May 25, 2020


Positions of power have the potential to make or break those who hold them. It is often disheartening to see young people, whose aspiration of a better tomorrow is placed upon, assume positions of different rankings only to feed their own self-interests. Complacency, self-fulfilment and ego, are not exclusive to the youth but have been the downfall of older activists as well who’ve allowed themselves to be consumed by arrogance and a desire to be bowed down to by the very people they should have been of service to. 

Accountability and ethical leadership seem not to be popular.

A treasured friend, colleague and Oxford-trained gender expert, Marion Osieyo in her silky accent called me about a year and a half ago and said, “Shaki you don’t know how you inspire others, I of all people know that your journey has not been easy at all, you come from an ordinary background, I am so proud of you”. You have no idea, Marion how powerful these words have been, my glimmer of hope as I navigate my way through things. But that’s the other point. Unless you’re politically connected or born into a life of privilege not many of us rarely find our way into these spaces and circles.

These past few years as a young person (totally aged out now, at age 30), I have had the pleasure of meeting passionate young people far and wide, globally and here at home in Africa. There is nothing quite like an African welcome as one lands in a country either here or abroad, whether it was in Accra, Dar Es Salaam, Gabarone, Congo Brazzaville, Tunis, Maputo, Toronto, Geneva And Washington DC. Through the hopeful eyes of fellow African youth, I have witnessed the type of energy that is too great to overcome through chats over some local food, watching African sunsets, rivers and waterfalls too picturesque to deem us the proverbial dark continent. 

I am right now because of each and every one of you.

Against this backdrop of a rooted African continent lies ongoing discussions such as ‘why are things on this continent not working’, ‘how can we get things to function’, ‘what on earth is wrong in Africa’, ‘it’s a lost cause’, ‘it’s in the brink of collapse, don’t bother’, or ‘there is nothing we can do about it!’

There are times I personally feel energized and invigorated but there are times, many times actually and more recently when I also reach the “don’t bother” phase, but then I remind myself that Africa will not change until we change it. Unless we push for accountability and transparently, so-called leaders will happily continue on their trajectory and absolutely nothing will change for the majority of this continent. Even if we do so in small unknown ways that will never make history, every small action I believe will count one day.

Having spearheaded so many exciting youth leadership programmes, one of my favourites being the SRHR Africa Trust to develop and lead a programme called,  “Creating a YouthQuake in sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR)” to unleash the potential of young activists across the continent.

My diagnosis of the situation still stands, and as I advised young people at the time, “Don’t get into spaces and be quiet, don’t get into spaces and conform, don’t become the old who we despise”.

I want to end off with some food for thought (or at least with those of us on the continent who have this privilege of food and the technology to read this) and offer a bit of reflection on what being an activist actually means. I recently went through one of my most testing battles to see if I would enjoy a fancy position or if I would speak out if I would take my own advice and if I would really live up to my values and face the consequence. It was supposed to be easy for me, but honestly, it wasn’t that clear cut. As I stood up, against the tide, I did so with a small team, no one stands by you when you speak truth to power. Until one of my mentors asked me, “what are you afraid of?” 

Speaking and thinking critically when you are expected to be a puppet and grateful for your position means you are immediately excluded unless there is an agenda for your inclusion. By taking a stand, I have experienced cyberbullying even from my own colleagues, discrimination and threats. Reading up on South Africa’s liberation history, I am reminded how such retaliation and fight back is nothing new when one stands up for the truth. That is just the surface of what it means to stand up.

When you do stand up in the spaces you’re in and I hope many people do, be prepared for the dirtiest politics to be at play because you are threatening people’s positions and popularity, ethical and moral leaders are few. When standing up wherever we are, we are also threatening the way institutions have been running, unchallenged, comfortable and here you are demanding change, don’t think it will be taken lightly. It also seems impossible at the time; the immediate impact is not seen but perhaps the small actions of transparency and accountability internally and externally won’t go down in history but it will set the tone for the next rare activist who comes along. Upon reflection, there is not a thing I would change and I have a clear conscious having lived up to the principles I have preached.

Others will, unfortunately, follow the crowd, fit in, ask no questions and accept the status quo, serving no one but themselves and that’s why things have not changed, but this is also precisely what we have to change.

Africa needs activists, not leaders.

* Dr Shakira Choonara is an award-winning public health practitioner and currently appointed to the African Union (AU) Youth Council. She writes in her personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necesarily those of IOL.

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