which has always been (and continues to be) a vehicle for political subversion, has since increased in potency in increasingly hostile and oppressive political environments. Lovemore Chidemo and Agness Chindimba further advance that special interest groups such a syouth with disability are equally appropriating this vehicle to give an alternative story to the narrative of disability on the continent. Visual arts such as film and photography have similarly been reinvigorated in the quest for alternative ways of picturing youth realitieson the continent, as Damaris Irungu Ochieng and Aisha Mugo both show. Tanatsei Gambura and Nyaradzo Mashayamombe seal this section with poems that aptly capture the tensions between the dominant and counter‑narratives of growing up a syoung African women on the continent.

ThisVolume further unpacks issues that seem to dominate and take priority in youth narratives: from education, employment, power, leadership, sex and sexuality, and inequality among others. While some have regarded young people as ‘the leaders of tomorrow,’ needing to be groomed to ‘become leaders,’youth, on the other hand, consider themselves as leaders of today who are already involved. Those that have bought into the latter narrative have already begun investing in youth leadership programmes, and Neetha Tangirala shares the design and impacts of one such model – the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI).
While most leadership development models have been designed to respond to the leadership crisis that characterises the continent, young people’s concerns with poverty, inequality, and disempowerment have been the rallying points. Lerato Mohlamenyane debunks the myth of young South African women getting pregnant as a means to access social grants; arguing that the issue is, in fact, the need to address the structural inequality that makesyoung women more vulnerable to the risk of early and unwanted pregnancies.

The volume concludes with an exploration of some of the strategies that youth are employing in their quest to construct what they are labelling counter‑narratives to the dominant ones. One such approach that seems to have taken root across the continent is what Nathan Mukoma calls ‘disruption and non‑conformity’ in an analysis that unpacks how youth are carving space for themselves in both private and public spheres. However, Grace Chirenje shares that the ‘disruption and non‑conformity’ have not happened uninformed, in some parts of the continent. She makes a case for deliberate and targeted strategies to support youth in their own self‑organising and self‑mobilisation efforts, to ensure sustainable contestation and counter‑narratives that allow for  more robust engagement in exploring alternative strategies to meet the continent’s needs.

Readers are challenged to critically engage with the realities of power and the powerlessness of young women within youth tailored spaces, power and the powerlessness of youth in progressive social justice movements and networks, power and powerlessness of youth in public policy‑making and legal frameworks, as well as in the private space of the home. I hope this Issue challenges readers to ask the critical questions that ought to be asked if Africa is indeed to ‘harness the demographic dividend’ as envisaged.

1 Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth  Heinemann, October 2000.

2 Brett Davidson, 2016 ‘Narrative change and the Open Society Public Health Program’ unpublished.

3 Africa Renewal online, 2017, accessed 17 November 2017

4 See for instance Alcinda Honwana, 2015, “Enough is Enough!”: Youth Protests and Political Change in Africa, Keynote Address delivered at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Free State, South Africa.

5 Honwana (ibid).

7 The World Bank, 2015, Addressing the Youth Employment Crisis Needs Urgent Global Action, accessed on 17 November 2017, online.
8 It is also significant that one of four tracts underpinning the 2017 Global Youth EconomicSummit was on exploring livelihoods through self‑employment. It is important to note that the 2015 Summit was hosted on the African continent, in Kenya.

About the author(s)

Alice Kanengoni manages the Gender and Women’s Rights programme at OSISA. She joined OSISA from the Johannesburg-based Gender Links, a regional organisation focusing on gender and women’s rights, where she worked as a Senior Researcher. Prior to that, she had worked as a Senior Researcher and deputy head of the gender programme at the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) in Harare. Alice holds a Masters Degree in Media and Communications, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature.


  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099