Africa has the youngest population of any continent. Here, in excerpts an exclusive interview, Ivor Ichikowitz talks about his family foundation’s initiative to establish an annual youth survey. Stephen Williams reports

Ivor Ichikowitz is a leading South African industrialist who has built a pan-African network of companies across the continent. Speaking with African Leadership Magazine in London, he explained why the Ichikowitz Family Foundation had backed the establishment of an annual African Youth Survey.

“For 30 years, I’ve worked on the African continent and found that often appearances and reality don’t match. Sometimes you have to listen to your instinct.

“And for years I have seen the African pot-bubbling. I’ve seen more and more optimism, more and more enthusiasm for the continent.

“As a result, I’ve made some very bold decisions and investment across Africa, not backed up by anything other than my gut feeling. Part of the reason for this is that there is a new evolving generation of Africans who did not experience colonialism or were not born under apartheid. They haven’t been told all their lives, how incapable they are, and how much help they need from the West.

“And that generation is this generation; it’s the 18 to 24-year-olds of today. The objective of the Survey was to, try and get a take on this demographics– the hopes, the aspirations, and the fears of this particular group of people at this particular time in history, against which to measure the future of the continent. This population group is the immediate future; this is the generation that is going to be the new business leaders, the next politicians, the next social entrepreneurs.”

It could be said that the Survey essentially creates a benchmark, creating a set of data that can be measured. The survey looks at how the youth consumes news, how they see foreign interference on the continent and issues that do not necessarily touch their lives every day, because they’re not things that 18-year-olds have to deal with what we really have to see if they even were aware of these issues.

The survey sampled participants from Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Ten key findings of the Survey included identifying a general optimism about the future, and looking ahead to an ‘African Century’; that the nation-state remains a strong source of collective identity, but African youth overwhelmingly agree that a shared African identity exists, brought forth by a common culture and the values epitomised by Nelson Mandela.

Many young Africans say the continent is headed in the wrong direction and call for unity to bring Africa forward. While African youth are divided on whether democracy or stability is more important for the continent, most believe in the democratic values of participation, tolerance and freedom.

It is clear that the Survey is not concerned about expressing whatever contrarian views it might uncover. The issue of democracy is a case in point. Many African youths would appear absolutely willing to sacrifice an electoral voice in the interest of stability and progress – i.e. the concept of benevolent dictatorship.

The next African generation are entrepreneurs who are resolute in their goals and ambitions. African youth are well connected and technology and media-savvy people with a great interest in current affairs – but ‘Fake News’ is viewed as problematic.

“Young people in Africa are deeply embedded in their local communities, which many describe as ethnically, religiously and economically multitudinous.

“African youth are conflicted in regard to foreign influence – on the one hand, many are wary of new forms of colonialism, but at the same time, most consider the influence of specific countries to be positive.’

While climate change is not a front of mind concern, most African youths hold their country responsible for contributing to the exploration of renewable energies and providing better recycling infrastructure.

As for the challenges ahead, African youth see infectious diseases (the Survey was pre the Covid-19 pandemic) and terrorism as the most formative developments for Africa in the last five years.

Democracy versus Autocracy

Ichikowitz highlights that one of the biggest recurring themes about Africa from the West is that African governments are not democratic enough as there are still dictators in Africa.

It is clear that the Survey is not concerned about expressing whatever contrarian views it might uncover. The issue of democracy is a case in point. Many African youths would appear absolutely willing to sacrifice an electoral voice in the interest of stability and progress – i.e. the concept of benevolent dictatorship.

“Because there isn’t a western-style democracy, he says, “in the West, Africa is in some way considered deficient. We wanted to see what this demographic felt about democracy.

“My instinct was this generation is plugged into Western propaganda. This generation is constantly exposed to television and online media that keeps reinforcing the fact that Africa is bad because there isn’t enough democracy, and therefore, there would be an overwhelming desire for Western-style democracy. Well, exactly the opposite is true!

