Africa, home to 1.3 billion people across a diverse arrangement of 54 countries, is younger than the other continents of the world. Much younger. The median age of the African population is 19.7 years. Compare that to Brazil (33.5 years), the United States (38.2 years), China (38.4 years), the European Union (43.1 years), and – the world’s oldest nation – Japan (48.4 years). 60% of Africans are under the age of 25.
However, at the same time, many African nations are gerontocracies – ruled by older citizens. The average age of heads of state on the continent is 60. Consider Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe was 93 years old when he was finally forced out of power after a 37-year reign. The new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is 76. And his party has advocated for raising the presidential age requirement, which currently stands at 40.
Yet, in recent years, numerous ambitious young political leaders have battled their way into positions of power throughout the continent. And, although its predecessors had many challenges to navigate, the new generation is being put to the test in an unprecedented way. While the (likely underreported) COVID-19 case count across Africa stands near just 20,000, the UN estimates that up to 3.3 million Africans could lose their lives during the pandemic. Many live in crowded urban areas with less-than-ideal sanitary conditions. The health systems tend to be weak and are not particularly equipped to handle outbreaks of respiratory disease. Liberia, for example, has no intensive care units in the entire country. Additionally, there are high incidences of malnutrition, anemia, malaria, HIV/AIDs, and tuberculosis in many nations. These are all underlying conditions that could amplify the severity of COVID-19 infections.
Nonetheless, young leaders across the continent are primed and ready to tackle the challenges the coming months will yield. And the optimists among them see the current crisis as a unique opportunity to reshape African society and break free from oppressive neocolonial economic arrangements.
23-year-old Emma Theofelus was recently appointed the country’s information, communication and technology deputy minister. A large part of her duty is role is to orchestrate communication to the public about pandemic awareness and safety. She admits that she is learning on the job, but she is rising to the occasion.
I have been put in a position, regardless of what limitations I might have, to show up and do the best that I can do.Emma Theofelus
Last May, Itumeleng Ntsube was elected to South Africa’s parliament. He was only 20 years old at the time and in the midst of earning a college degree. Ntsube has taken strong positions on poverty, hunger and disease in his country, and has been active in supporting communities during the pandemic.
Bobi Wine has been known as “the Ghetto President” of Uganda for more than a decade. One of Africa’s biggest dancehall music stars, he has long been a political organizer and prominent dissident. But he has also, at times, suffered for his efforts. The government prohibits Wine from performing publicly, and he has been arrested and beaten by authorities repeatedly. Yet the brave civic soldier refuses to back down. He was elected to parliament in 2017 and is currently campaigning to replace 75-year-old autocrat Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 24 years.
At the age of 28, Vera Daves de Sousa became a board member of the west coast nation’s powerful Capital Markets Commission. Now, at age 35 she is Angola’s Finance Minister. Prior to the pandemic, she was facing significant headwinds. The oil- and diamond-rich country’s economy has contracted for four consecutive years and is enduring an inflation rate over 20%. Sousa, a yoga practitioner, aims to decentralize and diversify the economy to get things back on track.
We are looking to change that paradigm. We want to invite the private sector to play a more important role.Vera Daves de Sousa