Young people run the world, or at least, they should. 

If the rise of young activism through the likes of Vanessa Nakate, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Elizabeth Wathuti, and so many more has taught us anything, it’s that the youth are unstoppable — and they are exactly who we need to listen to (and dare we say, let lead) right now if we want to be serious about ending poverty once and for all. 

But don’t take it from us, take it from one of the most impactful women leaders in the world: Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former UN Women chief and Deputy President to South Africa has nothing but praise for the dedication of young activists today. 

“Young people, of whatever time and generation, feel invincible. That’s important for necessary change,” she told us, when we caught up to speak about the activism of young people. 

And she definitely knows a thing or two about the power of youth activism. Not only is she one of the world’s most respected leaders today, but she was also part of the young South African generation that put their lives on the line to call for equal education against the oppressive apartheid regime. 

The protests that took place on June 16, 1976 that Mlambo-Ngcuka was alive to see, were dubbed the Soweto Uprising — read more about the Soweto Uprising here — and is recognised today with a South African public holiday called Youth Day. 

That was such an important time in South Africa’s history, what did it mean to you to be living through it all? 

I think at that time, young people were the ones who felt that this situation could be changed. Who were not discouraged. And actually, we were willing to wait to pay whatever the price. I think, now that I look back, I can never do that now. 

What do you mean you could never do that now? 

Back then, we just had some sort of bravery. I don't know where we got it from. Maybe it was just being young. I remember we even had a t-shirt. On those t-shirts that we used to wear, was written: “Victory or Death.” 

I don’t think it’s something I would ever want to see my own child wear actually. But it was all about trying to make a breakthrough. So I guess maybe it was just a different time and context.

It’s been five decades since the Uprising, why do you think it still takes young people putting their lives on the line for world leaders to listen?

[Young people] will take whatever steps necessary to achieve their objectives. I would hope that at this point in time, our children do not have to die in order to bring about changes. I think that it's an indictment of older people and our decisions, that we still have this level of desperation. 

This is where you can see that it is really necessary to open up and allow young people to play the role they want to play in providing leadership and solutions in society.

Do you think there’s a place on the African continent, or in the world, where young people are getting the opportunity to take up those roles? 

It's a really mixed bag. It's very unequal. There are some countries where they are managing to have some dialogue with their young people. But it's just not enough. We don't have a groundswell in a critical mass of countries that have allowed young people to take their rightful place. So something has to change in Africa, so that we do not have so many young people who are so desperate.

You’ve started a foundation to help young South Africans reach success in life, could you tell us about it? 

Well, my foundation works on training teachers so that they can provide digital literacy in the school system for both learning and teaching. This is because the future is digital, and if we want to support the youth, this is how we do it. 

It's important that at a school level, in a comprehensive way, that all young people are prepared for the world of work that they will graduate into. If we do not provide those skills, we risk leaving these young people behind, they will graduate and they will be inadequate for the future that awaits them. 

This is the reason why I'm pushing so hard that teachers master the skills, that they use these skills to teach and to transmit them to young people. And then I need them to transmit the skills to their mothers, so that we sort of have a loop, because the issue of digital literacy is going to be something that affects all of us, irrespective of our age group.

World leaders are always happy to speak about their support for young people and young activists, but often little to no action is taken to support their causes. What steps can world leaders take to make their actions match their words when it comes to supporting young activists?

Well, their budgets must show that they are serious about supporting young people because you know, numbers don't lie. And then the representation of young people in places that matter, and in fact, those have to be policy positions. 

If we do not have these strict guidelines, budgets to drive the development of young people, policies to require us to have young people in these important positions; if we just leave it to everyone to do as they like for themselves, we are allowing individuals to support young people as a choice, and not as the requirement that society needs.

What are some things that young activists have taught you in your career that you'll never forget? 

One of my big takeaways from young people is courage. The courage to sometimes walk where no one has ever walked. And I also think young people are not afraid to do the work — it's not as if young people are waiting to be saved. They want to save and deliver on the number of things that they feel strong about. So it is important that as older people, we don't treat them as people we have to carry, they actually will carry us I think. 

What message do you have for young activists who may be struggling to get their voices heard? 

The first one is never, never give up. Young people must persist. The second one is never do it alone. It is important to organise and to have other people in your corner to fight with. 

Not only is Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka the former Deputy President to South Africa and former Head of UN Women; she is a Global Citizen Board Member and the founder of the Umlambo Foundation that works to improve digital literacy and eradicate the digital divide in South Africa. Learn more about her organisation and the work they do.

Global Citizen Asks

Demand Equity

We Asked Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: What Can Leaders Do to Actually Support Young Activists?

By Khanyi Mlaba