Scores of social and political science literature indicate a worrisome global trend of a low youth participation in politics. Notably, the population group of 15 – 25-year-olds makes 20 percent of global population and 15 – 35-year-olds make more than 50 percent of the population in some regions. Independent Zimbabwe is not spared, there is a disproportionately low youth engagement in the country’s political processes. By extension Matabeleland is severely affected, the region is impacted so badly that local political interest groups have failed to make real traction owing to youth disengagement.
Zimbabwean young people are less likely to participate in politics in the country because of a systemic design that has denied them genuine space for political expression while promoting the flawed view that valid political decision-making is the preserve of the older generation that engaged in the liberation struggle and the youth’s relevance can only be via approval from that generation.
Excluding a huge section of our population would be disastrous for society. Youth participation in politics is important for development, and it is something that everyone should care about. Let us emphasise the importance of young people’s engagement in political decisions that affect them; we believe young people understand challenges facing them better and they are most likely to look at historical national problems from a different perspective and find new and better interventions. We thus, argue for the expansion of youth participation in decision-making processes in Matabeleland.
Young people of Matabeleland are the future of the region not just an appendage of our systems. However, what we witness are apathetic young people detached from local political activity and less likely to donate to political campaigns compared to senior residents. While it is true youth nonparticipation is politically damaging, we cannot solely blame the youth for adopting a nonactive position when they cannot see themselves in the politics in our systems.
Responsive political systems and institutions must define our modern landscape. It is important that attitudes start changing now and there is a revamp of the systems and the youth occupy a permanent position in the political future of Matabeleland.
A key consequence of youth absenteeism, in a political context and one that must be reversed urgently, is the undermining of political systems’ representativeness. We are under no illusion that when young people are disenfranchised or disengaged from political processes, a significant constituency in our society has little to no voice or influence in decisions that affect its life. When political systems are not responsive to the needs of certain population groups, there is real threat to national stability and long-term security.
There is societal responsibility to care enough to open political systems to be truly representative and inclusive of all population groups in society. That would mean taking down all barriers to youth engagement. We would identify the major blockade to youth engagement at present as the physical and philosophical dominance of ‘youth services/ departments’ by older people. While a consultative role is acceptable, a domineering role in a youth league by elderly people is unjustifiable and unhelpful.
Over the years, societal needs in Matabeleland have often been different from politicians’ interests which have centred on amassing and preserving political power in the hands of elderly men and those connected. We argue that young people should be adequately represented in political institutions, processes, and decision-making, including in elections. The youth must be equipped with the knowledge of their rights and have the capacity to participate in a meaningful way at all levels.
Deconstruction of current systems and reconstituting political institutions to make a real difference in the longer term needs to be prioritised; it is essential that young people are engaged at the core of formal political processes and have a say in formulating current and future politics in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, and the SADC region. Inclusive political participation is not only a fundamental political and democratic right but also is crucial to building stable and peaceful societies and developing policies that respond to the specific needs of younger generations.
We are fully aware that when there are obstacles to participating in formal, institutionalised political processes, young people can rapidly feel disempowered. Unfortunately, many of our youth have resigned to the belief that their voices are not going to be heard or taken seriously even if they are heard. Unsurprisingly, the lack of active youth participation in politics becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as politicians lose interest in responding to the aspirations of young people if they cannot win their votes. As a direct consequence, the exclusion of young people from key socioeconomic and political debates and active roles in the decision-making process is normalised to the detriment of wider society.
In conclusion, we argue that a better Matabeleland can only be realised when there is genuine social equity and that can only be achieved when systems are transformed to promote young people’s participation in formal decision-making processes. For this role to be effective, it is necessary to understand the interconnected nature of the obstacles to participation in these processes that young people encounter.