It had been predicted that African countries could be hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of resources and strained healthcare services on the continent make coordinated and systemic responses challenging. Moreover, African youth have the energy, the passion and the innovative mindsets to address many of the issues caused by the crisis. Young people, when united, have enormous power and collective mobilisation – as South Africa’s history shows us. We are reminded on Youth Day of the young people who, on 16 June 1976, took to the streets of Soweto and initiated a movement, setting in motion a chain of events that would ultimately contribute towards the demise of the apartheid state.
This seminal event also reverberated across neighbouring countries. Young South Africans were mobilised to leave school and cross the borders into Mozambique or Zambia to join Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle in the 1970s.
Globally, young people such as environmental activist Greta Thunberg and champion for girls’ education, Malala Yousafzai, have shown that they are not afraid to address the biggest challenges of our time and hold governments and multinationals to account. As the world grapples with a global pandemic, we need to fully encourage the power of the younger generation, especially in areas where their efforts can have the maximum impact in mitigating the potential devastation caused by COVID-19. We see four key domains where young people have a powerful role to play at this time:
Across the African continent, young people and youth-led organisations are already taking exceptional action to respond to the impact of COVID-19 on their communities. They know the future depends on their actions. Take youth organisation Restless Development which is active in over 100 countries around the world, including South Africa, and supports various initiatives such as Local Youth Corner Cameroon to manufacture and distribute thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer in communities without access to running water.
Young people can volunteer in their communities, helping vulnerable people to, for example, pick up groceries and medicines. They can join organisations like Soup-erHeroes, that has stepped up to provide regular food deliveries and donations to thousands of poor families, or join one of the many initiatives being driven by Community Action Networks (CANs) across the country. Where there isn’t such an initiative – they can start their own! And they can take to social media to advocate or crowdfund for initiatives like free testing, reliable information, paid sick leave and more.
The crisis has laid bare institutions and systems which gives us a remarkable opportunity to build a better society; to invest in the protection of human rights, going beyond the right to health towards building a more resilient society – especially for youth. We must take care not to squander this opportunity. As the crisis unfolds, there will be a diverse range of policy responses and young people have a role to play in making sure that these are evidence-based, consultative and non-discriminatory.
In South Africa, advocacy groups and youth organisations, like Equal Education have been exemplary in paying attention to policy responses on education and how it impacts the youth. The organisation has lobbied strongly and successfully for greater consultation and commitment from the government in their development of policy responses to COVID-19, particularly with regards to the safe opening and ongoing safety at schools, and the continuation of nutrition programmes for learners.
Another youth organisation, Afrika Tikkun has rallied young people to volunteer for COVID-19 brigades to help the health department screen learners and teachers at schools.
In Zimbabwe, the Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust and the Research and Advocacy Unit are two organisations that promote youth initiatives and mechanisms in policy development and implementation. They are collating and compiling information on COVID-19 with the aim to be credible sources of information on the pandemic for the youth.
The spread of misinformation about the novel Coronavirus can be likened to a pandemic itself, for which good information and engaged readers are the only cure. Young people have played a key role in disseminating accurate knowledge about the pandemic. For example, a mass literacy programme in Francophone Africa called Arayaa, teamed up with health-related content producers to organise a Tweetchat about keeping safe against COVID-19. Their hashtag #AgirContreCOVID19 has reached thousands of participants.
Young people, with greater digital dexterity and networking capacities, can help to locate accurate information – and can play a crucial role in educating family, friends and community. South Africa’s Ndlovu Youth Choir have used the performing arts to dispel misinformation and myths about the Coronavirus. A community organisation in South Sudan, #DefyHateNow - with working hubs in Cameroon, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia - has started the #211CHECK collective, an online community of young people working towards campaigns against misinformation whilst raising awareness on COVID-19 prevention and protection. And closer to home, two UCT alumni developed the Coronapp platform to help ensure that people get access to accurate information about the pandemic. A powerful underlying message of many of these interventions is to empower young people to take responsibility for their own health to stop the spread of the Coronavirus.
Young innovators are already responding to the pandemic through social impact projects. Around the world, governments and the private sector are partnering with young people to launch initiatives that leverage young people’s efforts to support their communities. Youth-driven innovation hubs, from Nigeria to New York, are supporting start-ups to develop technological solutions to address COVID-19, as the pandemic shifts more and more activities online.
Examples of these include an app like ZLTO, an award-winning digital rewards web app that was founded on the Cape Flats by teenagers and has been repurposed during the COVID-19 pandemic to help more people access basic necessities. The app uses blockchain technology and gives online rewards for volunteering, learning and doing good, that can be used to buy essentials like groceries, clothes, mobile airtime and data.
Our youth are beacons of hope and fierce protagonists in the face of social injustice and they have a vital role to play at this time of uncertainty. Whether through individual or collective action, young people are reclaiming power and taking action to safeguard themselves and their communities.
As we observe Youth Day during the COVID-19 crisis we as youth and supporters of youth need to enable young people to take their rightful place in designing a future they want to live in. As President Cyril Ramaphosa stated in his 2019 state of the nation address: “If there is one thing we have learned from our engagements with this country’s youth is that we cannot impose our solutions on them: everything we have to do must be led by young people themselves. They are brimming with ideas, they are at the forefront of innovation, and they want to do things for themselves.”
Dr Hillary Masarurwa, Lee-Hendor Ruiters, Maurisa Moloto & Fergus Turner are all Bertha Scholars at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a specialised unit at the UCT Graduate School of Business.