African Arguments

Alcinda Honwana

Uncertain, unable to find secure jobs, and caught in the liminal state of ‘waithood’, young people are angry and are on the march across the world.

South African students at a #FeesMustFall rally. Photograph by Tony Carr.

South African students at a #FeesMustFall rally. Photograph by Tony Carr.

Young people in Africa have changed governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal and Burkina Faso, and recently staged major demonstrations in South Africa and the Republic of Congo. Disillusioned young people continue to take to the streets in various African cities.  But they are also reacting in other ways: some migrate and look for opportunities elsewhere, while others are lured into joining radical organisations such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Young people’s transitions to adulthood have become increasingly uncertain. Economic growth in recent decades has not translated into job creation or greater equity, and a growing number of young women and men, both educated and non-educated, find themselves unemployed or underemployed. They are unable to attain the social markers of adulthood such as a secure job, marriage and a family. Trapped between childhood and adulthood, they are living in a twilight zone, a liminal space that has now become known as “waithood”.

But this is not just an African story. Increased youth unemployment and social inequalities in the West led to street protests in various European and American cities. And this year we have seen large numbers of young people backing left-leaning politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Bernie Sanders in the US, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. The lessons from Africa and the Global South may now be relevant for Europe and the Global North.

This growing upsurge of youth protests all over the world, crystallised in the word “Enough!” needs to be understood in the context of this generation’s struggles for political, social and economic emancipation. Young people are angry and they are on the march across the world.

This presentation is centred around three main arguments:

First, the majority young people in Africa are living in waithood as soaring unemployment and socio-economic exclusion severely affect their prospects to become independent and carve a decent future. Young Africans are coping with waithood in everyday life using their wits to get by and eke out a life. They invent and fashion new ways of surviving in the margins of society, and these “youthscapes” become dynamic sites for improvisation and survival.

Second, young people in Africa are also responding to the pressures of waithood by coming out to the streets and confronting governments at home; by migrating in search of better opportunities elsewhere, within Africa and in Europe; and by fighting alongside radical movements. Young people have lost faith in the ability of their leaders to deliver on their needs and expectations. The realities of their daily lives expose the gap between the promise of the democratic discourse on fairness, individual freedom and prosperity, and their existence of marginalisation, exclusion and lack of opportunities. Moreover, young Africans are becoming increasingly aware of the complicity between local and global forces that enable corruption, protect impunity for those in power in their countries, and limit the capacity of African states to uphold the social contract.

Finally, political protest movements, as one of youth’s responses to waithood, have already produced social and political change such as the reversal of unpopular government decisions and the fall of autocratic regimes. More significantly, these movements have prompted a fundamental change in young peoples’ mindset, making them believe that their actions matter and can make a difference. Nevertheless, these movements have not been able to achieve systemic change. The young are still wrestling with how to transform the spontaneous street protests into more steady forms of political action. They understand that profound change will take time and will require action both at the local and global levels. But young people are fully engaged, and appear not to be deterred by the setbacks they face along the way. So the key question is: Will this generation be able to effect systemic social change?


Africa is the world’s youngest continent, with the majority of its population under the age of 24, and living in waithood. The young are forced to improvise livelihoods outside of dominant economic and familial frameworks. In interviews from my book The Time of Youth, young people described the extemporaneous and precarious nature of their lives in waithood. Young Mozambicans used the Portuguese expression desenrascar a vida (‘to eke out a living’); young Senegalese and Tunisians used the French word débrouillage(‘making do’); and young South Africans said “I am just getting by”.

These young people actions function like Michel de Certeau’s tactics, or daily struggles that respond to immediate needs rather than longer-term strategies designed to achieve broader ends. This is the experience of many young men and women who engage in street vending, cross-border trading and smuggling; those who migrate illegally to South Africa or Europe; and those who end up in criminal networks as swindlers, traffickers and gangsters.

Young women and men also use their sexuality as a means of gaining a livelihood by engaging in intimate relationships with wealthy and powerful men and women (sugardaddies and sugarmamas) for money, gifts and access to fashionable goods. Some young people become successful entrepreneurs by repairing electronic devices; making and marketing clothing and jewellery; and doing hair and nails. Others are creating new artistic, musical, and performance forms, making graffiti, painting murals, writing blogs and becoming savvy Internet users.

