Africa’s youths should revolt. Former South Africa president Thambo Mbeki, whose time in power and protracted legal battle with incumbent Jacob Zuma was marred by a resistance from hot-headed African National Congress (ANC) youth wing in 2009, unleashed the bombshell at a global leadership forum in Kenya two years ago.
“To ensure that [the youth] actually exercises the leadership everybody rhetorically accepts and proclaims is its due, the youth must organise and ready itself to rebel, so to speak!” said Mbeki at the time Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were reeling from youth-orchestrated uprisings which have gone into history as the Arab Spring.
Mbeki confessed it would obviously be unnatural that the older generation of African leaders would easily and willingly accept that younger people—the age of their children and grandchildren—should sit side-by-side with them as co-leaders, fully empowered to help determine the future of our people. However, he cunningly exemplified that no one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist at the peril of the young generation, those often frozen out as ‘leaders of tomorrow’.
No amount of development, peace and nation-building will be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself. In what hints at a boiling revolt, the Malawian youth seems determined to shake up the country’s political system which is characterised by what political analyst Blessings Chinsinga calls “recycled politicians and ideas” not by the bullet or blocking the streets—but by the ballot.
Encounters at Blantyre Tax Office and South Lunzu Primary School in Machinjiri Township, Blantyre, brim with members of a fresh generation eager to get their voice heard and take part in deciding the country’s looming tripartite polls in May next year. They may offer a departure from overused media portrayals of gray-haired citizens casting the votes in favour of grey-haired candidates for the sake of their frail lives and grandchildren.
On the queues that symbolise anxiety, the elderly are outnumbered by youthful faces dreaming for new approaches that can improve the livelihoods and opportunities of Malawians after nearly five wasted decades since the country attained independence in 1964.
With the registration entering second week, it is common to run into the youthful generation’s distinctiveness in a gaze. They are school-going, carrying books and backpacks. They are longing for information and entertainment at their fingertips, grazing through newspapers, magazines and social networks on their handheld phones. They value their time, wishing there was a quicker way of voter registration than being trapped on endless lines.
Above all, they are at the receiving end of things that make the country look like a failed State about 20 years after Bakili Muluzi claimed to have successfully eradicated hunger. These include high unemployment rates, early marriages which contribute loads to high school dropout rates, scramble for university places and political exclusion.
Usually bumping into the genesis of the country’s self-rule in history textbooks and founding president Kamuzu Banda’s atrocities in newspapers, the youth have a dream their parents vote has failed to exact since the restoration of multiparty politics in June 1993.
Joana Mwale is looking forward to taking part in her first election come May 20 2014. To her, voting is not just a rite of passage to adulthood that legally entitles her to marry without parental consent, but her ultimate duty as a citizen—a key player in a democratic process that came back to life two years after she was born on March 7 1996.
“We have grown up being told that the youth are future leaders, but now I am old enough to vote and decide what I want my country to be in the next five years or so. Therefore, I’m a leader today,” says Mwale, who shares a birthday with Kamuzu’s successor— Bakili Muluzi.
To her, voting, with the long lines it sometimes entails on registration and polling days, signposts change.
She asserts: “If a single vote can bring change, let mine bring quality education, better access to higher education, jobs, respect for the youth and more business opportunities. Unless we unite and use the numbers we can make or break the Malawi where politicians don’t take us for granted.”
Her dream sums up the mood among young voters in the country where the population of the youth is on the bulge. According to 2008 Census, about 54 percent of Malawi’s population was under 18. Their maturation is projected to hit a head by 2030, when they will further worsen the scramble for jobs in a country that can neither create enough openings nor broaden its middle-income segment due to rapid population growth. But some are already geared to vote next year.
In his 22 years of existence, Masauko Nangwale has seen what being taken for granted means. Boys and girls singing praise of politicians with nothing new to offer just to make money and some handouts at a time about 300 000 people who leave secondary and tertiary education every year have no job; joining party wings to boost business opportunities at a time the multibillion Youth Empowerment and Development Fund is marred by political favouritism and mismanagement; being killed like Polytechnic student Robert Chasowa who was found dead at the University of Malawi College in 2011 after months of anti-government political activism; or suffering in silence as false promises pile.
“While the youth dance and fight for the elusive opportunities politicians promise, you would think that politics is all about being grey-haired. But this is our time,” Nangwale states. “Can the youth influence the change we want? Yes we can!”
The catchphrase “yes we can!” went viral following the ground-shattering electoral campaign which catapulted 47-year-old Barack Obama to US presidency in 2008.
In the country, this has become a rallying call for the youth with politician as old as Muluzi, 70, telling the crowd at Masintha Ground, Lilongwe, during his botched comeback push in 2009 that he is Obama. Political cheerleaders say as much about his son Atupele, 35, who is vying for presidency on United Democratic Front (UDF) ticket and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Peter Mutharika, 73.
However, the tragedy with young and recycled Obamas is their naming assumes that the electorate vote for names. The youth say they want minds with a proven ability to bring a new face to the way elected office-holders run State business.
New blood was the buzzword when President Joyce Banda made Minister of Information and Civic Education Moses Kunkuyu appointed her first appointee after Bingu wa Mutharika’s death in April last year. Kunkuyu has been termed the youngest minister at present by the President.
Atupele, whose age has been questioned by Minister of Security and Internal Affairs Uladi Mussa, who once said the country is not ready for youthful leaders, dubs the calls for the new way of handling the state of affairs an “agenda for change”.
Maybe it does. During the groundbreaking ceremony for Nancholi Urban Health Centre in Blantyre last week, PP defied the prescriptive timetable for the presidential occasion to pave the way for one of its youthful ministers, to address the bulging youthful crowd.
Unsurprisingly, Minister of Industry and Trade Sostein Gwenge rose to “remind fellow young Malawians” how DPP’s Mutharika failed and mishandled strikes for academic freedom which led to lengthy closure of the University of Malawi when he was Minister of Education three years ago and why the better future Joyce Banda envisions is better than somebody’s “agenda for this or that”.
“As the youth, let us go to vote and vote wisely because Malawi belongs to us. If we don’t vote wisely and in large numbers, we will go back to the tough old times,” said Gwengwe.
But his party, which has no manifestos since its formation in 2011, lacks clear policies stipulating how it intends to tackle tragedies and inequalities that militate against the youth. It keeps them dancing as they have always done. Muluzi relegated them to ‘young democrats’ beating up and silencing his critics. Mutharika though they were ‘youth morale’ only good at muting opposition voices and unleashing terror as a machete-brandishing truckload did on the eve of nationwide anti-government demonstrations on July 19 2011.
As if that is not enough, the ruling party’s youth game was recently devastated by much-publicised falsities in how government promised, interviewed and offered hundreds of them agricultural jobs in Korea and Qatar which never were. About 15 000 applied, said Labour Minister Eunice Makangala. Apart from subjecting the jobless applicants to unmet legitimate expectation, the botched labour export lie exposed government’s helplessness given the gravity of unemployment rates among the youth.
Only time will tell whether youth participation in next year’s polls will improve their situation and opportunities, but, like Mbeki said, the youth is organising itself to play this life-defining role in the struggle for the realisation of its goals.