Youth and the Social Imagination in Africa: Introduction to Parts 1 and 2

Article excerpt

Youth are an increasingly compelling subject for study in Africa, entering into political space in highly complex ways. To pay attention to youth is to pay close attention to the topology of the social landscape-to power and agency; public, national, and domestic spaces and identities, and their articulation and disjunctures; memory, history, and sense of change; globalization and governance; gender and class. In this introduction to the articles in Part I (this issue) and Part 2 (October issue), I draw attention to how youth is constructed as a problematic category and how it acts as a "social shifter" engaging the social imagination, to how youth contributes to generational debates and constructions, and to how consideration of youth challenges our thinking about agency. [youth, Africa, generations, agency]

Recently, Jean and John Comaroff wrote about South Africa that "the dominant line of cleavage here has become generation" (1999: 284) and that youth in particular are the focus of rapid shifts in postcolonial and global economy and society. In the "occult economies" of the region the potency and potential of youth are extracted to sustain the power of those in authority while young people themselves feel increasingly unable to attain the promises of the new economy and society. Across the continent, in Niger in May 2000, a similar sense of a crisis of promise and frustration prompted secondary-school students to riot, burning tires and barricading streets, protesting a shortened school year and the prospect of failing exams.' This was only the latest in a series of youth demonstrations and riots that date back to the pro-democracy struggles in Francophone Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s and widely reported in issues of Jeune Afrique Economie. The June 2000 issue of Scientific American features a story "Children of the Gun" (Boothby and Knudson 2000). Its lead picture depicts young boys in Congo/ Zaire, dressed in khakis and crowned with circlets of leaves from the bush, signs of uncontained power and the undomesticated wild, automatic weapons hanging from their backs-images seen all too often in media representations from across Africa of late. Caught up in these reports are cross-cutting images of youth as victims of circumstance and the manipulations of older people in power, and also images of youth as unruly, destructive, and dangerous forces needing containment. Traversing these notions, youth enter political space as saboteurs; their potential for political sabotage2 comes from their incomplete subjugation to contexts and co-opters, and to their own power for action, response, and subversion in contexts of political definition.

To argue, as the Comaroffs do, that youth are the focus of a generational cleavage, to examine their potential for social and political sabotage, and to understand them neither as autonomous liberal actors nor as overdetermined victims, we need to examine very carefully three sets of questions. One is the persistent puzzle in anthropology, and indeed in many of the societies these articles examine: what, or who, is youth? For beyond the important observation that different societies do define and demarcate youth differently, even within a society people of a wide range of ages are often treated as youth, and people of a wide range of ages claim the space of youth, at specific times and in specific places. As we ask these questions, we also need to examine very closely the related notion of generations, used by the Comaroffs and others to speak to rapid shifts in experience that create age-conscious cohorts. In sociological understandings the concept of generations links the more static structural idea of agegrades with history and processes that go beyond mechanical life-courses and social reproduction. The concept of generations also speaks to the disciplinary, hegemonic, and counter-hegemonic processes through which social categories (like "youth") are presented as homogeneous (see Mannheim 1952; Wohl 1979), absorbing and erasing all sorts of differences. …