Unemployed and underemployed graduates are taking up jobs usually performed by less educated youths. Kate Meagher’s work shows that a shrinking formal economy in northern Nigeria is driving more educated people into the informal economy, which in turn pushes out the less educated, some of whom are recruited by Boko Haram.

Young people feel excluded from what they perceive to be the good and prosperous modern life. They want jobs, iPods, mobile phones and tablets, jeans and designer clothes, cars and the bling they see paraded in hip-hop videos. A 20-year old Mozambican form a remote village in Nampula said that he is trying to follow the advice of US rapper 50 Cent “get rich or die tryin’”.

Although usually a debilitating state, waithood opens up possibilities for creativity, as young people discover and invent new ways of existing in the margins of society. These new youth spaces become dynamic sites for improvisation and survival. Henrietta Moorecalls this “self-stylization, an obstinate search for a style of existence, [and] a way of being”. The Internet and its social networks today make this process easier. And young people’s responses to waithood attest to this resourcefulness.

Youth responses to waithood

The disillusionment of marginalised young Africans has pushed them into more open and vociferous action in the national political arena. Since the 2011 events in Tunisia and in Egypt, which overthrew entrenched dictatorships, there have been street political protests led by youth all over the continent. From the fall of Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal and Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso, the contestation of constitutional amendments in Burundi and the Republic of Congo, to the student demonstrations against fee increases in South Africa, young people have been raising their voices against the status quo. However, these movements haven’t been able to effect systemic change, and increasingly disaffected young people are looking beyond domestic politics.

Radicalisation: joining extremist organisations

Some young people caught in this “in-between” stage become frustrated with their inability to achieve culturally recognised adulthood and seek validation elsewhere. They join violent extremist groups, which provide them with an adult-like status through purpose, responsibility, financial compensation, and belonging to something greater than themselves.

In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and Salafist groups have been recruiting young people following their disillusionment with the Arab Spring revolutions. In fact, the largest group of foreign fighters in IS is believed to be from Tunisia. In his book The New Threat from Islamic Militancy, Jason Burke asserts that: “millions in their 20s, unable to find work or a partner, are drawn by the promise of a purpose, a thrill and yes sex. Fight well, make money, get yourself a girl”.

In West Africa, vulnerable young people in Nigeria, northern Cameroon and Niger, who lack access to school and employment, are being lured into joining Boko Haram. The same is happening in East Africa, where al-Shabaab has been attracting young and newly converted Muslims into their ranks. Anneli Botha, who conducted interviews with former al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia, said that “Economics and deprivation were as important, if not more so, than religious factors in explaining why Somalis joined al-Shabaab”. Certainly, the financial incentives offered by Boko Haram and al-Shabaab constitutes an important pull factor.

As the recent terror attacks in Paris show, the West has not been immune to the penetration of these radical organisations that attempt to attract citizens of immigrant descent, struggling with waithood and a sense of belonging. Growing up as the “other”, especially when combined with discrimination and joblessness, can push young Europeans to seek a home where they belong, feel respected and valued. It is this environment that enables radical organisations to find susceptible recruits. At least half of the attackers in the horrific Paris raids were said to be French nationals of Muslim descent in their late 20s.

These radical groups attract vulnerable disaffected youth from all over the world by offering a message that neatly packages young people’s frustrations with unemployment, financial hardship, social marginalisation and political exclusion.

Migration: “we are your problem too”

Migration has also been an important reaction to waithood as young people leave their rural villages in search of opportunities in the cities or migrate to other countries in the region or internationally. Southern Africans have a long tradition of migrating to South Africa to work in the gold and diamond mines of Wittswatersrand and Kimberly. Since the end of apartheid, young Africans from countries further a field have also been migrating to South Africa. In 2008 and early this year we witnessed atrocious xenophobic violence by South African’s poorest against fellow African immigrants. These attacks stressed the failure of the post-apartheid regime to address the inequities of the past and create jobs. And this has instigated the horrendous victim on victim violence.

In the past few years, there have been numerous media reports with startling images of precarious boats loaded with hundreds of desperate people trying to reach Europe illegally. It has been estimated that more than 100,000 Africans, mainly young, have crossed the Mediterranean in small boats to reach Italy this year.

