Zimbabwe’s problem is Zanu-PF’s intimidation and kleptocracy, not the country’s youth

Zimbabwe’s problem is Zanu-PF’s intimidation and kleptocracy, not the country’s youth
Supporters cheer during an event to launch the Zanu-PF campaign for the by-elections at Epworth High School grounds, Harare, Zimbabwe, on 12 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

There is a certain blindness in understanding the nature of Zimbabwean politics and elections if the problem is mostly attributed to an apathetic youth. A more analytical view includes other consequences for young people of State Capture, corruption and political economy.

The recent article in Daily Maverick by historian and political economist Anotida Chikumbu, Here’s why Emmerson Mnangagwa will win Zimbabwe 2023…, cannot go unchallenged. Simplistically contrasting urban and rural youth, and the apparent addiction to anything other than public consciousness, is not analysis, but opinion only.

There is a tendency to use the example of Zambia and the involvement of the youth as a panacea for Zimbabwe and the elections in 2023. This is a mistake for several reasons. 

First, Zambia, like every single other SADC country, has the military firmly under civilian control. Unlike Zimbabwe, which has been a closet securocrat state since 2008, and, following the coup in 2017, clearly a militarised state. 

Second, Zimbabwe and all its institutions are captured under this arrangement. Any reliance on the separation of powers or the independence of state institutions is mistaken. 

Third, the rampant comprador behaviour, the corruption on an industrial scale, the total absence of oversight by Parliament over government (so clearly shown in the reports of the Auditor-General), and collapse of public services have reduced virtually the entire population to penury. 

In this chaotic situation, the youth, who are nearly 70% of the population, as Chikumbu points out, are dominant in the nearly 90% unemployed.

Youth unemployment in Zimbabwe

A comment on unemployment is necessary here. The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) claims, based on the Inter-Censal Demographic Survey (ICDS) in 2017, that unemployment is only 11%, a figure based on data that says anyone earning any money at all is considered to be employed. 

The Afrobarometer, which asks people whether they consider themselves employed, comes up with a very different picture. Looking at the youth in employment, only 8% (aged 18 to 25) in 2017 said they were “full-time, not looking”, and only 18% (aged 26 to 35) said the same. In 2022, the figure for the 18-to-25 group had dropped to 4%, while that for 26-to-35-year-olds remained the same.

The point here, Chikumbu, is that no matter what Zimstat says, the youth in their vast majority see themselves as unemployed, as they would in this well-educated country. Very well-educated young people have expectations of full-time, formal jobs. Rather than this being the case, they are scrabbling around in the informal sector to earn a subsistence, and increasingly a subsistence to merely survive. 

As the Famine Early Warning Systems Network points out for the period June 2022 to January 2023:

For most households, typical livelihood strategies will likely remain constrained, and income will remain below average throughout the outlook period. Food crop sales will be non-existent in deficit-producing areas, while sales will be marginal in surplus-producing areas. Casual labor opportunities and livestock sales will be below normal due to limited demand. Cross-border trade is increasing with the recent opening of land borders, although it will likely remain below pre-pandemic levels.

You cannot talk about the youth running around playing video games, doing social media or drugs when the youth en masse have more serious issues to face.

Politics matters too

You cannot merely talk about economics when discussing Zimbabwe and the apathy of the youth: politics matters too, especially when it comes to elections. A more analytical view would look at the other fundamentals of political economy.

The first of these must be the excessively polarised nature of Zimbabwean politics. According to Afrobarometer, it is the most polarised country out of 34 African countries. A key feature of this polarisation is the fact that the government does not trust the youth and has not since 1999, when there was the emergence of a serious contender to political power, drawing substantial support from young people. And when a government does not trust its citizens, it is axiomatic that the citizens will not trust the government or the governing party. 

Research shows that political trust in the Zimbabwe government has been absent since 1999, and young people are no exception. We must not underestimate the repression faced by the youth in creating this lack of political trust in addition to the economic hardship. 

As research shows, young people, and especially those in rural areas, find it very hard to escape the violence that comes with both elections and the pressures of partisan demands. 

Young Zimbabweans find all manner of ways to avoid being dragged into violent politics. The reality for Zimbabwean youth is that patronage along party or ethnic lines is a major barrier to finding jobs, and generational differences deny young people a voice.

Chikumbu, along with many others, claim that young Zimbabweans do not participate in elections. 

A cursory examination gives the lie to this view. According to the Afrobarometer survey in 2022, there are differences between urban and rural youth in the younger age group (18 to 25) in how close they are to political parties, but the gaps close as the cohort ages — probably because so many of the younger group are in school or tertiary education, still finding their way as adults, and, as regards voting, struggling with the problem of getting registered (and getting an ID, which is no trivial task).

There is no difference, however, in the older group (26 to 35) in voting, and the polarisation is displayed very clearly.

We can clearly discount any interest in the Mwonzora-led faction of the MDC, but, according to the Afrobarometer, the Chamisa-led MDC, now the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), has overwhelming support in the urban areas, and even support in the rural areas. 

Zanu-PF, by contrast, has minimal support in the urban areas, and only a bare majority in the rural areas. This may give credence to the view that the youth vote could swing things in 2023, all things being equal. But things have not been equal in Zimbabwean elections since 2000. 

Chikumbu asserts that a massive youth turnout in 2023 is the surest way to avoid rigging, and even claims that rigging is not easy to do. This does not seem to hold water when examined against the actual record of every election since 2000, most particularly when every challenge to the result and the process of the elections disappears in the courts. 

None of the electoral petitions mounted after the 2000 parliamentary elections or the 2002 presidential election was ever resolved. Even when the opposition won the harmonised elections in 2008, the MDC-T was unable to turn the electoral victory into political office. It suffered a brutal attack during the re-run of the presidential poll, and the outcome was the party being forced to join a government of national unity. 

As for 2018, and the post-coup election, it is a kindness to say that the constitutional court challenge was cursory, and dealt with all the serious flaws in that election, outlined in great detail in ExcelGate.

None of this is to challenge the view that young people can be an important factor in the upcoming elections, far from it. The participation of every citizen will be crucial in ensuring that Zimbabwe has elections that are incontestably free and fair, but it is not clear that this will be the case in 2023. 

A decent election requires a level playing field, politics that meet the criteria of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. What this means is that political parties treat each other as opponents and not as mortal enemies to be crushed, and, in pursuance of this objective, the holder of political power does not use that power — legal and institutional — to handicap its opponents because they are “enemies”. 

These conditions are manifestly absent from Zimbabwean politics, and thus perhaps young people are wiser than their many critics. Until politics can ensure a level playing field and allow the kinds of elections seen around the SADC region, then all that the youth must face in elections is a vote in hope and not for real choice. 

In the meantime, young Zimbabweans must face the burden of daily survival, and it is unjust to pose them as the problem when they will be part of the solution when the conditions are propitious for their real choices over who will govern them. DM/MC

Tony Reeler is senior researcher at the Research and Advocacy Unit, and co-convener of the Platform for Concerned Citizens. He writes in his personal capacity.


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