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Action Civics Education as a Tool to Break Youth Politically Motivated Violence in Zimbabwe

Can Action Civics education break the cycles of youth-on-youth politically motivated violence in Zimbabwe?

Blog Article by Admire Mutize- Programs Manager at Chitungwiza Community Development Network (CCDN) - a GNYA partner.

1.0 Introduction- The Zimbabwean political context.

The southern African nation of Zimbabwe is currently facing its most serious political and socio-economic crises since the War of Liberation in the 1970s which ended British colonial rule and ushered Independence in 1980. The country is facing a violent economic meltdown- marked by foreign currency and fuel shortages, a President whose legitimacy is contested and deteriorating social service delivery. The crisis has intensified over the past months, forcing Government to hike fuel prices in January 2019 by an unprecedented 150%!

The country’s labor body- the Zimbabwe’s congress of trade unions- ZCTU responded by calling for a three day nationwide stay-away-from-work beginning on Monday 15 January 2018, to protest against the unprecedented hike in fuel prices, increasing poverty and deteriorating social economic conditions in the country. The three-day stay-away ignited widespread and popular protests in all the major towns and cities of Zimbabwe.

Ironically, unemployed Zimbabwean youths played a starring role in the labour backed protests, which inevitably turned violent, with episodes of looting of retail outlets, burning of government and police buildings and rioting. The military baked government deployed armed police and soldiers onto the streets of the opposition’s urban strongholds. The security agencies used excessive force to quell the protests and perpetrated egregious human rights violations on the unarmed civilians. The ED Mnangagwa led regime’s brutal crackdown on opposition party activists and leaders plus human rights defenders has essentially ‘rolled back the clock to Zimbabwe’s dark past of state sponsored human rights violations’ under the dictatorship of former President Robert Mugabe’.

It is instructive to note that the January 2019 call to stay-away by the labour unions was endorsed and amplified through social media by a number of civic and political organizations across the political spectrum of Zimbabwe. This essentially turned it into a national political process as it provided aggrieved and politically-marginalized sections of Zimbabwean society who hitherto lacked such platforms, an avenue for political participation at a critical juncture in the country’s political development.

While the labor unions called for workers to stay away from work, the civic organizations and social movements backing the protests did not define and articulate a clear role for their constituents- the unemployed youth who make up the biggest and most active demographic group in Zimbabwe. Without leadership and coordination, long-suffering Zimbabwean youths vented their frustrations by resorting to violence- barricading roads with burning tires, looting shops and businesses and engaging security forces in running street battles. More than eighty people were shot with live ammunition, twelve dying from gunshot wounds and another five from extra-judicial killings by police and army.

2.0 Zimbabwe’s Political culture and the nexus between politically motivated violence and the political marginalization of youth/women.

The genesis of the current political crisis lies in the disputed Presidential election of July 2018 in which President ED Mnangagwa of the long ruling ZANU PF party won with a razor-thin 0.6 percent against youthful Nelson Chamisa of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Inordinate delays in the announcement of Presidential election results plus gross electoral irregularities uncovered and shared on social media platforms inflamed political tensions in the post-election period. On August 1 2018, opposition supporters protested delays in the announcement of electoral results and violence broke out in the central business district of Harare. The military intervened dramatically, in the full glare of world media cameras, diplomats and election observers using shot dead 7 people live ammunition.

The August 1 2018 shootings and January 2019 crackdown exposed the New dispensation in Zimbabwe as an authoritarian Military regime with democratic pretentiousness. The two incidents also revealed an escalating trend of popular, youth-led protests degenerating into rioting followed by retributive, military-led and brutal crackdown on dissenting voices. These cycles of youth involvement in violence associated with political processes in Zimbabwe followed by disproportionately brutal state sanctioned and organized gross human rights abuses endure from the despotic reign of Zimbabwe’s founding President Mugabe- who was ousted in a in November 2017 coup.

While many celebrated the fall of Dictator Robert Mugabe as they dared to dream of a liberal and prosperous Zimbabwe, the military-led transition actually marked Zimbabwe’s descent from a Police state under Mugabe to a more brutal military-junta dictatorship under President ED Mnangagwa. The current authoritarian military- backed regime has perpetuated Mugabe’s dictatorial policies of abusing the state’s coercive apparatus to clampdown on political dissent despite its democratic façade.