Some of these youths also understand that their waithood situation results from domestic corruption and poor governance, coupled with a global system that makes inequality, social injustice and corruption at home possible. So when these young people knock at the doors of Europe they are also saying to European leaders: “We are your problem, too”.

However, Europe does not understand this, still casting it as an African problem. At theEurope-Africa Migration Summit in Valetta this November, both European and African leaders accepted youth unemployment as one of the root cause of the current migration problem. However, most Europeans leaders emphasised the need to repatriate African migrants currently in Europe and pushed African nations to enforce buffer zones within the continent to stop migrants from reaching the Mediterranean. African leaders showed scepticism about forced repatriations and considered the financial package offered by Europe too small to tackle the root causes of migration. I believe the EU approach, privileging repressive measures, misses the point. So long as the reasons that led to the migration in the first place are not addressed – i.e. massive unemployment, lack of sustainable livelihoods, social injustice and exclusion, and political marginalisation – the migration impulse will not cease.

But there is also a North-South migration by young Europeans that illustrates the growth of waithood in the North. This migration exacerbates waithood in Africa, especially among educated youths. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) recently released a report indicating the sharp increase of European migration towards Latin America. But they are also migrating to Africa. For example, Mozambique and Angola’s recent economic boom has attracted many young unemployed Portuguese graduates looking for work. In September, I interviewed some of them in Maputo. “I couldn’t find a job in Portugal, so I came here to Maputo with a group of 50 other young people looking for work in Mozambique,” said Ana, a 29 year-old Portuguese woman with a Master’s degree in economics. Ana is one of half a million Portuguese encouraged by their government to emigrate in the past five years.

But while international migration of Africans towards Europe has lately increased, the larger migration story, and much less reported, remains inside the continent. As statedby Carlos Lopes, Executive Director of the Economic Commission for Africa, “the bulk of Africans looking for opportunities outside their countries go to another African country”.

Is change happening?

Young people have already effected significant changes – driving longstanding dictators out of power; stopping unconstitutional presidential term extensions; and forcing the reversal of unpopular decisions. Their actions have expanded the political space for public participation and broadened the boundaries of individual freedoms, challenging the state’s monopoly of the political discourse. In Tunisia, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Congo-Brazzaville, for example, populations once considered calm, docile and intimidated, have opposed the status quo with great courage and assertiveness.

The achievements made by these youth movements so far can be credited to three main factors:  First, they present a very simple and clear analysis of the situation, one that any young citizen can understand and relate to. The choice of the name “Enough!” (adopted by several groups) embodies the simplicity and accessibility of the message and crystallises a common sentiment.

Second, the youth movements ably use new technologies of information and communication to their advantage. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, blogs and text messages have been instrumental to publicise events, communicate, mobilise, energise the masses as well as expose the abuses of the regime. With the Internet, these protest movements are propagated across borders in very high speed facilitating exchanges in real time. Internet’s social networks also facilitate horizontal communications and obviate the need for centralised organizations with strong hierarchical structures.

And third, the structures and modes of organisation of these youth movements reflect a generation’s deep disaffection with the political system. They strive to create new forms of political engagement, based on broad, decentralised, horizontal and consensus-based associations, imbued with strong anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian principles.

Nevertheless, these youth movements have been unable to generate broader systemic change. Once old regimes fall and the enthusiasm and energy of street protests wane, young activists find themselves more divided; the broad unity forged during street protests dissipates as they struggle to articulate a new common purpose and to define a new political role for themselves. And traditional and more established political forces quickly move in to occupy the institutional vacuum, often reverting to ‘politics as usual’ with minor cosmetic changes.

This was clearly seen, for example, in the tensions that emerged amongst leaders of the Movements Ça Suffit and Le Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso after the departure of Blaise Compaoré. Leadership battles and rifts between various groups were publicly displayed in the media. These facts expose the weaknesses of the large horizontal front that characterises many of these youth movements, and raises questions about the future of their role in the post-street protest phase.

So far, young people have avoided the structures and political ideology that turn a protest movement into an ongoing political presence. They are wrestling to identify the appropriate structures and modes of organisation towards more sustainable political interventions. There is a growing understanding among young activists that in order to create systemic change, their struggle cannot stop at the national street protests but needs to become much broader. As James Ferguson asserted, Africans are contesting their marginalisation and making claims of membership to the global community. But can they tackle the larger global system that still relegates them to the periphery of modernity?

