By Prestige Dube.
The African Youth Charter outlines young citizens’ rights and responsibilities, affirming that ‘youths are partners, assets and a prerequisite for sustainable development and for the peace and prosperity of Africa’. Article 11 of the charter goes further to give every youth “the right to participate in all spheres of society”, mandating states to encourage youth activism in political representation and participation.
The African Union Assembly declared 2009-2018 the “African Youth Decade” and released an action plan to promote youth empowerment and development throughout the continent, including raising young citizens’ representation and participation in political processes.
From the dissolution of the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1990s and the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in 2011 to the ‘Y’en a Marre!’ (‘Enough is enough!’) and ‘Ma Carte d’Electeur, Mon Arme’ (‘my voting card, my weapon’) campaigns in Senegal in 2011–12 and the third term revolution in Burkina Faso in 2014, young people remain at the forefront of democratic struggles on the continent.
When young people engage, authoritarian regimes may fall and countries’ political trajectories may shift. Nevertheless, African youth have been less involved in the aftermath of such critical engagements. The million dollar question remains, WHY?
The experience today in many southern African societies is such that low levels of civil involvement and political apathy remain a dominant feature among young people. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that youth participation in political processes is declining.
Where the youths are involved in politics it’s either they are used as agents of violence, being in the forefront of torturing their parents or fellow youths or being hired for the ‘dirty works’ for the giants. Politics is a ‘dirty’ game as youths have been made to believe. These used youths are then dumped like used tissue with no one caring.
There is this widespread attitude among political elites that young people do not have sufficient political knowledge to be included in national planning and decision making processes. It is a danger to democracy that young people are not considered, directly or indirectly, as anything other than a liability to democracy.
Prior to the emergence of multiparty democracy in the Southern African region, the nationalist/democratic movements fighting for the colonial liberation from the whites relied on the mobilisation of young people as a vital source of resistance against colonial or white minority regimes.
Young people were used as the foot soldiers of the liberation forces and accorded a great degree of opportunity for participation in the periods leading to political liberalisation in the region. However, this primitive mentality has not parted ways with most liberation movements turned governments. They still view the youths as a tool to gain political relevance and prolong life in politics. Youths are regarded as ladders to climb high to the top.
The 2014-2017 developments in the ZANUPF factional fights are quiet telling that youths are not only their tools of violence against opposition but also a tool to get rid of each other in intraparty politics. Youths are only remembered when they are needed to take part in demonstrations in the race to outdo each other and dumped immediately after use with little concern on their welfare.
Unfortunately, even the opposition parties have also adopted the same principle of treating youths as political pampers. Every Zimbabwean will remember how the youths were used to demonstrate to the extent of threatening physical assault on Tendai Biti et al when they announced the expulsion of Dr Tsvangirai from the MDCT. The recent Buhera skirmishes against Dr Khupe and the subsequent Bulawayo MDCT violence are quiet telling on how the Zimbabwean mainstream politics regard the youthful generation.
Until and unless Zimbabwean political parties realise the power and intelligence in the youths outside political violence and demonstrations, youth participation will just but be a story never to be concluded. The pressure on institutions to admit and accept that youth participation in the top decision-making processes remains a critical factor in legitimising democratic governance. As for now, the opportunities and mechanisms for effective participation remain out of reach for young people, as conscious, active citizens participating in political processes.
Higher levels of education and economic deprivation, as well as lack of satisfaction with democracy, should have made Zimbabwean youths to wake up and be involved. However, this is not the case. Legitimacy of the electoral processes, both pre and post-election, tend to affect how youths are likely to participate in politics.
The Zimbabwean political process have been marred with political violence, the so-called short and long sleeved massacres associated with the pre-election time, vote rigging and involvement of the security sector in the electoral process make the political arena repelling to young people.
To the Zimbabwean youth, political participation is nothing but an invitation of troubles, torture, intimidation or even abduction by the deadly CIO and MI. The junta has successfully bridged a gap between the security sector and the youths. The brothers who are supposed to be friends, saviours and source of security have been turned into enemies of their younger brothers.
The vast majority of Zimbabwe’s population is under the age of 30. Young people are accordingly the largest interest group in society: they are stakeholders in elections with few dividends from its proceeds. Young people are restless for opportunity and eager to claim their space, but the institutions of democracy have seemingly conspired against them!
Despite Africa’s youth bulge, with over 65% youth population, the majority of the region’s presidents are over 60. This explains the current reluctance of youths to participate actively in partisan politics. The few youthful leaders who have made it to the top of political structures either divorce themselves from the concerns of their fellow youths or become master bootlickers and praise singers of political party leaders, proffering no meaningful youth representation. Because many young people are less likely to vote, their interests are less likely to be represented. It would appear that opting out of the democratic process is an indication of the cynicism that young people feel about politics and people involved in politics.
The design of democracy by the ‘elite’ is enough if young citizens only engage with the diverse processes of democracy periodically. Unless citizens, especially young people, have faith in democratic institutions and unless they engage in large numbers with the various processes of self-governance, democracy might end up being no more than an empty shell, devoid of substance and merely providing a veneer of democracy for dictators and authoritarian regimes.
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