The Youth Bulge Theory - assessing its implications for South Africa

The Youth Bulge Theory – assessing its implications for South Africa

The relationship between the State and youth is a delicate matter; one that is a potential threat to peace and security in the Southern Africa. Understanding the obstacles to youth participation will lead to solutions that help prevent instability, conflict and violence. 

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Tendaishe Tlou

The 21st Century marks a new era for Africa, characterised by the Arab Spring and fall of dictatorships in Libya and Egypt. Since these revolutions were spearheaded by young people, it signified a deviation from ‘African style’ politics, characterised by silent followers who do what their leaders want. With respect to Southern Africa, its increasing youth population – combined with deteriorating service delivery, escalating poverty and unemployment – makes it an ideal case study for testing the ‘Youth Bulge’ theory and its impact on peace, security and stability.

Young people have long been marginalised and exploited. This, in part, explains the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa, East Africa and the Middle East. In 2014, all eyes were on the five elections in Southern Africa (South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia). With relatively new and formidable youthful competitors, comprising revolutionary parties, such as the Economic Freedom Party (EFP) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), the May 2014 South African elections provided an opportune moment to test the relevance of the Youth Bulge Theory. The relationship between the State and youth is a delicate matter; one that is a potential threat to peace and security in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Understanding the obstacles to youth participation in politics, development and economics will help determine solutions.

The Youth Bulge Theory is a concept that identifies young men or women as a historically volatile and ever increasing population. It explores the idea that the presence of more than 20% of young people raises the potential for rebellion and unrest. The concept specifically equates a large percentages of young men with an increased possibility of violence, particularly in the global South where youths often account for 60% of the population (Hendrixson, 2003).

The patriarchal mindset is not yet entirely eradicated from society. Political leaders continue to be treated as fathers, ruling through some sort of divine ordinance. In a patrimonial society, the participation of youths – as with women, the disabled and other vulnerable groups – has been reduced to that of children or servants, expected to serve and remain subordinate (World Bank, 2006). There are few youths in leadership positions. The reason why there is a correlation between a high youth population and a higher risk of violence is because the ageing leadership is reluctant to give opportunities to younger, educated people. Any gesture of self-determination is perceived as an act of rebellion, leading in some cases to incarceration, treason or worse. A contemporary example is that of the Economic Freedom Party’s (EFP) formation and financial restraints, which were arguably imposed by the Commission of Inquiry against Julias ‘JuJu’ Malema’s alleged corruption indictments and successive investigations after he castigated the African National Congress’s (ANC) failure to economically empower youth.

The situation contributes to the invisibility of youths as public actors; a negation of their rights to participate and challenge unequal State-youth relations. In a similar vein, Fantorpe (2001) argues that these young people are neither recognised as valued citizens nor subjects, and that this process of exclusion starts long before the start of civil war. In essence, youth bulges have been argued to provide both the opportunities and motives for political violence. Collier (2000) has suggested that relatively large youth cohorts may be a factor that reduces recruitment costs through the abundant supply of rebel labour, thereby increasing the risk of armed conflict. This is due to the fact that 90% of youths believe that it is by becoming political thugs that they can successfully articulate their grievances (Joshua,2013), and it is only violence which attracts attention. According to this perspective, rebellion is feasible only when the potential gain is so high and the expected costs so low.

Under the dubious assumption that youths always make unrealistic demands, the security sector confronts youth with minimal remorse, especially when it is perceived that they are indisciplined and addicted to chronic violence. In South Africa recently, it has been reported that several youths have been killed in police shoot-outs in approximately 500 poor service delivery demonstrations which turned violent. In the words of Sachikonye (2011), in situations where the State has ceased to provide services to its citizens, its authority has to rely on the strength of the army and police. The disempowerment of youth is recipe enough for them to engage in violent demonstrations; a path which Southern Africa is recklessly treading.

Moreover, it is unanimously agreed within political circles that youth are ‘mid-partners’ who are often misled by excessive and misguided zeal that will soon whither with frustration and disappointment. This is harnessed by the same elderly politicians in power, with an overarching perception that youth have nothing to offer but everything to learn. Society is still governed through patriarchy, marginalisation and segregation.

A larger segment of South Africa’s population, just like other parts of Africa, are between the ages of twenty (20) and twenty nine (29); with an alarming number destitute or lumpen (Peters, 2011), and contemplating ousting the government. According to the New African (2014), South Africans in this age group are more likely to take part in violent anti-government protests; a cause for concern following the recent surge in violent street protests and the return of the anti-apartheid mantra ‘burn, burn, burn,’ especially in high density suburbs. In the same vein, Hoare and Gell (2011) argue that throughout the developing world youths disproportionately carry the highest burden of poverty and unemployment. For twenty years, the hope of Black South Africans has wilted, giving way to anger and frustration. In each case, new left-wing NGOs and unabashedly populist opposition parties seek to take advantage. In South Africa, poverty is experienced not only in the form of material deprivation but also as socio-political marginalisation. Those living in poverty often have little or no opportunity to influence political, economic and social processes and institutions which shape their daily lives and keeps them entangled in cyclical poverty.

