The World Economic Forum has recently established a new community within the Forum called the Global Shapers Community which consists of young people between the ages of 20 and 30. The importance of this community is that it will give young people a voice on the world stage to be part of the agenda and to influence key discussions that take place in Davos and beyond.

Why is it important to give the youth a voice even when they have not experienced life in a meaningful way? The reality is that 50 percent of the world’s population is under the age of 27 and that gives the youth an incredible platform from which to have a say.

The Arab spring revolts show the impact of the youth voice at work. There are common lessons to be gleaned from observations of all revolts and revolutions brought about by young people. In South Africa the 1976 riots are a reference point for comparison.

First, the old guard always reacts to events rather than taking proactive action to tackle issues faced by their people in a positive way. The old guard prefers the status quo where they are the ones in control. In the Soweto riots, language was an issue that was brewing for a long time but the government of the day was determined to push through its policy of imposing two languages (English and Afrikaans) as medium of instruction for black people without consultation and consent. In the Arab revolts the regimes were steeped in corruption which became endemic to the point that people were losing their patience with a government which refused to listen to them. So when they had nothing to lose the youth decided to stand up for their rights.

Second, small sparks can be a catalyst that light up the revolution. In Soweto the black students felt their pleas were ignored and staged a stayaway from school which turned into a riot. A small group of students were responsible for organising the stayaway which found resonance with a greater number of other students. According to Wikipedia in Tunisia a 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi had been the sole income earner in his extended family of eight. He allegedly operated an unlicensed vegetable cart for seven years in Sidi Bouzid, 300km south of Tunis. On December 17, 2010 a policewoman confiscated his cart and produce. Bouazizi, who had such an event happen to him before, tried to pay the 10-dinar fine (a day’s wages, equivalent to R50) which was met with humiliation as the policewoman slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his deceased father. When Bouazizi went to the provincial headquarters in an attempt to complain to local municipality officials, he was ignored. Without alerting his family, at 11.30am and within an hour of the initial confrontation, Bouazizi returned to the headquarters, doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire. Public outrage quickly grew over the incident, leading to protests, which have now spread throughout the Middle East.

Third, when the revolution is gaining momentum it becomes a tsunami that cannot be easily stopped. The apartheid authorities were not able to enforce their language policy and the impact of the riots saw the international community ostracising South Africa more, and it increased the resolve of the ANC in exile to intensify its armed struggle. To appease the people, the government of the time in October 1976 proclaimed Transkei as the first independent homeland, which was met with scepticism locally and abroad. In Egypt Mubarak wanted to bring reforms to the country at the time when the Egyptians intensified their protests. This infuriated the people even more and increased their determination to see him go.

So, we need to learn as nations to give a platform to the youth to express their concerns and aspirations. The status quo always needs to be challenged – what is good needs to be kept and the bad pruned away. The young make sure our society and way of life is constantly improved and shaped.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the World Economic Forum in Cape Town he hoped the youth would not be infected by the virus of cynicism that comes with age for as long as possible. Let’s harness their fresh ideas, which will shape a global society that is vibrant with possibilities. - Vuyo Jack