Challenging the modernity project?

Confronting bad governance and corrupt leaders at home has led young activists to understand the limitations of their leaders and national governments to effect meaningful socio-economic change. The neoliberal paradigm has hindered the ability of weak nations to attain socio-economic sovereignty. As many analysts have pointed out, structural adjustment programmes imposed by Bretton Woods institutions to developing countries have seriously weakened states’ ability to determine national policies and priorities and to uphold the social contract with their citizenry. Indeed, neoliberalism diminished the role of the state, replacing public ownership with private enterprise and the withdrawal of the welfare programmes. Development aid is often offered with strict conditions. And those in power in developing countries build close links with the wealthy and powerful in the North.

But this is not a novel problem. Already in the 19th century, Russian author-philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky noted the weaknesses of the modern ideal of individual freedom for all by identifying the gap between the theory and practice of liberal individualism. He considered this the very torment of modernity, in which individuals educated to believe in lofty notions of personal freedom and sovereignty ended up confronted with a reality that cruelly negated such dreams. Dostoevsky noted sharply that in France as in other modern societies, the idea of liberté was a reality only for the wealthy and powerful.

Today, neoliberalism continues to emphasise individualistic ideals and expects citizens to become entrepreneurs able to retrain and repackage themselves to face a dynamically evolving capitalist economy. But capital continually moves globally, across national boundaries in search of profit maximisation, leaving behind and depriving millions of people. Defeat and humiliation have become commonplace experiences for many people confronted with this strenuous global capitalist endeavour, of franchising the individual self and profit-making.

Even established liberal democracies such as the United States seethe with angry disillusionment across class and racial divides. Decades of liberal socio-economic policies have led to a political system geared to facilitate private moneymaking. As the Occupy Movement put it, the wealth is concentrated among 1% of the population who dominate society while 99% struggle. Bernie Sanders, an independent US senator currently challenging Hilary Clinton for the Democratic party presidential nomination, echoes this sentiment by saying: “The issue of income and wealth inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time”. And like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza in Greece, Sanders is enjoying the support of large crowds of young people who feel politically marginalised and socially and economically excluded.

The situation is even harder for the latecomers of modernity, those from the periphery, for whom the gap between the notion of individual liberation and the daily experience of poverty in their societies is even greater. The numbers of young people from Africa condemned to the ‘waiting’ room of modernity have grown significantly in recent decades. Young people’s feelings of powerlessness and deprivation are exacerbated today by the ability, boosted by Internet and social media, to constantly compare one’s life with the lives of the fortunate. For many, this contradiction has become intolerable. And that’s why they are not waiting anymore but taking their destinies into their own hands.

Youth political protest movements have already started a process of social change, which has at least changed the mindset of many who didn’t believe in their ability to make a difference. Youth movements like Y’en a Marre in Senegal, le Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso, Filimbi and Lucha in the DRC and Ça Suffit comme ça in Gabon, are working towards a Pan-African Coalition of Youth for Change, which includes links with young people in the African Diaspora in Europe and North America. They understand that united they become stronger and better prepared to face the challenges ahead.

It remains to be seen whether this generation will indeed be able to drive systemic change. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that they have grown tremendously in their personal and collective realisation that they can be a force for change. This waithood generation that seems to be doomed to lurch between a sense of inadequacy and unfulfilment is reacting against the system both at home and globally: they are coming out to the streets to protest against corruption and bad governance; they are organising across borders; they are joining violent extremist organisations; and they are knocking at Europe doors and saying: “here we are, we are your problem too, deal with it!”

Radical and systemic change will take time. It will require more organisation, more structure and a new political ideology. It might even take more than a generation, but I believe that young people in waithood have already started the process. As a Senegalese activist of Y’en a Marre told me recently: “perhaps my situation won’t change much today but we believe in ourselves and we will fight for our children”.

This is the text of a public lecture presented at the London School of Economics and Political Science on 18 November 2015.

Alcinda Honwana is visiting professor of anthropology and international development at the Open University. She is the author of Youth and Revolution in Tunisia, The Time of Youth: work, social change, and politics in Africa, and co-edit of Makers and Breakers: children and youth in postcolonial Africa.