This is why ‘shacks’ (illegal make-shift plastic/galvanized sheet houses) have historically harboured the backyards of the beautiful South African cities; a reality which has left many convinced that the ruling elite does not care. It is argued that South Africa is a State with both the first and third world in one. After twenty years of independence, life has changed too little for many, with economic inequality among the highest in the world. EFF has enjoyed emerging support due to the fact that most Black South Africans continue to wallow in growing poverty. Joshua (2013) argues that the youth, no matter how educated, feel that they no place in the political economy. In South Africa, unemployment is reported to be 24% (SABC 2014). Destitution is the best ingredient for youths to engage in chronic violence, such as crime, drug trafficking and arms proliferation, which inevitably leads to confrontation by and with the State.

Kaplan (1994) predicted in the same year South Africa gained freedom that poverty, exacerbated by population growth, would be one of the central concerns for state security, with economic problems assumed to generate acute conflict. This is so because a revolution is a weapon of change; with a need to understand this before it happens because it will be disastrous (Joshua, 2013). A few weeks after this prophecy by the renowned Prophet T.B Joshua, the beleaguered Julius Malema attended the SCOAN service, a gesture that signified some sort of confirmation that the Man of God referred to him and it was he that would ‘lead his fellow South Africans out of captivity to the promised land’.The EFF has a more popular manifesto appealing to youth and espousing some radical utterances about things that stir public sentiments (New African,2014), and his approach which contradicted that of the ANC which led to his and his comrade’s expulsion from office and party membership as the Youth League’s President for five years (The Zimbabwean, 2011). Apparently,the EFF is gaining leverage across South Africa because their concerns and priorities are real and tangible.

Months preceding this prophecy Malema visited to Zimbabwe, received a heroes’ welcome from ZANU-PF supporters – his close links with causing ‘turbulence’ at Luthuli House (The Zimbabwean,2011) – and met with ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’, President Mugabe. Malema subsequently launched the EFF; a gesture that left many White South Africans perplexed and in fear that ‘JuJu’ is vying for the same ‘fast track’ affirmative repossession of colonised property and other strategic economic resources for youth empowerment. Youth involvement in resource wars are cyclical (UNEP, 2012), which has seen most countries in Africa infested with terrorism, rebel movements and criminal activities. To many, Malema means business; to others he is just a lunatic. Malema was viewed by most political analysts as a threat to the ANC’s hegemony due to the massive popularity he has amassed among youth whom he identifies with. Malema represents their needs and is more or less the same age. This explains why protests and demonstrations often take place in semi-urban areas, far from the South Africa’s wealthier and more affluent urban districts.

It is alleged that before the election, the EFF was photographed using a truck to ferry tyres to a recent service delivery protest, allegedly to be burnt in a road blockade (Al Jazeera, 2014). In recent months, these violent protests have become very common; sometimes resulting in xenophobia, shop looting and infrastructural destruction. Youth cynicism is typical, with many South Africa’s disenfranchised; explaining why approximately one-quarter of protests turn violent. According to Ngwane (2014), after twenty years of failure to address specific demands, dissatisfaction is increasingly becoming generalised. Extensive media coverage of youth protests in South Africa has played a significant role in fuelling further violence, with long-neglected youth realizing that violence can draw attention to their plight. Historically, when people demonstrate, protest, burn tires and eventually shed blood, that is when they get a response from the State.

Since Malema’s party has won a considerable number of seats in parliament, the outcome is almost the same; there might be a pervasive outbreak of violence orchestrated by youths and engineered by the EFF. The assumption is that EFF has found an entry point to execute its heavily-disputed objectives, especially economic emancipation for youths, either violently or peacefully. It has been an open secret that since his visit to Zimbabwe, Malema, his colleagues and followers became very radical, to the point where he declared his intention to dethrone Zuma from the ANC leadership (The Zimbabwean, 2011).The ANC is suffering from the Frankenstein syndrome, in which it is being haunted by a monster it created. The ruling party faces a dilemma. In the eyes of the ANC, it is obvious that Malema has been radicalized. It is a reality which they have to live with, especially now that the EFF is also in Parliament. Debates therein can, for instance, have a spill-over effect to the masses since some of them are broadcasted on television and radio.

Though the past four years have been challenging for the ANC, the next term for incumbent President Zuma will be unpredictable, cumbersome and difficult. He might well end-up suffering the same fate as that of former South African President Mbeki who was ousted by a ‘vote of no confidence’. Violence will not be confined to the election per se, but the entire four years in which the ANC will be in office. The South African Police Services (SAPS) (2014) estimated that more than 500 protests have taken place between January and March 2014 in Gauteng alone. Ngwane (2014) in the same vein consolidates the meaning of these statistics by positing that over the past three to five years, South Africa has seen a steady increase in disruptive and violent protests, mostly comprising youths.