“Around half of the people surveyed believed that a strong, autocratic, benevolent dictatorship is a preferred system over the West’s style of democracy.

“Many other things have come out of the Survey that indicates that cultural and tribal issues still remain very prevalent in the minds of this demographic.

“Certainly the data seems to indicate that there is a sense that democracy can interfere with progress, that a country spends four years making progress to go through an election process and then is stalled for a further four years.

“The West’s democratic system of four- or five- year presidential terms actually gets in the way of progress. It’s a short term.

That is interesting because there is a perception in the West that Africans are short-term thinkers.

“This generation is looking into the future. They understand the impact of climate change. They understand the importance of preserving their wildlife; they understand that the continent as a whole needs to be conserved, which might not have been the way their parents looked at these issues.”

In what Ichikowitz describes as “completely predictably” very high on the list of the issues raised by the Survey was the lack of employment opportunities, and the necessity to create jobs.

But when the Survey drilled down into that, expecting people to turn around and say, ‘Well, you know, governments have failed us, they haven’t created jobs. There are not enough government jobs,’the Survey found exactly the opposite.

What became apparent is that an overwhelming percentage of respondents said, ‘we want to be entrepreneurs. We want to create our own jobs. We want to go create jobs for other people’.

A mistaken sense of entitlement

“So the sense of entitlement, the sense that we’re going to sit and wait for somebody else to do something about our reality seems to be gone,” Ichikowitz says. “You know, in the late 90s, after the end of the apartheid, the attitude was ‘Now we’re free, we’re going to be saved’.

“That attitude has disappeared. It is now ‘we’re going to go and do something about our own reality. Yes. The government should create policies that support that. Let us have access to capital to create a banking system that gives us access to capital, creates legislation that encourages the creation of capital. But we’re not relying on you to create jobs; you create the enabling environment’.

“And that, for me, was a big, big turning point” Ichikowitz explains.

When Ichikowitz is asked whether he felt that view was very South African, he points out that even though he takes great issue with those that view Africa as a homogenous entity, there are many hopes and fears and kinds of priorities that are common right across Africa, right across the language divide.

“But what did come out in many of the metrics that we looked at is that South Africa isn’t an indication of what’s going on in the rest of the continent.

“So if you look at the geography on the map that we have is very, very representative geography – we wanted a really wide distribution. We also wanted countries that in the African context are considered to be developed countries – South Africa, Nigeria, perhaps, Ethiopia, Senegal – and we wanted countries that we’re way behind in development, such as Malawi and perhaps Mali and DR Congo. And we wanted to look at a very big mix as well, not just countries that had a wealthy class or a large, wealthy class.

“There is no question that South Africa stands apart from the rest of the continent in many, many metrics. And South Africa, by the way, doesn’t really work. When it comes to issues of optimism, when it becomes comes to issues of xenophobia, for example, a huge problem in South Africa but there is no xenophobia, or very little, in the rest of the continent,

“There’s a sense in the rest of the continent that we’re all African, and we need to help each other.”

Ichikowitz is surprisingly critical of his home country, believing that South Africa, rather than being a front-runner in Africa’s development is, in reality, holding the continent back

“If anything, there are serious wounds that need to be dealt with in South Africa that simply doesn’t exist on the rest of the continent. Based on the findings of the Survey, South Africa is pulling the continent back, holding growth and development back, whereas the rest of the continent are way ahead in their thinking,” he says.

It is worth pointing out that Ichikowitz was deeply involved, as a student activist, in the anti-apartheid struggle. He was one of the lucky ones in that while studying at Witwatersrand University, he did not come to the attention of South Africa’s brutal security forces, nor was he forced into exile.

But his commitment to a free, racially-just South Africa is absolutely evident even if his business interests that include defense industries do arouse concerns among the liberal, left-wing thinkers.

Nevertheless, he says that having been brought up in the revolutionary movement in South Africa, and having experienced the transition in South Africa, the overriding issue that was used to shape everybody’s sentiment was oppression.

