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Deepening Democracy through Access to Information
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My Personal AU Story: The farce of youth engagement at the African Union

11th February 2020

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.

In the first piece, you read about how the appointment of the first-ever African Union Commission (AUC) Youth Envoy and Advisory Council held not only our hopes but the hopes of the continent, it was meant to be historic, instead it was anything but. Being brand new and starry eyed we travelled with relative ease to have a weekend learning more about the AUC Youth Division and discuss plans for our role. It was my first time in Addis Ababa and I was excited to meet my colleagues, I had been following the Envoy Aya Chebbi as well online and had great admiration for her. We were ready to take action, together, a mix of youth leaders with the calibre who could take the youth forward.

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The first day we learnt about the four pillars of the demographic dividend (employment and entrepreneurship, education and skills development, health and well-being, rights, governance and youth empowerment) which would unleash the potential of youth on the continent but also the 2018 AU Theme of the Year. There were a few presentations, which I stopped and asked questions about, especially some of the statistics presented didn’t seem to tally up but it was quickly whisked over. Eventually, we went into discussing our roles, in this magnificent AU building which offers a stunning view of Addis. At that point we realised the AU hadn’t really thought through our roles, but nonetheless many of us saw it as an exciting opportunity for us to shape things. Little did we know what on earth it would take to shape our roles as we envisioned.

On the second day, we all marvelled at the meeting rooms we were put in, it’s the kind you usually see on television of the World Health Organization or United Nations. A young lad from the legal department came in with his brief case and explained the benefits we would receive, how our roles would work, and we had discussions with some high-level individuals from the AUC who met with us and expressed their excitement. I remember distinctly shocking people in that meeting, I asked pointedly, “The story has broken around sexual harassment in the AU, there are 5 females on this team how will you ensure our safety”. Laughs, already I was rocking the boat.

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Shortly thereafter, we had an invitation to the first mission in Seychelles, to work on the Africa Plan of Action for Youth Empowerment (APAYE) which would be led by the Youth Division.

A fellow Council member and I attended the meeting, bonded, asked critical questions, gave suggestions and were more than ready to give it our all, even though we did not have fully defined roles, yet. Upon return, I recall following up on items over and over again with no response. Only to see APAYE rolled out on Twitter later in 2019. So our involvement was in essence attending that one meeting, nothing else?

We were also told that we would officially be inaugurated at the AU Heads of State Summit which takes place annually, however as the weeks went by and we were approaching February we heard nothing. A couple of us then enquired and were told by the Youth Division that we actually do not fall under them, they only offer us “technical assistance” - not sure what that meant and that marked the first de-linking between the Council and AU Youth Division. Nonetheless I kept pushing and pushing on email, so did other colleagues. If we had not we probably would not even have attended. We were so excited to be inaugurated, meet our Presidents and our country delegation. Except, despite the talks of inauguration, we were told, “Oh we inaugurated you in November”, so we received no invitations until we really pushed. In which organisation do you push for your own welcoming, already this was set to be a disaster, I flew to Addis against my better judgement.

The logistics were a nightmare. I recall being told, “Go and wait at the airport we are busy booking your flight”. I waited four hours and was ready to leave until they had booked me on a flight. Other colleagues were booked on flights which had already left. The logistics were a nightmare and other than flying us there, there were no plans of how to engage us. That morning, we arrived at the AUC building but could not enter as we had no accreditations, besides the Envoy no other Youth Council members were allowed into the Summit. More so, we hadn’t been invited to participate in any pre-Summit activities with youth groupings, our roles were already clearly amounting to nothing.

Thankfully, a remarkable South African youth volunteer, Kholekhile Mnisi helped us navigate it all, honestly if it wasn’t for this assistance, we probably would not have even entered the AU buildings. In the end, we hadn’t even received priority badges so could not attend 70% of the Summit sessions.  As we walked into the main hall of the Heads of State address and discussion, I recalled an interview which I had upon my appointment with Sakina Kamwendo on SABC who asked me if we would be given space, to which I responded, “We’re probably going to have to create the space”. Little did I know it would be so only three months after being appointed. 

When I walked into the main hall at the AU Headquarters, I looked for the South African display signs and encouraged two council members to join me as we went and purposefully sat with our delegations since most of our governments were ignoring our emails. My fellow colleagues were thrown out of their seats eventually and I was treated like a piece of scrap metal. Despite introductions the delegation looked down on me as I silently walked away with my dignity intact. Look, at least I tried. I saw Thabo Mbeki sitting to the left, I introduced myself to him and his Director if I am not mistaken, shared my contacts but had never heard from them either. This reminded me that every young person starts out in any organisation at the rock bottom, you are nothing, you are no one, even if you are ‘congratulated’. Thankfully, professionally I never had that experience, instead my potential was always nurtured, not used and abused.

I am certain for all of us, this was not quite the so-called inauguration we imagined. In fact the Chairperson gave us one lousy mention in his speech and that was about it, even the Envoy hadn’t been given the opportunity to speak.

This week (2-10 February 2020) marks a second year in a row for the Summit and guess what, when enquiring, we were told that they are not sure if they have a budget for us to attend this year. The Envoy is set to have a session, we also found this out via social media not through anyone in the AU. Last week, a United Nations (UN) partner offered to sponsor us for a side coffee session which my colleague is hosting. I absolutely love the idea. But there is a bigger picture here - this would be a side event, seemingly not even supported by the AU judging from the emails. So I could easily go and take pretty pictures and sing praise of youth engagement, but who would I be kidding. So I stood resolute and declined. Others are going. I am sure you will see their pictures of ‘participation’ in the Summit online. The reality is, we cannot go and host side sessions when we are not in the main Summit not even the Envoy’s session, the main youth structure within the AU. Last Friday, a virtual Youth Summit was held but not with one young person on the discussion. It’s all unacceptable. The truth is, we are excluded from an entire structure appointed by the AU. What chance do other youth ever stand?

So, I stood resolute and decided I will not accept any funding to attend, unless the AUC itself sends an invitation letter and ensures we actually participate in the Summit. Or perhaps, as I tweeted last week, is it a case of our invitations being lost in the post?

The most ironic is that President Ramaphosa chairs the African Union this year, yet for a second year in a row his youth appointee sits at home writing this. Tells you how much the AU and South Africa as the new Chair of the AU really values youth, hey? But also highlights just how fancy, high-level but absolutely meaningless this position is.

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 

EDITED BY: Creamer Media Reporter
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