Desperate times: Abel Kapodogo (above), a sociology graduate from the University of Zimbabwe, sells bananas on Robert Mugabe Road in Harare to survive. People queued to attend the official inauguration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa (below). Photos: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP
More than 2.3-million youths in Zimbabwe are without jobs.
The latest statistics from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) present a gloomy picture of the country’s unemployment levels, effectively contradicting the repeated claim by the government that unemployment is under control.
This is the demographic touted by some pro-democracy activists and opposition political parties as having the clout to change the country’s political and economic future through registering to vote, yet the majority have been hit by voter apathy, as Afrobarometer found in a study last month.
The 2.3-million represents about half of young people ranging from 15 to 34 years, according to Zimstat.
Like Robert Mugabe before him, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has urged young people to create employment opportunities for themselves.
The post-Mugabe administration has increasingly pointed young people to activities such as mining but youthful illegal artisanal miners have found themselves — and lost lives — in bloody turf wars.
In 2018, a Zimbabwean fact checking website found that “Zanu-PF’s claim that the economy has added 4.5-million jobs since the last election (2013) is demonstrably false, when scrutinised using government’s own data. The statistics show that about one-million jobs — broadly defined by both Zimstat and the International Labour Organisation — have been lost between 2014 and 2017.”
For youth activists, these grim figures point to a future where life opportunities don’t exist, particularly in rural areas where there is a dearth of economic opportunities.
“You will remember the government promising to introduce [various industries] in rural areas but this has not happened,” said Silas Lubimbi, a former university student who now repairs cell phones in Bulawayo. “It’s now each man for himself.”
Employment creation has remained a conundrum the ruling party has struggled to address despite numerous attempts to pour public funds to finance youth economic empowerment projects dating back to Mugabe.
But critics have for years pointed to the ruling Zanu-PF using youths for violent election campaigns with promises of seemingly never-forthcoming employment.
Analysts contend that the new Zimstat numbers point to a disconnect between the ruling party’s ambitions — or rhetoric, depending on who you talk to — and what is being obtained on the ground.
“The average young rural voter lacks both electoral literacy and political consciousness to effectively participate in electoral processes,” said Obert Masaraure, president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe.
“Young citizens are trapped in the mode of survival. They are seized with socioeconomic activities that bring immediate material rewards, voting for them, becomes a waste of time,” he said.
More than a decade ago, then minister of youth Saviour Kasukuwere launched a multimillion youth economic empowerment scheme routinely urging young people to “stop being lazy” and take up income-generating projects underwritten by the government.
But the project became a looting spree scheme allegedly by ruling Zanu-PF functionaries with the government failing to recover the money it doled out and with no youth projects favourably moving the unemployment statistics needle.
More than a decade later, redundant youth numbers have only multiplied.
The education ministry spokesperson did not respond to questions about what the government was doing to keep school-leavers productive.
Earlier in 2001, the government launched the Border Gezi National Youth Training Programme, which did not disguise its partisanship as it largely sought to economically empower Zanu-PF affiliates.
It had been designed to “economically productive youths who can defend and protect the country’s legacy”, the kind of messaging that became synonymous with ruling party hawks as the country struggled to create employment opportunities for millions.
The Border Gezi experiment met what would become regular claims by its administrators of being sabotaged by economic sanctions as thousands of youths found themselves back on the streets of unemployment as government funds became unequal to the task.
More than two decades later, the statistics point to tough times ahead. Official education ministry statistics say, on average, 300 000 young people leave secondary school annually, while an estimated 20% dropped out of classes since the onset of Covid-19 two years ago, further compounding the ballooning ranks of the unemployed who remain undocumented.
Meanwhile, the country’s universities and tertiary education colleges produce a combined 30 000 graduates annually, according to official figures.
For 17-year-old Crispen Dube, who has recently written his high school exit examinations, employment is not on his immediate radar.
“I’ve never thought about it,” he said, highlighting the problem of school attendance without any prospect of securing gainful employment or life skills.
Dube is not alone. Thou-ands of his peers also have no clue how to proceed to the next stage of their lives.
Previously, residents of this city would look south for economic relief, but in recent years the formerly glittering lights of Africa’s biggest economy have lost their allure.
“I can’t leave for other neighbouring countries. I will stay, maybe something will give,” Dube said.
Did he register to vote?
“No. And I have no intention to,” he said without breaking a beat, at a time pro-democracy activists have taken to online platforms urging young people to vote with the hope that their vote will shape their future.
Ringisai Chikohomero, a researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, said: “I think there is a poor understanding of how unemployment will translate to voting. The 2.3-million figure of unemployed youths is just under half of registered voters. The challenge is to expect young people to understand the issues of the day to convince them to vote. When you equate being young to being pro-change, that is the perception that has to change.”
His comments come as the country’s main opposition, the Citizens Coalition for Change, says it is eyeing the youth vote ahead of the 2023 election.
But, according to Chikohomero, more will need to be done if this unemployed voting block is to be corralled to the ballot, be it by civic education campaigns or political party persuasion.
“There are many issues at play and one thing that stands out is that many of these young people are in rural areas where you cannot expect them to be on Twitter, Facebook or WhatsApp when they live in places where there are data shadows that create a huge information divide,” Chikohomero said.
As Masaraure put it: “Youths have no headspace to analyse the root cause of the crisis. Political literacy is very low.”