By Anotida Chikumbu
On 23 May 2022, the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria published an article arguing that there are very slim chances that Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections will be competitive because the electoral playing field remains deeply uneven and stacked in favour of the ruling party. This view echoed an earlier Daily Maverick article by Professor Brian Raftopoulos which argued that military-style authoritarian tactics continue to play a central role in aiding Zanu-PF to gain political advantage over the opposition.
Though salient, these arguments are not new. Whenever a presidential election is coming up, this subject dominates the headlines of almost every newspaper all over the internet. Too much too often, these narratives hardly invoke cognitive explanations about the political behaviour of the electorate, especially that of young people between the ages of 18 and 35, and how that plays a critical role in determining the competitiveness or outcome of an election.
One such explanation is that young people are stubbornly aloof when it comes to elections. Many of them do not register to vote. Even if they do, they do not show up on polling day. They are the most affected by democratic processes, the ones struggling in record numbers to find work and educational opportunities, but they appear to be the least interested in participating in elections.
Their vote is decisively critical because Zimbabwe is a youthful country with approximately 70% of its 15.1 million people under the age of 35. Obviously, this explanation is not new either, but it is considered feasible and worth overstating because voter turnout is more possible to stir than fundamental electoral and security sector reforms.
As Professor Jonathan Moyo once said, ‘‘Zanu-PF will never reform itself out of power.’’ The ruling party has no intention whatsoever of creating an environment that will ensure too much transparency and accountability into the election and it will do anything and everything to prevent that.
Thus, it is key for opposition parties to invest more into political activities which they can leverage or influence more to gain political power. Rallying as many people as possible to register to vote and to show up on polling day is critical. The opening of new divides is typically fueled by the political mobilisation of previously disengaged groups, and this is what we appear to have observed with the elections in Zambia in August 2021. Political cleavages can be highly divisive when they attract too much public attention, involvement, and engagement.
However, evidence from past elections indicates that we are a million miles away from gaining this political mileage.
Zimbabwe has conducted three general elections since 2008, and approximately 5 million youths did not participate.
On 27 December 2021, Team Pachedu revealed that in 2018, 39% of Zimbabweans aged between 18 and 34 were not registered and nearly 1.9 million eligible young voters did not vote. The study also revealed that 1.53 million youths became eligible to vote after 2018.
In 2013, a report by the Research and Advocacy Unit, released on July 5 revealed that close to 2 million young Zimbabweans below the age of 30 were unregistered. In 2008, approximately 1 million eligible youths under 35 did not register.
As of late, the 26 March 2022 parliamentary and local government by-elections provided us a hint of what to possibly expect in next year’s presidential polls. A voter turnout of 35% was recorded.
There is no doubt that many young people have lost interest and confidence in elections as a mechanism for political change and find it meaningless to vote because almost all of our elections are invariably characterised by horrific violence and allegations of electoral fraud. Though salient, this view, however, downplays certain factors.
It is important to note that what restricts youth participation in elections is significantly dependent on whether they participate as candidates, voters, or activists. There is evidence that young people are highly likely to encounter violence when they participate as candidates or activists and less likely to encounter violence as mere voters.
Secondly, elections are not so easy to rig. There is evidence that rigging can be thwarted or at least reduced to the barest minimum. Rigging, either at the polling station, during the count, or during aggregation can be significantly curbed by comprehensive deployment of polling agents and non-partisan international observers.
What’s holding young people hostage?
There is, therefore, something else holding our youth hostage and this stands to benefit Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s camp more. The modern-day social fabric deep-rooted in economic materialism, individualism and the social media enterprise has a case to answer.
Ever since I started researching voting behaviour among the youth, I have always been astounded by the fact that many young people especially, the urbanites, ‘‘do not give politics a first thought, it is to them a distant, occasionally irritating fog,’’ as former British prime minister Tony Blair put it.
Registering to vote is foreign to their thinking. Their minds are addictively glued to pornography, TikToking, Instagram slay culture, drugs, sex, barbecuing, umjolo (relationships), dating sites, Facebook reels and memes. They hunger and thirst for likes, and followers more than they do for knowledge, wisdom, and skills.
They blindly follow toxic socialites, fake prophets, shoddy motivational speakers and lacklustre mbingaz (rich or wealthy persons) whose social media marketing skills hoodwink them into unsustainable spending patterns and peer pressure. They hardly read a newspaper or watch the news. Some of them do not even know what the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is.
The educated ones are the most disappointing. Despite having fancy Stem degrees, they lack sound judgment and common sense. All they dream of is getting a passport to migrate to South Africa where they are overworked and underpaid by white monopoly capitalists, if not, “dudulad” by xenophobic attacks.
Those in universities and colleges have murdered and buried the culture of innovation and research. They are obsessed with Fifa video games, googling pornography, and masturbating in their dorms. Those lucky to get jobs in the country, the middle-class ‘‘shungu’’ type, have become more politically disengaged turning their focus on individual welfare and economic survival in the deteriorating economy.
These factors do not, however, distract the rural folk (the ruling party’s trump card), the same way they do to urbanites, the (purported constituency of the opposition).
67% of the population in Zimbabwe lives in rural areas, and the ruling party has capitalised on this demographic advantage. As Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni puts it, ‘‘while the ruling party uses food and land distribution to win votes (mostly in rural areas), on the other hand, the opposition banks on popular anger and disillusionment rather than on its mobilisation prowess.’’
We, therefore, need to liberate our young people from this captivity and get them to seek ye first registering to vote and casting a ballot — all the other things shall surely be added unto them and us all. DM/MC
Anotida Chikumbu is a historian and political economist. He is a PhD candidate and assistant lecturer in the department of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.