When Zimbabweans took up arms to liberate the country from British colonial rule, they were not only seeking justice and freedom, but also better economic well-being. Being a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, was at the very heart of what they imagined to be the source of that economic well-being.
But today, as Zimbabwe’s economy teeters towards collapse, those hopes have since been obliterated. Unemployment in the Southern African nation has become a serious concern.
Number crunching suggests that unemployment is about 90%. Young persons have been the most conspicuous victims. With estimates indicating that 95% of those without formal jobs are youths, this demographic group has been thoroughly devastated.
Indeed, Zimbabwe is now a wasteland of opportunity for anybody below the age of 35 years.
Consider Thomas Ruvete, who asked his name not to be published in order to protect his identity. He did everything right, but still has no idea what the future holds for him.
Twenty six years of age, Tom, as he likes to be called, studied economics at the prestigious University of Cape Town, and then spent another year studying for a masters degree at Sussex University in the United Kingdom. He then completed an internship with a local British bank before his visa expired. Reluctantly, he had to return home.
“Had it not been for the visa thing, I wasn’t going to return,” he sighs.
Unemployed for two years, Tom is now looking for anything that can occupy him.
“I have just signed up with the Civil Service Commission (formerly the Public Service Commission). Even a teaching job will do.”
Frustrating as it is though, this is quite normal in Zimbabwe. In times of hardships, our expectations of what is a good job tends to diminish. Tom’s anger is also normal, and he blames the government for what he sees as poor policies and a lack of concern for youths.
“None of my friends believe that we have a future or will be able to live a normal life.”
A fear of being jobless for a long time could be detected in his voice. This fear also appears to have changed him permanently. A former Zanu PF supporter, and also a youth league member, Tom sees his future unsalvageable unless there is change of government.
“I am tired of our politicians,” he shakes his head.
Angry with lack of opportunities at home, Tom is constantly dreaming of leaving the country. The United Kingdom, Australia and United States are among his favourite destinations.
“To leave Zim is no longer a matter of choice. We have to leave because there is nothing for us here,” Tom continues with his philosophical rhetoric. I think he would make a fine politician.
“The alternative, staying behind, means developing strategies to make it through the long, empty days and clinging on to the hope that one day you will get a job.”
Numbers are hard to come by, but there is little doubt that Zimbabwe is losing some of its most talented youths; those with degrees, soft skills and ambition.
Prospects of getting a job are even bleaker for young women. Indeed, the portion of young females who have jobs has fallen from 23% in the 1990s to just 7%.
Tendai Mutare’s situation captures the plight of young women growing up in a tough economy. Currently, she is a masters degree student at Women’s University in Africa.
Having struggled for seven years to secure employment after completing her first degree, she decided to enrol for an advanced degree inorder to beat competition from thousands of unemployed first degree holders in the country.
However, she got disappointed when, on first day of class, she learnt that all her 45 classmates were in the same boat. Though attending evening classes, none have jobs and have never worked. With such odds in mind, it is little surprise that many students at universities these days look to studies not as a path to a career, but a temporary shelter from Zimbabwe’s unforgiving labour market.
“I am seriously thinking of dropping out of my studies,” she said, angry and resigned at the same time.
Convinced that the future is bleak, Tendai now deliberately misses a lot of her classes despite having spent tuition fees of US$1 600, money that she had borrowed. Instead, she now spends most of her time between her mobile phone market in Avondale, and tending to her sick mother.
In her early 30s, plans such as marriage and having children have to wait. She still claims to be a Zanu PF supporter, but one could sense a dry brittleness in the confidence as she talks about the ruling party. Like thousands others in her predicament, it appears that her support for the ruling party has started to splinter.
Tendai says she is not going anywhere.
“Leaving is like a defeat. I will wait it out,” she picks up a phone, answers a phone call and waves goodbye. She had earlier on said that she was waiting for a call from her ill mother. She had to go and pick her up from her brother in Budiriro who had taken the burden to tend to her for that week.
Though personal, Tom and Mutare’s stories broadly reflect a serious problem plaguing our nation.
Unemployment crisis! What crisis?
The high levels of unemployment that Zimbabwe is experiencing are the sort that usually devastates nations. But the government’s attitude towards national youth unemployment has been lukewarm. Indeed, there is no palpable feeling amongst our politicians that youth unemployment is a serious problem.
Of course here and there, marginal legislators such as Joseph Chinotimba (MP Buhera South) occasionally raise the issue in parliament and public forums. But these are lone voices.
More often, politicians such Chinotimba are dismissed as jokers, even by fellow comrades. Why is there such a disconnect, and also why is there a public repression to understanding youth unemployment as a crisis?
Understandably, crisis is not part of the rhetoric that politicians like to employ to describe difficult situations such as unemployment.
