As Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

Mandela’s fame rests on the fact that he was a visionary, a democrat and international political leader who exercised his influence and leadership with humility, and above all else, a man who fought against all forms of discrimination, injustice and inequality. The global icon’s leadership traits have special resonance for the youth in Africa particularly given the major societal challenges currently facing the continent.


Chief amongst these challenges is that of unethical, poor and ineffective leadership. Observers of Africa lament the failure of the continent to translate the optimism that attended the immediate post-independence period into inclusive development.

Some have offered a very damning critique of African leadership, contending that the continent “has long been saddled with poor, even malevolent, leadership; predatory kleptocrats, military-installed autocrats, economic illiterates, and puffed-up posturers”.

This assertion is corroborated by the inability of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to find, in the last few years, a retired African political leader who is deserving of its prestigious African Leadership Prize. This development is a serious indictment of the quality of leadership that those at the helm of African countries have provided.

On the other hand, Africa presents fertile grounds to nurture a new breed of inspirational and authentic leadership that could transform the continent for decades to come. The timing is ripe to infuse transformational leadership skills targeting the youth for overall sustainable development.

Equally, Africa’s youth bulge reveals its own inherent challenges and opportunities – a phenomenon which has the potential to be a major disaster or a demographic dividend. For example, a recent survey conducted by the African Development Bank indicates that most of the youth in Africa do not have stable economic opportunities.

The report highlights that of Africa’s nearly 420 million youth aged 15-35, one-third are unemployed and discouraged, while another one-third is vulnerably employed (informal, low productivity, low-wage).

Furthermore, the report states that in order to maximise the demographic dividend, Africa will have to create high-productivity jobs at an average of about 18 million per year until 2035 to absorb the new entrants in the labour force. In order to achieve this lofty goal, visionary and transformative leadership is a must, especially if African countries want to successfully tackle the youth unemployment issues.

With regard to employability, the bank’s report notes that by 2050 Africa will be home to 38 of the 40 youngest countries in the world, with median populations under 25 years of age. This will result in an estimated 10-12 million new people joining the labour force each year. These statistics clearly indicate that a considerable amount of investment must go into human development to unlock a demographic dividend. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution upon us and the rate at which technology is advancing, it is critical that Africa has a sufficiently educated and skilled workforce to be able to drive the continent in this direction.

There is currently a mismatch between industry demands and the education curriculum, and educational institutions will need to update their programme designs to align with the direction in which the world and Africa are going. If this is ignored then Africa’s young people will have irrelevant qualifications that the continent will be unable to benefit from.

Given that the continent will be increasingly involved in global transactions, agility and collaborative intelligence will have to be the new norm for youth leadership. If Africa is to benefit positively from the youth bulge, then it is important to understand the problem, in all its manifestations, especially in the context of youth leadership. It is critical to how we respond and how we direct change to nurture our youth for the future of leadership.

When one considers the quality of our current youth political leadership, it leaves much to be desired and necessitates clarity of vision and purpose, especially in terms of a future generation of ethical and authentic African leaders that will bring about positive transformational change in the continent.

Young people live in a diverse world characterised by great pressures and responsibilities, changing technology, and challenges in the job market. They are the next generation of leaders in our workplace and in our communities.

For Africa to succeed, it will need to empower its youth to develop their talents and capabilities to become agents of change. One way to prepare them for this is to teach them 21st Century leadership skills. Both the opportunities for growth, and challenges Africa faces, are linked to its youth.

The continent has the youngest population on Earth, and that translates to expanding markets, strong prospects for future business growth and a large workforce of tomorrow. However, it also means huge pressure on infrastructure, a growing thirst for quality education, and the prospect for unrest if this youthful energy is not effectively harnessed.

Never has there been such weighty responsibility on the shoulders of young people. Never has there been the influence in the hands of young people like the influence they carry now.

But for Africa to reap the dividends she has longed for, it is up to the new generation to make sure that influence is channelled correctly and directed towards relevant issues that affect not only the present but future generations. This can only be achieved if young people come together and begin to address the challenges before them.

The strength of any society is within the strength and resolve of its youth. The role of the youth, in addressing and solving problems that seem second nature to Africa can never be overemphasised.

This could be in their power as a majority electorate and also in their aspirations to take the reins of leadership. This calls for the need to understand leadership objectively within the African context with the sole goal of educating, enlightening and empowering Africa’s next generation of leaders.


It is critical, therefore, that young African leaders play a critical role in building this future because they will be shaping their own inheritance. They must equip themselves to contribute to this growth, and they must learn from the political failings of past leaders so that this growth is sustained.

Finally, we return whence we began this conversation. The future of the African development saga is both people-centred and intrinsically linked to the education of our youth, particularly in terms of the new leadership that Africa hungers for. Education combats poverty and helps ordinary people escape the deprivation trap.

And for this to happen, it will require, amongst other things, the expertise equivalent to people who have been educated and trained to the level of a doctorate. As another great son and leader of Africa, Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, enunciated “Education is the passport to development”.

It is imperative that the modernisation of Africa’s economies be driven by inputs from properly educated and highly skilled transformatory professionals and leaders of the Mandela kind.

*Soni is Associate Director of Research at the Management College of Southern Africa (Mancosa) and writes in his personal capacity

Categories: Education News