WHEN the topic of youth leadership comes up in SA, what comes to mind are the antics of Julius Malema and his cohorts in the African National Congress Youth League. The subject has many people throwing their hands up in despair, not only at the reports of bad behaviour and self-serving tactics, but also at the lost opportunity. The youth should be changing things for the better, not reverting to the discredited and failed policies of the past.
So it was a pleasant surprise to attend a conference in Addis Ababa recently hosted by the African Leadership Network (ALN) and attended by several hundred mostly young Africans from 22 countries.
The network encourages membership of people under 45 with the aim of engaging “the collective influence of Africa’s new generation of leaders to drive prosperity across Africa”, according to its marketing material.
It suggests that unless Africans can raise their own resources, they will not be able to own the future.
The network, many of whose members belong to the biggest companies operating in Africa, provides a platform for the exchange of ideas as well as a place for business deals to be done — a sort of “Davos for Africa”. The event had a refreshing perspective focused on creating wealth, rather than simply dwelling on problems.
It is the brainchild of two West Africans — Cameroonian Acha Leke, a director of McKinsey, and Ghanaian social entrepreneur Fred Swaniker — both with roots in other global and local leadership initiatives.
The ambitions of the ALN have struck a chord with big business, which was reflected in the high-powered conference sponsors — MTN, TBWA, JP Morgan, McKinsey , Actis and Yellowwoods.
The famous words of Nelson Mandela, captured on the programme, seemed to inspire the delegates: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.
Enthusiastic participants echoed the sentiment. “We are the ‘can do’ generation and we must use that energy to change Africa,” said one. “We are the generation that believes in transparency and accountability. We need to bring these qualities to the way things work on the continent,” said another.
African Development Bank (ADB) president Donald Kaberuka dropped in at the event. He entered the spirit of things, emphasising that the bank was looking to employ bright young minds to help Africa’s development from inside the system. Kaberuka was in town for another event across town, the annual African Economic Conference, hosted by the ADB and several United Nations (UN) agencies to discuss issues facing Africa.
As I went from one conference to the other, I couldn’t help feeling that the ADB-UN event reflected the “old” Africa. Despite worthy analysis of challenges facing the continent, it dodged some of the real issues that hold back the continent, including policy weakness, poor leadership and a lack of responsibility for failure. At the ALN’s Addis Ababa event, which symbolised the “new” Africa, these issues were tackled head-on as part of forging a new path for Africa.
The African Union (AU), which has made Addis Ababa its home, seems to represent neither the old nor the new Africa, but rather the failure of African leadership. The AU, where Malema clearly plans to strut his stuff one day, has as its current head one of the most venal leaders the continent has seen — the president of Equatorial Guinea.
One speaker at the ALN event challenged the well-heeled young people in the room to think not only about engaging politicians, but to consider becoming politicians. A show of hands indicated that most thought they could do a better job of running their countries than their governments.
The average age of national leaders in Africa is more than 70 years, despite the weight of the youth in African demographics, which is growing as more young voters come into the system every year.
That disconnect could be a space to exploit, the speaker said.
But the system of patronage in African politics is so well entrenched that changing the system will be the biggest challenge for the ALN and other young leaders if they really want to see a change in Africa. It won’t be easy.