Graphic: Wade Geduldt / African News Agency (ANA)
By Dr Sizo Nkala
Zimbabwe is set to hold elections in 2023. Held under a harmonised system, the Zimbabwean voters will elect their president, parliamentarians, and local councillors in three ballots. Political parties are already mobilising resources to kick-start their campaigns. The election will see the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), which has ruled the country for 42 years, trying to extend its rule further.
While there are numerous opposition parties that will challenge Zanu-PF in the ballot, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), led by the youthful Nelson Chamisa, is widely viewed as the only formidable challenger. Zimbabwe’s elections come hard on the heels of recent elections held in neighbouring countries such as Malawi, Zambia, and Lesotho, where incumbents were beaten by challengers, and in Angola, where the ruling party won by a narrow margin.
In Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who contested on a Zanu-PF ticket, was declared the winner of the presidential election, defeating the closest challenger, Nelson Chamisa, the Movement for Democratic Change candidate, by just over 300 000 votes.
As the southern African country gears up for the next election cycle to take place in a few months, the spotlight has been trained on the role of the youth in deciding the outcome of the elections. Indeed, the previous elections and the upcoming ones are seen by most as a generational contest pitting the older generation that dominates Zanu-PF against the younger generation, whose aspirations are widely perceived to be embodied by the CCC.
Nowhere is the generational contrast more clearly demarcated than in the age gap of the presidential candidates of the ruling party, Zanu-PF, and the main opposition, CCC, which is no less than 35 years. Mnangagwa will be turning 80 in 2023, while Nelson Chamisa will be turning 45.
The former represents the dwindling older generation that participated in the 1970s anti-colonial struggle and assumed power on the attainment of independence in 1980. On the other hand, Chamisa represents the younger generation born just before and after independence. By their sheer numerical strength, the youth in Zimbabwe are the potential deciders of next year’s election outcome.
The current Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema’s electoral victory over the then-incumbent Edgar Lungu has been widely attributed to the youth support he received that made up more than half of his tally, as he beat Lungu by over a million votes.
Almost 68% of Zimbabwe’s population of 15 million are 34 and younger. However, despite their demographic dominance, the youth’s participation in political processes in Zimbabwe has been low, despite the fact that young people have been the hardest-hit by Zimbabwe’s long-running economic decline, which has seen most of them fall into unemployment and poverty.
According to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, 2.4 million of the over 5.5 million people (43.5%) registered to vote in the 2018 elections were aged between 18 and 34. While this represented a 33% increase from the 2013 elections, it is still far from the desired levels. More work needs to be done to encourage young people to participate in politics.
The high level of youth apathy in the electoral processes has been attributed to various structural issues including the exclusion of the youth from politics, violence, poverty, general disinterest, and lack of trust in electoral institutions.
Campaigning for public office is a resource-intensive endeavour that can only be undertaken by those, mostly older, people who have the means to do it. The expensive nature of the campaign effectively excludes Zimbabwe’s mostly poor young people from running for office.
The domination of the older generation among those who run for office reinforces the belief among young people that politics is for the old. Furthermore, ever since 2000 the credibility of Zimbabwe’s elections has come under scrutiny, owing to violence and biased institutions.
This has left many young people feeling that their vote would be meaningless and viewing electoral participation as a huge opportunity cost. Reforms are needed to boost the credibility of the electoral process, which would increase the interest of the youth in it.
Moreover, millions of young Zimbabweans are migrating to neighbouring countries such as South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia in search of economic opportunities which they cannot find at home. Most of them settle for low-paying jobs in these countries and cannot afford to travel home to cast their votes.
Hence, it is important that the government of Zimbabwe makes provisions for the diaspora vote to enable the young people outside the country to take part in the poll.
The innovative use of social media platforms by political parties, civil society organisations and electoral institutions can help mobilise the youth vote by disseminating information about the voter registration process. As things stand, the Zimbabwean youth are likely to be missing in action again in the fast-approaching 2023 plebiscite. Urgent interventions are needed to boost youth participation in the country’s democratic processes.
Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies