Zimbabwe’s problem is Zanu PF’s intimidation and kleptocracy, not the country’s youth: Tony Reeler
THERE is a certain blindness in understanding the nature of Zimbabwean politics and elections if the problem is mostly attributed to an apathetic youth. A more analytical view includes other consequences for young people of State capture, corruption and political economy.
The recent article in Daily Maverick by historian and political economist Anotida Chikumbu, Here’s why Emmerson Mnangagwa will win Zimbabwe 2023, cannot go unchallenged. Simplistically contrasting urban and rural youth, and the apparent addiction to anything other than public consciousness, is not analysis, but opinion only.
There is a tendency to use the example of Zambia and the involvement of the youth as a panacea for Zimbabwe and the elections in 2023. This is a mistake for several reasons.
  • First, Zambia, like every single other SADC country, has the military firmly under civilian control. Unlike Zimbabwe, which has been a closed securocrat State since 2008, and, following the coup in 2017, clearly a militarised State.
  •  Second, Zimbabwe and all its institutions are captured under this arrangement. Any reliance on the separation of powers or the independence of State institutions is mistaken.
  •  Third, the rampant comprador behaviour, the corruption on an industrial scale, the total absence of oversight by Parliament over government (so clearly shown in the reports of the Auditor-General), and collapse of public services have reduced virtually the entire population to penury.
In this chaotic situation, the youth, who are nearly 70% of the population, as Chikumbu points out, are dominant in the nearly 90% unemployed.
Youth unemployment in Zimbabwe
A comment on unemployment is necessary here. The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) claims, based on the Inter-Censal Demographic Survey (ICDS) in 2017, that unemployment is only 11%, a figure based on data that says anyone earning any money at all is considered to be employed.
The Afrobarometer, which asks people whether they consider themselves employed, comes up with a very different picture. Looking at the youth in employment, only 8% (aged 18 to 25) in 2017 said they were “full-time, not looking”, and only 18% (aged 26 to 35) said the same. In 2022, the figure for the 18-to-25 group had dropped to 4%, while that for 26-to-35-year-olds remained the same.
The point here, Chikumbu, is that no matter what Zimstat says, the youth in their vast majority see themselves as unemployed, as they would in this well-educated country. Very well-educated young people have expectations of full-time, formal jobs. Rather than this being the case, they are scrabbling around in the informal sector to earn a subsistence, and increasingly a subsistence to merely survive.
As the Famine Early Warning Systems Network points out for the period June 2022 to January 2023:
“For most households, typical livelihood strategies will likely remain constrained, and income will remain below average throughout the outlook period. Food crop sales will be non-existent in deficit-producing areas, while sales will be marginal in surplus-producing areas. Casual labour opportunities and livestock sales will be below normal due to limited demand. Cross-border trade is increasing with the recent opening of land borders, although it will likely remain below pre-pandemic levels.”
You cannot talk about the youth running around playing video games, doing social media or drugs when the youth en masse have more serious issues to face.
Politics matters too
You cannot merely talk about economics when discussing Zimbabwe and the apathy of the youth: politics matters too, especially when it comes to elections. A more analytical view would look at the other fundamentals of political economy.
The first of these must be the excessively polarised nature of Zimbabwean politics. According to Afrobarometer, Zimbabwe is the most polarised country out of 34 African countries. A key feature of this polarisation is the fact that the government does not trust the youth and has not since 1999, when there was the emergence of a serious contender to political power, drawing substantial support from young people. And when a government does not trust its citizens, it is axiomatic that the citizens will not trust the government or the governing party.
Research shows that political trust in the government has been absent since 1999, and young people are no exception. We must not underestimate the repression faced by the youth in creating this lack of political trust in addition to the economic hardships.
As research shows, young people, and especially those in rural areas, find it very hard to escape the violence that comes with both
elections and the pressures of partisan demands.
Young Zimbabweans find all manner of ways to avoid being dragged into violent politics. The reality for Zimbabwean youth is that patronage along party or ethnic lines is a major barrier to finding jobs, and generational differences deny young people a voice.

Tony Reeler is co-convener of the Platform for Concerned Citizens. He is also a long-standing human rights activist and researcher on rights and governance. He writes here in his personal capacity.