“Now, of course, the oppression was there,” he says, “it very clearly touched all of our lives, and it overrode any ability that we had to be optimistic, but I believe that a lot of growth and development on the continent has been held back by this constant bombardment, with the propaganda that keeps telling Africans that they are in some way deficient.

“You’re not clever enough; you don’t have a good enough education. There’s too much poverty; there’s too much corruption. You’re the hopeless continent, is the refrain.

“I bet you ten years ago, that’s how Africans felt about themselves. That’s not the case today. That’s not how this generation feels about themselves.“

“The challenges in South Africa was so much bigger than anybody anticipated they were, but everybody had to be inward-looking in South Africa. What we’ve done is tried to extend the technology and the skills and competence that South Africa has into commercial projects throughout the continent, and that’s what we’ve done for much of our lives.

“The Paramount Group is part of our family group. We invest in power, extractive industries, and we’ve invested in metal processing. We’re invested in the property; we’re invested in eco-tourism. We’re invested in a whole host of activities,” he explains.”

Paramount didn’t initially come into the picture when we saw that part of the biggest challenge that existed on the continent at this stage was in fact, peace and security and stability. We saw an opportunity to be able to support African governments

The same way as we saw an opportunity to build power plants and, and rehabilitate transmission lines the same way as we saw an opportunity to, to develop accessible mining to employ people to be their will. It just happened to be one of the categories of things that we got involved in probably the one that we’re best known for because it’s probably the most controversial.

“But beyond that, the principles were always exactly the same. And I’d like to think that is one way we’ve made a little bit of a contribution. But if nothing else, I think that if Africans themselves aren’t investing in the future of the continent, who do we ever expect is going to do so? But suppose we never have success

One of Ichikowitz’s main concerns arising from the Survey is when you drill into security issues. “There’s a huge awareness around fundamentalism. Three per cent of people surveyed – which in an African context is high – have either had experiences where people have tried to recruit them into fundamentalist movements, and another three per cent say that they know people who are in fundamentalist movements and another three per cent talk about knowing people who are supporting fundamentalist movements.

“That’s worrying. That is very worrying. So I think oppression is just changing its face. It’s just manifesting itself differently, Ichikowitz says.

“It is no surprise that it is an issue in Mali, an issue in Nigeria. But there is evidence that this sentiment is in Zambia and in Ghana. These are not countries that you would have worried about.

”This data has relevance to policymakers; it has relevance to all African governments, indeed all governments.

And we want to put this into the hands of as many people as possible. We’re also making the backup data available to whoever will use it.

“The idea here is not to keep the stuff secret. It’s to distribute it as widely as possible because if policymakers today don’t listen to this generation, they’re going to land up making policies that are not relevant.

The Africa Youth Survey 2020 can be downloaded here

Pull Quotes

“I am immensely heartened by the Afro- optimism among the youth of Africa as this survey reveals, particularly their belief in Afro-capability…” – Kgalema Motlanthe, Former President of South Africa.

“African businesses tell us they seek graduates who are ethical, who have an entrepreneurial, ‘let’s solve this problem’ mindset, who can communicate well, and who are comfortable in situations more complex than the examples in their textbooks.” Patrick Awuah, founder Ashesi University, Ghana

“My hope is to see a growing movement of youth who are passionate about ending TB and other infectious-disease epidemics. Their influence can help hold governments accountable for protecting our rights to attain the highest standard of health.” – John Paul Dongo, Country Director, Uganda, of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.

“We need to begin to introduce environmental stewardship as a core part of early education. So that children and youth grow up understanding and loving the natural world.” – Wanjira Mathai; Kenyan environmentalist.

“We have found that there is a youth in Africa that is imbued with optimism about the future – and wants to shape their own destiny. We have found a youth that refuses to shy away from the very real challenges of Africa, that is honest about what needs to be done and what their role has to be to achieve this – and they are overwhelmingly keen to make that difference.” – Ivor Ichikowitz