The agency of southern African youth during the COVID-19 pandemic

Photo: DW/U. Wagner
Photo: DW/U. Wagner

In a year dedicated to Silencing the Guns (STG) in Africa, the world has been plunged into a global pandemic that risks reversing the gains made on the peace and security front on the continent, either by creating new forms of conflicts or exacerbating already-existing ones. While the African Union (AU) and regional economic communities (RECs) – such as the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) – concurrently seek to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic while attending to rising conflicts, this piece spotlights the agency of youth in the region and why it matters in emerging conflicts.

It is noteworthy that the nature of conflicts and tensions in the SADC region are unique compared to the rest of the African continent. A key factor that distinguishes this region from others is the relative absence of fully-fledged conflicts or civil wars in the traditional sense. SADC is among the RECs in Africa lauded for its progressive processes in formulating plans and strategies on youth, peace and security – seen in the adoption of the Continental Framework on Youth Peace and Security. However, there are high levels of economic and social inequalities that exist within the region, which contribute to the root causes of conflicts and tensions and which directly impact young people. These conflicts and tensions stem mainly from structural and cultural violence attached to social, demographic, environmental, economic and political factors. Some of the main peace and security issues identified in southern Africa include sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), xenophobia, land conflicts, corruption, economically disempowered youth, radicalisation, the early stages of violent extremism, gangsterism and the recruitment of youth in violent groups, police brutality and climate injustice.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, youth in SADC have initiated and led various efforts to address the rising conflict and tensions in the region @LuandaTM @K_Mokgonyana

Although some of these issues may seem new, most of them were underlying and/or existing issues that have been intensified during this pandemic and have subsequently received enhanced media coverage. It can be assessed that the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing conflicts and tensions in the region. Furthermore, the pandemic has exposed poor governance (economic, political and institutional) and the inefficiencies in SADC early warning systems.

In a region where the median age is 27 years, youth are often at the heart of social tensions. While there are contexts in which they are perpetrators, young people increasingly play a key role in preventing, managing and mitigating potential conflicts and tensions that result from political competition, lack of social cohesion and human rights abuses. That young people in Africa should no longer be seen as perpetrators of conflicts or targets of violence, but rather be recognised as actors and partners in promoting peace and security, was further affirmed by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), AU and SADC during a virtual meeting convened by COMESA on Friday 28 August 2020.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, youth in the SADC region have initiated and led various efforts to address the rising conflicts and tensions in the region. During the pandemic, young people in the SADC region have mobilised and used their platforms effectively to enhance their voices and inspire action. This is evidenced, for example, by the SGBV and femicide protests that took place in Windhoek, Namibia, with a concurrent social media campaign under the hashtag #ShutItDown. The use of social media to raise awareness on rising conflicts and tensions has also been seen in other countries in the region, including the Zimbabwe Lives Matter campaign against police brutality in Zimbabwe; the Youth4Parliament movement in Malawi against the lack of youth representation in the Malawi parliament; and the Congo is Bleeding awareness campaign against deadly mine exploitations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Africa Unite can also be lauded as a best practice organisation in the SADC region. This is a group of youth human rights defenders whose work and activities seek to build peaceful, tolerant and conducive communities through a conflict mediation programme in vulnerable communities, such as Gugulethu in South Africa’s Western Cape province. This is a community characterised by poverty, inequality, violence and poor service delivery. Africa Unite thus works with different community stakeholders – including church leaders, civil society, schools, trade unions, business forums, youth groups, gang leaders, law enforcement and local shop owners – to create a dialogue on key factors contributing to conflict in the community, allowing for increased participation and resilience.

According to Muneinazvo Kujeke, given the nature of conflict in SADC, youth look at peace and security through the lens of governance deficits. These include the scourge of SGBV and femicide experienced by countries such as Namibia, Malawi and South Africa, and the anti-corruption and anti-government protests in Zimbabwe ensuing from increasing levels of poverty, an overburdened healthcare system, the poor state of the economy and declining standards of living.

More recently, the region is witnessing incidents of violent extremism in the province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique. The evolving situation in Cabo Delgado presents a completely new dynamic, given the region’s perceived absence of armed conflict and subsequent approach to peace and security. Violent extremism in the region should be a cause for concern to all stakeholders, including youth and youth-led organisations. This is a relatively new form of conflict in SADC compared to other regions in Africa, and it has the potential to bring grave instability to the region if not contained.

Young people in SADC have demonstrated their capabilities and agency through awareness-raising, leading protests and conflict prevention initiatives that strengthen grassroots capacities and build tolerant and inclusive communities. Being equipped to respond to violent extremism requires young people to broaden their understanding of peace and security dynamics in the region, engage in intergenerational dialogues and participate in different platforms to effectively capacitate communities and contribute to regional strategies for new forms of conflict.

Luanda Mpungose is a programme officer with the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in Johannesburg, South Africa. She undertakes research into youth development and policy participation, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) cooperation and South Africa’s foreign policy. Luanda co-authored the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Youth Advocacy Guide.

Karabo Mokgonyana is a youth advisory panellist for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)-South Africa and the African Youth Ambassador for Peace with the African Union. She has worked with organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the British Council, CIVICUS and Transparency International in social development work, all in youth development. She is a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand.

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