IN his autobiography A lifetime of Struggle, the late firebrand nationalist and veteran politician Edgar Tekere captures the role of the youths in national politics in a colourful and telling narrative.
Tekere spent his youth in prison, where he served 10 years together with President Robert Mugabe, Enos Nkala and the late veterans Ndabaningi Sithole, Maurice Nyagumbo and Morton Malianga, until his release in December 1974 together with other founding nationalists like Joshua Nkomo and his Zapu comrades.
“I had always been committed to the armed struggle, and moreover, as the leader of the youth, I was the obvious choice. For the youths are, after all, the lifeblood of the army: it is the young who do the fighting,” Tekere says in his controversial autobiography which raised Mugabe’s ire as he is portrayed as a reluctant leader and opportunist who was lily-livered during the liberation struggle.
Just like Nelson Mandela, the late John Chilembwe — an early figure in the resistance to colonialism in Malawi — Kenneth Kaunda and Mahatma Gandhi, Tekere assumed leadership positions at a relatively young age.
Even though he is part of a generation of African nationalists who liberated their countries, Mugabe effectively joined active national politics, having no traceable record before that, rather late at the age of 36 when he came back from Ghana in 1960 where he was teaching on a holiday and was hijacked by early nationalists.
From time immemorial, youths have always been in the forefront of any revolution, fighting for freedom and in most cases they have radically changed the face of their countries.
The famous Arab Spring, which saw the downfall of dictators in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, were triggered by technology-savvy youths.
In Tunisia, Mohammed Al Bouazizi, a poor 26-year-old who could not find a job after finishing college, triggered a revolution. He refused to join the “army of unemployed youth”, as it has come to be referred to as in Tunisia, and instead started a small business as a street vendor, selling vegetables to support his family.
Al Bouazizi was arrested in January 2011 and his stuff was confiscated by police. In protest, Al Bouazizi set himself on fire in a protest act of self-immolation in front of a government building.
However, whatever his intentions were, his actions changed Tunisian history.
A couple of hours after Al Bouazizi’s self–immolation, several hundred young people assembled in the same place to express their solidarity with him and protest economic hardship and youth unemployment, as well as abuse by police.
Clashes between demonstrators and the police erupted as more people joined in the rallies. Protesters set up a co-ordinating committee that began relaying information to demonstrators and eventually PresidentBen Ali’s regime was toppled.
In post-independent Zimbabwe, youths have had a chequered if not infamous role in the political and socio-economic affairs of the country beginning with the indoctrinated Zanu PF youth brigades of the 1980s who acted like sturmtruppen or storm-troopers, intimidating, attacking and even killing opponents. They inherited Zanu PF’s culture and long history of brutality — its “degrees in violence” — leaving a trail of deaths and destruction.
Analysts say even now some among the political elite still do not see the youths as future leaders, but rather as an apparatus for staying in power by using them in their political campaigns which are sometimes violent.
However, both Zanu PF and MDC-T youth organisations are slowly transforming from groupings of “thugs” with fetish for violence into somewhat mature and responsible citizens. It seems they are now want to play a more constructive role in politics and the economy.
Analysts say it’s now dawning on them that youths are a vital cog in any country’s national, social, economic and political development. The youth need to be empowered so they can play an assertive and constructive role in the regeneration of their communities. Besides, the youth of any country is the future of that nation, hence they play a major role in development work and progress.
Before the July 31 elections last year, youths across the political divide were demanding a quota system that would ensure they are represented at every level of party and government.
Chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on youth and indigenisation Justice Mayor Wadyajena recently lashed out at government ministers for leaving out youths in the appointments to boards announced by the new government.
Last month, hundreds of youths belonging to the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T commemorated the Day of the African Child with a demonstration demanding the 2,2 million jobs promised by the Zanu PF government.
The youths marched peacefully with their placards held high reminding Zanu PF of its yet-to-be-fulfilled promise to provide them with jobs.
It is this realisation that they need jobs and a bigger stake in matters of the state, mainly the economy, that has triggered a change in attitude among the youths.
In an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent on Tuesday, MDC-T Youth Assembly spokesperson Clifford Hlatshwayo said youths are the custodians of the present and future generations so they should play a role in shaping the politics of the country.
“As youths, we have a mandate to prepare for the future and we must achieve what the current leaders have failed,” Hlatshwayo said. “Draconian laws have been imposed without challenges and if our generation does not question this then we will be guilty of not fighting to liberate ourselves.”
The newly-elected Zanu PF Youth League secretary for legal affairs, Tongai Kasukuwere, said the transformation by the youths shows that they have realised they cannot be used forever.
“We are in a transitional stage and we are growing up; so as youths we cannot be used forever. This transformation is a realisation that we have a role to play in the political economy of the country,” Kasukuwere said.
“We want to play a part in the economic development because the President has been coming up with upliftment programmes which, if we are not vocal, we may miss.
“Gone are the days when party bigwigs would come and say do this for a dollar. We are a generation that has its future at heart.”
Local political analyst Godwin Phiri said the youths have awoken from their deep slumber.
“That is as it should be, it is encouraging to see young people demanding a meaningful stake in political processes having been marginalised for so long,” Phiri said.
“It is critical for youths to stand up for their views as independent groups not as extensions of factional interests, they should demand that their own issues make up the political agenda, which then drives the economic issues.”
Another analyst, Maxwell Saungweme, said both the Zanu PF and MDC-T youths have realised that they have been used for a long time for no benefit.
“What is happening now with youths in Zanu PF, playing a critical role in the succession debate and MDC-T youths demanding jobs is all but a realisation that youths have been used for too long and it has to end,” Saungweme said. “Youths have been central to the politically-motivated violence that characterised Zimbabwe’s political landscape since 2000 when the MDC entered into main stream politics. The move to demand jobs and to play a pivotal role in the succession debate is a sign that the youths have matured politically.”
In fact, Zanu PF’s youth brigades were more violent in the 1980s.
Following, the chaotic Zanu PF youth conference last month, the youths rose up and protested against interference in the running of the youth affairs by Zanu PF bigwigs. For the first time, the youths confronted the party bigwigs demanding to be left alone.
Mugabe gave them a platform to face off with the party bigwigs at a meeting at State House last month where they attacked the top party leadership for promoting factional politics, which they said was destroying the party.
The youths briefed Mugabe on what transpired during their conference and this culminated in explosive cabinet and politburo meetings where senior party officials confronted each other.
Upon his return from a week-long trip to China, Mugabe was again briefed on latest developments, leading to the volatile politburo meeting last week.
Zanu PF youths also recently demonstrated against alleged corruption and victimisation of party members who are either officials or students at Belvedere Technical Teachers College in Harare.
“The youths have now transformed from being political thugs for narrow agendas into embodiments of positive energy, morality and diligence for development,” Saungweme said.
As German author EF Schumacher said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”