PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe on Monday delivered an attention-grabbing yet controversial and problematic Heroes Day speech in which he warned that youth unemployment posed a potential threat to national security and stability.
Effectively he cast his speech within a broad political and socio-economic context with the unmistakable although tacit allusions to the Arab Spring causes and consequences.
Sadc leaders have at their meetings made more unambiguous references to the North African and Middle East situations, alluding to implications for Zimbabwe.
The Arab Spring swept through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Civil uprisings –– spearheaded by largely unemployed youths armed with social media tools –– also erupted in other countries. Syria is currently burning after catching the viral contagion.
Zimbabwe almost caught the virus when militant political and civic activist Munyaradzi Gwisai and others were arrested and convicted for plotting similar protests to topple Mugabe.
The Arab protests shared a lot of things in common, some of which can be correlated to the situation in Zimbabwe. The revolts were generally based on civil resistance in sustained campaigns involving mass demonstrations, protests, rallies and strikes. The use of social media was key in organising and coordinating communication in the face of brutal state repression and censorship.
This brings us back to Mugabe’s remarks about unemployed youths and the threat they pose to “national peace and stability” –– a coded reference to the danger the suffering youths constitute to his rule, which remains intact at the core despite having been shaken to its foundation during the past decade of political turmoil and upheaval, mainly in 2008 at the zenith of the economic meltdown, unemployment and resultant instability.
But before tackling Mugabe’s statements, it is important to recall and point out the numerous factors and catalysts of the Arab uprisings which still reverberate around the world. The variables at play included dictatorships, which were mostly precarious, fearful and thus lethal in their subsequent panicky repression, economic decline, human rights abuses, corruption, unemployment and poverty.
“Youth unemployment and under-employment present one of the biggest challenges facing the nation,” Mugabe paradoxically said, “which if not addressed is a potential threat to national peace and stability. We do not need to be reminded that economic stabilisation and sustainable growth cannot be achieved unless there is peace in the country.”
Therein lies the problem. First, Mugabe spoke worrisomely as if to exculpate himself from the issue of youth unemployment and attendant problems like they were conditions which were either inherently natural to the economy or imposed on the country by some external force beyond his control.
Mugabe was unwilling or unable to make a connection between his leadership and policy choices and the issue of massive youth unemployment. The problem is not the youths and joblessness, but economic failure caused by his disastrous policies.
Second, when Mugabe said youth pose “a potential threat to national peace and stability”, he simply meant they are a danger to his rule and survival. In other words, his remarks were not just a mere observation but also a veiled threat that any uprising by disgruntled youths would be brutally crushed.
Third and most importantly, Mugabe, in his abjuration of reality, failed to acknowledge youth unemployment and the potential revolt it may cause are part and parcel of his checkered legacy which includes economic devastation, political divisions and polarisation, and of course unemployment and poverty, mainly among the youths.
So when Mugabe warned Zimbabwe’s widespread youth unemployment could trigger political unrest as he insincerely called for an end to political violence, he was spot on, but did so without any sense of irony.
Hypocrisy and deceit were written all over his remarks which only helped to betray deep-seated insecurity about the current explosive conditions, especially regarding the youth, which, strangely though, he did not seem to realise cannot be divorced from his failed rule and legacy. The context is his leadership and policy failures. The global environment and external circumstances –– including his favourite excuse of sanctions –– are just exogenous factors.
What will Mugabe and Zanu PF be remembered for? Undeniably, when the current popular anger and misery subside, some credit will still be due to Mugabe and his party for their role in the liberation struggle and some achievements here and there after Independence, but the reality is youth unemployment and concomitant problems are hallmarks of his failed rule and legacy.
After all, his regime has used and dumped youths as political storm-troopers after promising them jobs and indigenisation incentives never delivered. So for these reasons, if no other, Mugabe’s disingenuous speech was simply a dramatic irony writ large.