Youth and The Bondage of an Unquestioned Tradition

This article is based on a long  article titled Shouting to No One in a Vacuum:
Mechanisms of Exclusion, Disempowerment and the Missing Voices of the Youth in Zimbabwean Politics
. It was first published in 2010 in Political Participation in Zimbabwe, edited by David Kaulemu.

 Members of the audience at a Zimbabwe Youth Festival event in Mtoko Zimbabwe.

Members of the audience at a Zimbabwe Youth Festival event in Mtoko Zimbabwe.

The bondage of an unquestioned tradition

Participation of young people in politics remains peripheral and tokenistic. The complex regime that governs the perception of politics, power, leadership, governance and decision-making in Zimbabwe is thoroughly woven around a strong socio-cultural tradition that relates authority, power and leadership to age. It is borrowed from a deep-rooted patriarchal tradition which places fathers as figure heads of families and chiefs while kings are considered ‘natural’ rulers. This culture of fathers and rulers has found its way into modern politics: political leaders are treated as fathers who are, by some sort of divine ordinance, in control. They are fathers who, instead of leading, rule. The political participation of the youth in such an environment has automatically been reduced to that of children, subjects and servants who by 'fate' are expected to obey their fathers and serve their rulers with extreme subordination. Young women, like their mothers, are expected to occupy nothing but the kitchen and to bear children. 

Young people are expected to take orders and produce results and to be accountable to their elders, not the reverse. Any act of assertiveness and enquiry on transformative possibilities is an act of insubordination tantamount to treason. This notion is effectively implanted in the conscience of the entire society where, from primary socialisation, the balance of power and leadership has more to do with age than merit. Young people nurtured in such a culture can do nothing but adapt the status quo as the only truth; they cannot make political decisions because they are young. The culture becomes so factual and instinctive that even when menial political responsibilities are thrown at them, young people seriously believe they cannot take up positions of authority nor make significant political decisions, thus ignorantly granting authority to the elderly. 

The political context and meaning of the terms ‘youth’ and ‘participation’ 

 MDC supporters waving 'game over' red cards showing 90 minutes of full-time soccer match which by coincidence was President Mugabe's age then.

MDC supporters waving 'game over' red cards showing 90 minutes of full-time soccer match which by coincidence was President Mugabe's age then.

Young people are treated with suspicion and contempt regardless of the nobility of their sentiments and contributions to national development. The crop of young people born after the liberation struggle, who constitute more than half of the population, have been derogatorily branded as ‘born frees’ or amafikizolos (literally, ‘just arrived’). Both terms meant to reflect the youth’s lack of knowledge and experience of the liberation war. The same attitude has been adopted to justify the exclusion of youth from critical leadership and decision-making positions where young people have been accused of lacking in capacity. 

The term ‘youth’, sometimes used interchangeably with ‘youths’, has been used within a wide and elusive range of meanings in Zimbabwean society. In the domestic and social realm, ‘the youth’ implies children. In political party doctrine, ‘youths’ are the confrontational and mobilising arm that has little role in decision-making platforms. In police and security terms ‘youths’ denote a collection of rowdy touts who are moved by indiscipline and violence; a population sector which the police have to confront with little remorse. In economic and human development platforms ‘youth’ is synonymous with immature and undeveloped persons. They are the able-bodied labour-force which has to toil, toss and turn for their employers regardless of their potential to be business-owners and employers if given enough capital, infrastructural and legal support. 

 A student activist protesting, against the continued detention of a group of academics and civic society leaders of charges of treason, in front of the Harare magistrate's court in 2012

A student activist protesting, against the continued detention of a group of academics and civic society leaders of charges of treason, in front of the Harare magistrate's court in 2012

In governance, ‘the youth’ are treated as lacking experience, bookish freshers who have nothing to share but everything to learn. In social activism, ‘youths’ are the needy partners who are often driven by excessive and misguided passion that will soon die down with experience and frustration. In religious circles, particularly in churches, ‘youths’ are generally the energetic elements that sing in praise-and-worship teams, help with cleaning the church, brave the harsh weathers in crusades and outreaches, and do little, if any, preaching in the church. The youth remain treated as that segment of the population that is violent, unruly, undisciplined and underdeveloped. Equally appalling is the use and meaning of ‘participation’ in socio-economic and political development terminology and practice in Zimbabwe. It has come to be a catch-all term, and almost fashionable, so that development workers, beneficiaries, social and political leaders have used it loosely to suggest anything that suits their needs.

The political participation of youth in Zimbabwe from the days of the liberation struggle has been minimal and limited to menial tasks such as mobilisation. The critical need for participation is mistakenly minimised to idealistic considerations as human rights or the desire to undo despotic rule , rather than developed to an understanding of its inherent power as means for articulating genuine needs and satisfying them through self-reliance and mass mobilisation

 Ahoy: Scenes and Songs From Zimbabwe A montage of of various clips from Harare. The activists are fighting the system that has been in control for the past 35 years. 

Way to go

Even as it is generally agreeable that youth are the future – as in the old adage, 'youth are the leaders of tomorrow' – their role in the present is similarly important. It has a bearing on what they become in the future. As a call to sanity and the building of sustainable institutions, participation of young people should be seen beyond the mere self-serving tendencies of current politicians, it is rather a ‘social function which leads to stronger public policy and better governance. 

The participation models must move from tokenism and ad hoc nature which undermines the importance of young people, to creating platforms for policy-makers to engage young people.  This should come with the liberalisation of youth development in ways that provide space for other diverse players in the sector to make their contributions. Where there has been involvement of young people, the approaches should become more participatory, inclusive  and meaningful -with increased funding and capacity development for youth organisations. Investing in youth education should be considered a key empowerment tool, backed by an ongoing critique and analysis of the quality of education and character of the curricula. It is important for the policy to re-direct youth development by redefining youth, taking into account the heterogeneous nature of young people and gender inclusion in the concerns and priorities of the policy. 

Issues of youth participation have been relegated to secondary concern that requires no emergency attention as the country claims to be grappling with a political crisis and a collapsing economy. The political landscape remains narrow and limited in its scope. As long as Zimbabwe’s political debate remains focused on a binary discourse based on political affiliation, and with limited freedom of thought and speech, young people's voices on effective political participation unfortunately remain a loud shout in a vacuum. 

In the final analysis, the legacy that the present can leave for the future is a well- developed person capable of adapting to the reality of tomorrow. It is imperative for policymakers to start developing the youth for tomorrow rather than building tomorrow for the youth. Where youth voices shout, they must be heard and supported rather than stonewalled. That would certainly remove the current vacuum that has left many young people voiceless, apathetic, disempowered, underdeveloped and  their voices well distanced from politics.