How youth expectations of local leadership mirror expectations of brands

By Jenni Pennacchini

As the African National Congress (ANC) celebrates its 2019 election victory, South Africans will now be turning their collective attention to President Cyril Ramaphosa to see if he can deliver on his party’s promises. Yet we surely cannot afford to ignore one of the most startling statistics to emerge from these elections: only 61% of SA’s youth registered to vote in 2019 – which means that 6 million youngsters did not vote in the recent May elections. According to the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), these figures mark the lowest youth representation seen in an election since 1999.

Why should we be concerned?

Well, in simple terms, today’s youth are tomorrow’s political, economic and social leaders. The youth represent 36% of our population, and the country’s fate will soon be in their hands.

Disillusioned and disengaged
While statistics can only paint a portion of the full picture, our youth have clearly disengaged from the country’s complex political discourse. South Africa’s young people are apathetic when it comes to their leaders, and often express deep-seated disillusionment with local politics.

As Tshidi Madia accurately notes in a News 24 article (21 Jan 2019): “In the ANC, it has often been said that, due to its leaders only getting an opportunity to govern late in life, they should be allowed to continue because they earned it. But the party’s insistence on deploying cadres to senior government positions has stymied its ability to organically grow and promote young leaders through the ranks.”

Indeed, this is an interesting and worthwhile consideration. In many ways, it reflects a similar and deeply concerning dynamic that is emerging in today’s workplace – where the youth are struggling to integrate and make their mark.

Modern misfits?
This dynamic was reflected in the KLA/More Beyond survey whereby many of the ‘negative’ narratives pertained to challenges with leadership in organisations. Given that the Millennial outlook and worldview is fundamentally different to previous generations, these challenges should come as no surprise. Millennials are ambitious, achievement-orientated and have high expectations of employees. Importantly, they are also agitators for change and are unafraid to question authority. A common Millennial complaint is that once they enter the workforce, they are not taken seriously – and their views and ideas are dismissed. Within this context, Millennials quickly become disenchanted, and often leave.

Without doubt, the challenges that young people face in the workplace – and in broader society – cannot be viewed as separate from the widespread political apathy we are now seeing. The critical question then becomes: how can we enable the youth to take start taking on the mantle of leadership?

Today, leaders across economic, social and political spheres have to think more deeply about the youth – and how we can better understand their unique perspective. Unless their passion, ambition, energy and talent can be harnessed for positive change, we risk steady decline on all fronts.