Today’s youth in Zambia face a difficult and uncertain future — mounting debt, growing joblessness and rising costs of living. Despite the government’s best efforts to convince them otherwise, they are wise to the fact that they can and should expect more from those in power. The election taking place on August 12 represents an opportunity for the youth to recapture their potential and put an end to their economic marginalisation.
Zambia’s economic crisis is apparent. The government’s default on a $42.5-million Eurobond repayment in November last year made international headlines. The ruling Patriotic Front (PF) has saddled the next generation with crippling levels of debt. Zambia benefited from the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative for debt relief in 2005, but the government started borrowing irresponsibly again in 2012, shortly after the PF assumed power.
By 2017 our country was classified by the International Monetary Fund as being at high risk of debt distress, long before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. Today, external debt stands at more than $12-billion, with concerns that the real figure could be higher because of government secrecy about other loans.
As a former teacher it saddens me to see such a large amount of the national budget spent on debt servicing. It is Zambia’s biggest budget expenditure, accounting for almost 39% of the 2021 budget. Meanwhile, the budget allocation for education continues to be axed.
If more of these loans had been invested in educating our youth — and our future leaders — better enabling them to generate future income, this might not be such a grave problem. But too much has been wasted. Recent scandals suggest that as debt has risen in recent years, so too has government corruption. According to Transparency International, corruption is now endemic and getting worse, with Zambia dropping five points in the organisation’s Corruption Perceptions Index since 2013. While young Zambians struggle to get a decent education and find work, scandals continue to mount.
The government has failed to invest in our young people, hindering them today and kneecapping future generations. Youth unemployment, for example, stands at 60% of the total employable population and has created fertile ground for crime and violence, a phenomenon that Zambia has largely avoided in the past. Now, we see this every day on our streets in the clashes between political party cadres. We have youth who are easily led down this violent path because they do not see a viable alternative. They do this out of desperation, not because this is the future they want for themselves or their country.
As a teacher, I know from first-hand experience the transformative potential of a good education — an education that can propel any village boy or girl to reach great heights. The United Party for National Development (UPND) Alliance presidential candidate, Hakainde Hichilema (HH), is living proof of this fact, along with many of his generation. The ruling PF clearly do not see or understand the inherent, transformational value of this sort of investment. It is irresponsible – yet, sadly, it is also part of a broader pattern of misconduct in which the ruling party has failed our country.
For those who have completed their education, many find themselves out of work. Even graduates are struggling to secure jobs. The few openings available seem to depend more on political connections and allegiances than on being awarded based on merit.
The government tells our youth it is doing what it can for them, but in a digital age it has become harder for the regime to hide its failings. In the face of growing disillusionment, the PF has resorted to clampdowns on freedoms and authoritarian legislation such as the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Bill, enacted earlier this year, that enables the government to monitor and prosecute private conversations. Our youth have, in turn, had to resort to protesting in the bush and on social media to try to evade arrest. Many have been arrested and detained simply for airing their valid grievances in a peaceful, lawful manner. Amnesty International’s latest report on Zambia released in June highlighted the severity of the situation, noting the ways in which legislation, intimidation and harassment have been used by the authorities to repress basic freedoms of assembly and expression.
Zambia’s youth should be recognised as one of our greatest national assets. Our government must invest in education and skills development as a priority, create employment opportunities and restructure the debt so that it becomes sustainable. All of these important issues are inherently linked. It is not only unfair that today our youth are not able to access these opportunities. It is also extremely short-sighted. Investing in the next generation is one of the best investments we can make as a nation. As HH is fond of reminding us: “If you think education is expensive, you should try ignorance.”
Our youth may be too young to remember the struggle for independence, or the return to multi-party democracy in 1991. Some are even too young to remember how Zambians united in 2001 to reject President Frederick Chiluba’s bid for a third term in office. 2021 is now their moment to shine and defy the odds. This a chance to unite and alter the course of Zambia. We would all be better off for it.