The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Polity.
The world has an estimated 1.2-billion youth aged 15 to 24 years, almost one-third of the youth population resides in sub-Saharan Africa. Only around 2% of the world’s members of Parliament are youth. Historic moves to high-level youth representation in international bodies include the United Nations (UN) appointing a Youth Envoy, the World Health Organization (WHO) appointment of a Senior Adviser on Gender and Youth and the African Union Commission (AUC) in November 2018, appointing the first ever Youth Envoy and Youth Advisory Council.
In the entire history of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which transitioned to the African Union, including the AUC, there had never been a historic appointment of youth to sit directly under the Bureau of the Chairperson of 54 countries. More so, the AUC led the way in broadening youth representation by going beyond having just one Envoy to a ten-member council across the five regions of the continent, appointed through an open and competitive process. The other two important structures for youth involvement or youth-centred policies and programming in the continental body is through the AUC Youth Division and the Youth Volunteer Programme (where volunteers are placed either in the AUC or in host/ partner organisations). Previously, the Pan African Youth Union, comprising of national youth councils from each country, was a significant partner of the AUC efforts.
I was not too familiar with any of these AU structures including the PYU where youth councils are made up largely of politically appointed youth. My focus and expertise are largely centred on a wide range of public health issues including gender inequality. In 2017 as part of the Southern African AIDS Trust (now known as the SRHR Africa Trust), I worked throughout the continent with young people living with HIV, rolled out a massive Global Fund project to provide youth with funding (Her Voice Fund) and developed an exciting programme titled, “Creating a YouthQuake in sexual and reproductive health”. Youth activism, capacity development and leadership is what I found to not only be my passion, but also what I believe brings freshness, critical thinking and a different way of doing things to any organisation.
So how did I get to be part of this historic appointment to the AU Youth Council and the representative for South Africa (SA) and the Southern African Community (SADC). My journey began as a network of young people and I had dinner in Accra, Ghana in April 2018 and we discussed the advertisement for an AU Youth Envoy, as well as discussing at length how ‘useless’ the AU was. One young person mentioned how he had an employment opportunity in a neighbouring country but it fell through because of corruption and the inability to secure a work permit. Those are just some of the realities we are all too familiar with, despite all the talk of free movement on the continent. We deliberated on the suggestion that I should put in an application, in fact one of the youth said, ‘Shakira, if anyone stands a chance it’s you, but besides that we need a person like you to lead this continent’.
I grew up in a tiny town on the West Rand in South Africa, cognisant that I held privileges but I was not born into a life of privilege, having to work for everything, but it was an upbringing and life of struggles I don’t regret because it has shaped the person I am today and moreover my passion for humanity because I know first hand what suffering and discrimination are. I put in an application and received an email that I had been shortlisted for the Youth Envoy position. Trust me, I could not believe this. At that point my late father was alive and I was en route to the hospital that day. I asked for another date or some flexibility to which there was none. The three of us (candidates) who were shortlisted waited for close to three hours online (yep, imagine how much mobile/ internet data that is). This type of organisation would be a barrier to a young person who could not afford to have the interview. Not a word from anyone but we hung on because we knew how huge this position was. As I look back that should have been the first warning bell in terms of the disorganization and lack of respect to come.
Eventually two of us hung up and as I was driving to the hospital, I got a call requesting a video interview to which I said it was not possible. By then I had already switched off from ‘interview mode’, changed my clothes and was driving, but there was a lot of insistence - #wow as we young people would say. As we sat in the doctors’ waiting room, I explained my situation to the human resources official. I also went on to explain that my father requires constant assistance as he has partial hearing and partial sight. I could not leave him alone. I would never do that for anything in the world. Although my dad, being who he is, insisted I take the call, I quickly alerted the nurses, worried as hell to leave my dad there because I knew the struggles he faces. I just wanted to get this over with at that stage. I found all of it quite unprofessional actually but hung on because I still had that glimmer of hope of what that position could bring to the continent. I was essentially coerced into putting on the video as well. I could not see who interviewed me, and I wasn’t emotionally ready either, but I improvised some answers with people walking up and down the stairs probably wondering if I was a normal human being.
It had then been several months since we heard from the AUC, my dad frequently followed up. The one mistake I always made and still make is I don’t quite believe in my capabilities and my dad said, “I am sure you are going to be selected, you will see”. Towards the end of October 2018, we all received our appointment letters, there was a welcome surprise, the AUC had decided, given the huge pool of talent for the Envoy applications, the ten best candidates would form the Advisory Council. I was in awe, excited, not sure what it all quite meant and it was to mark Africa Youth Month which takes place annually in November each year. So much hope, not just for us, but the constituencies and networks we represent . . . it was surreal. But that’s about it, the rest of the tenure has amounted to nothing.
This opinion piece was written by Dr Shakira Choonara, Award-winning public health researcher, 2018 and 2019 Most Influential Young Africans and Special Appointee to the African Union Youth Council