As the ultimate guarantor of employment, governments are usually outsized by fear of being blamed for failing a constituency that constitutes a significant proportion of the electoral market.
To date, though, the government acknowledges that youth unemployment is a problem, its discourse of managing the “problem” has been to tone down the alarm. But, in all honesty, if 95% youth unemployment is not a crisis, what then constitutes a crisis?
Describing the plight of our unemployed youths as a crisis is not done here in the spirit of disparagement of the government’s efforts or provocation, but as an attempt to bring to the attention of politicians, a very serious state of affairs that has gripped our nation.
To youths, politicians’ denial that this is a crisis is seen as a serious indication of a government that has become desensitised to the plight of its own people. They feel that politicians have abandoned them. History reminds us that once youths have concluded that they have been abandoned, they will also abandon the government.
An anonymous Harare-based political analyst, believes that the tepid reaction of the government to the current crisis is a product of youth unemployment having been so entrenched for some time such that no matter how alarming the figures that are published, they are unlikely to evoke strong political reaction.
“Who cares about youth unemployment. Politicians have heard about it since ancient times,” concludes the analyst.
Worryingly, youth unemployment is likely to worsen as the economy continues to struggle. With international financial institutions, private creditors and both governments in the West and East reluctant to extend any credit to Zimbabwe, the Zim-Asset national economic strategy struggling to make an impact on the economy and deindustrialisation accelerating, prospects of resolving the youth unemployment crisis remain remote.
What to do?
First and foremost, there is need for a significant shift in discourse; from denial to an acknowledgement that Zimbabwe indeed faces a youth unemployment crisis. To date, the denial explains why the levels of priority that the government has taken on youth unemployment remains awfully low.
As a starting point, government needs to urgently convene a youth unemployment conference; a summit that should be attended by various youth groups from all political backgrounds, trade unions, the civic community and employers both in the public and private sectors and also international organisations.
At this summit, the government should lead the discussion on how to create jobs and also convey the efforts that the state is making in tackling youth unemployment.
But, ultimately, employment is an economic growth problem. If there is no growth, there is no job creation. There are simply no jobs out there. The nation’s youth unemployment is a product of a chronic slow down in the economy that dates back to the late 1990s.
The challenge that the government faces is not just creating employment, but also quality employment that can meet the heightened expectations of thousands of graduates that the local and international polytechnic colleges and universities are producing for the local labour market.
The government will need to witness a record breaking annual growth rate of at least 17% by 2018 if it’s to meet its target of creating two million jobs, a value that many economists agree is unattainable.
This is against a projection of 3,1% annual growth rate, as predicted by the World Bank and Ministry of Finance.
But economic growth only will not solve the problem of youth unemployment. The government will need to create specific structures and implement policies that specifically target youngsters.
Concrete short-term measures will include setting up a national labour market monitoring system, make all vacancies in the public sector known publicly and increase outreach and guidance services to the few employers who still exist.
Structural problems also play a part in Zimbabwe’s youth unemployment, a result of inflexible labour regulations that make it difficult for newcomers to break into the small job market.
Since the 1980s, it has been difficult to get rid of those either in the civil service or private sector who have been employed since independence, most of whom are already over 65 years old, incompetent or unqualified for the jobs.
Silent reserve army?
History is replete with examples of how unemployment has endangered stability, and the Zimbabwe government needs to be acutely sensitive to this.
Indeed, it is not an understatement to say that with thousands of graduates entering the labour market every year, Zimbabwe is seating on an economic and social time bomb. Lack of employment is feeding mounting alienation, resentment and anger among youths across the political spectrum.
The anger has also spread to the young people’s parents, who are watching the struggles of their posterity with pity and frustration directed exclusively at the government and politicians.
“Rimwe gore vachationa zvavo,” in exasperation, says Tom’s mother, in reference to politicians and the government.
Such is the mood among many parents, even those who have voted for the current government.
The real danger is that this anger might turn into protests against the government. In occurrences rife with symbolism, in March this year the University of Zimbabwe was closed for a week following sustained protests by students against the government.
Also, that same month 900 youthful prisoners stormed the prison gates. Indeed, there is a potential that such small civil protests might snowball into a national one.
London School of Economics Emeritus professor of Ethics and Politics, John Gray, is my favourite philosopher.
Drawing from different historical events, in his book Straw Dogs, he warns what happens when humans starting viewing their lives as tragic, and when humiliation, shame and deep psychological trauma of being unemployed for so long has exhausted their patience.
His strong warning is that “civilised” behaviours evaporate almost overnight. And, in such circumstances, even the certainties of the so-called peace loving Zimbabweans cannot be guaranteed.
Let’s face it. The scale of youth unemployment is massive. Nothing short of admitting that it is a crisis followed by a revolutionary approach is needed to tackle youth unemployment. It is up to politicians; whether they want to take up the challenge and make it their own or continue to deny that we have a crisis.
Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.