More catastrophic ones are expected in the next four years. Both the ANC and opposition parties will adopt ‘divide and rule’ propaganda in their respective strongholds. The State will be the protagonist in the creation of affiliates and labeling of hostile youth organisations as divisive, with the opposition doing the same. With an ever increasing youth population, it is becoming glaringly evident that there will sprout more youth movements. This might well culminate in a very unstable and fragile State-youth relationship given the abuse that youths encounter at the hands of the police and army. On the premise that youths are desperate for jobs and standards of living keep deteriorating, they are equally vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation, falling prey to politicians for political expediency.

In South Africa, youths might be used as a confrontational force. For Kaplan (1994), population growth – specifically in the context of youths -increases the possibility of violent conflict. This has reached an unprecedented threshold. An upsurge in Youth-State confrontation is now at new levels, possibly to an extent that raises serious regional security concerns in the fashion of the Arab Spring. South Africa is at critical turning point in its history, poised between political regression and economic degeneration. The situation could quickly disintegrate into a political-economic stalemate driven by large youth cohorts. The South African government must also envisage the possibility of a civil war because of the inferences by Malema, such as the ‘Shoot the Boer’ mantra, and the standing ovation to President Mugabe, plus the booing of President Zuma at the Mandela funeral procession in December, 2013 (The Guardian,2013). Historically, this is how violent conflicts foment. The State must explore all its challenges and opportunities at this point because the environment is both volatile and conducive for racial and ethnic cleansing.

One would not, however, be doing justice to this area by failing to examine the benefits of the youth bulge. Studies have shown that countries with high youthful age structures are not necessarily predestined to experience instability and conflict. A two million youth cohort is not much of a threat to the twenty three million strong electorate. The outcome is not always conclusive. In fact, if carefully harnessed and given the right conditions, large youth cohorts may present South Africa with a significant resource boost – the ‘demographic dividend’. According to Lederach (1997), conflict may bring out positive energy for structural reform. Recent studies suggest that countries are strategically enabled to achieve economic progress if large youth cohorts precede significantly smaller cohorts (Hendrixson, 2003), especially if the country is economically viable and educationally stable, such as South Africa. This statistical relationship cannot be used to predict the certainty of war and violence with a high probability at local and national level. Many countries with youth bulges have not incurred violent conflict, whilst protests occur where there are both large and small youth cohorts. Whilst the youth bulge points to a high possibility of violent confrontation, the fate of South Africa might be different from that of the Arab Spring; partly because South Africans have what Egypt, Tunisia and Libya did not – the vote.

Furthermore, while a correlation between a high youth population and higher risk of violence entails a causal claim, it does not prove causality and reveals little about the process at work and why certain young people engage in violence. Most educated youths know that violence is detrimental to infrastructure and economic development, hence they prefer to engage in dialogue, diplomacy and negotiations. Many youths now believe in peaceful transitions rather than violence because it is retrogressive for example in America, Nigeria, China, India and other States which extensively promote the civil society, infrastructural development, the music industry,sports,entrepreneurship,real estate, tourism, manufacturing, science and technology due to the increasingly shrinking space in the traditional industries. In the new millennium, high youth populations are now viewed as cheap and readily available labour that can be divided towards development (World Bank, 2006).Hence, if the State-youth relationship is carefully and strategically harnessed it can lead to positive than disastrous outcomes.

The causes of violence and conflict in South Africa are as diverse and complex as the problems facing Southern Africa’s poor, but the motive is always the same in the context of Africa. There is a need to formulate policies that can alter the course of their country on the premise of the youth bulge. It is not advisable that people in South Africa and SADC both disregard this situation because its effects and implications are not known to the region and the continent. Therefore the South African case must be taken seriously for the maintenance of peace, security and stability. Hence, if the State-youth relationship is carefully and strategically harnessed it can lead to positive outcomes.


  • The youth bulge in South Africa can boost civil society, infrastructural development, culture, sports, entrepreneurship, real estate, tourism, manufacturing, science and technology due to the increasingly shrinking space in the traditional industries;
  • Deep and widespread peace education through the media, civil society, NGOs and various scholars is of utmost importance in South Africa;
  • To regain its popularity, the ANC must create jobs for youth in proportion to their increase in number;
  • The ANC must be prepared to include youth in their hierarchy and high political offices;
  • The State must increase the pace of its land reform programme and other youth empowerment programmes within a youth inclusive framework;
  • The State must always be available to listen and pro-actively act upon the grievances of youth;
  • The State should formulate an early warning system to dictate and curb violence during and after elections.

Tendaishe Tlou is a freelance researcher and writer specialising in human rights, environmental security, peace and governance issues. He holds a BSc (Honours) Degree in Peace and Governance with Bindura University of Science Education and a Post-graduate Certificate in Applied Conflict Transformation. He works with various NGOs and Government Ministries in Zimbabwe and South Africa. However, these are his personal views; no authors, NGOs, Universities or any other Institution must be held accountable for the arguments in this article.


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