Violence associated with political processes and politically motivated violence by the state is the bane of Zimbabwe’s politics and remains the main stumbling block to democratization and inclusive participation in governance process by women and youth. It is also instructive to note that youth and women in Zimbabwe are the dominant demographic groups constituting 66% and 52% of the total population. Not surprisingly, women and youth are the demographic groups most involved in politically motivated violence, both as perpetrators and victims in Zimbabwe and to some extent Africa as a whole.

The youth wings of major political parties in Zimbabwe double up as the party’s militia or security team which exposes them to violence. Youths are used to canvas for support using coercive methods for political parties to gain momentum. During electoral campaigns, party youth double up as bodyguards for the party candidates and VIPs. They are also used as instruments of violence to deny political opponents’ access to the electorate. The abuse of youth to perpetrate violence in political processes is expedited by their economic vulnerability with rich candidates using financial incentives. Yet the same Women and youth in Zimbabwe (Africa) are also underrepresented and marginalized in leadership and decision-making roles despite their huge numbers and prominent role in political processes such protests, election queues and political rallies.

For example, a gendered analysis of Members of Parliament of Zimbabwe elected in July 2018 shows that only 12% are women. An all-male Presidency heads the executive arm of government with only three women Ministers. In daily Zimbabwean life, is graphically depicted at any typical church meeting or community meeting in Zimbabwe where women/youth form the bulk of congregants/supporters in attendance but are ‘always’ underrepresented with old men at the pulpit/podium and high table where the ‘VIPs’ and decision makers are seated. 62 percent of Zimbabweans are aged 25 years and below while in the July 2018 elections 45 percent of registered voters were youths. In the current executive, only 10% of government posts are allocated to youth.

It is crystal clear that youth are being systematically marginalized from governance processes by the geriatric elites. A constitutional provision in the Constitution of Zimbabwe 2013 prescribes the minimum age for one to contest the presidency as 40 years, automatically disqualifying youth from the highest office. The provision also carries a politically loaded significance in that it associates advanced age with wisdom, leadership and political maturity while at the same time denigrating youth, associating it with immaturity. While it is true that African tradition associates age with wisdom, historically youths in Africa had assumed political leadership roles- formed and led Great African empires the prime example being Tshaka the Zulu who welded a disparate group of Nguni fiefdoms into the Great Zulu Kingdom which withstood the ravages of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa and endures to this day.

Persistent claims of vote rigging gave youth the notion that elections are rigged and electoral results predetermined and their vote does not count in the bigger scheme of things which negates their participation in electoral processes. This narrative that says elections are manipulated is peddled and reinforced by the older generation as a way of discouraging youth political participation. The powerful elites, Party veterans and elders control use their control of party political party structures and administration to sideline youths and women in internal party primary elections.

In summation, Zimbabwean youths resort to violent conduct during political processes because they are systematically sidelined and frustrated in formal political processes by the older generation! One can safely conclude that Zimbabwean crisis is a generational fight for political power and control of the nation’s destiny with President Mnangagwa personifying the old generation and his political nemesis, Nelson Chamisa being the face of the youth.

3.0 Can Action civics empower Zimbabwe youths with non-violent strategies of political participation that enable them to peacefully stake their claim in the political and civic arenas?

The challenge facing the young generation in Zimbabwe is how to progressive stake and grow their claim in the political arena peacefully while avoid confrontation with a genocidal regime. Put differently Youths in Zimbabwe need to define their political agenda and design systems that enable them to effectively mobilize, win elections and control governance systems and processes to their advantage. After all, the essence of democracy is majority rule and youth and women are the majority in Zimbabwe.

In the recent past, youth had resorted to adversarial approaches in political conflicts with a government controlled by the old generation and they is need to transform this approach and deal with this generational conflict constructively. Can youth and women in Zimbabwe be educated to move away from violent conduct in political or civic process? The central question underpinning this proposition is whether civic education can change political behaviour? Put differently, Can sharing new civic knowledge, competences and skills on non-violent forms of political participation and peace-building transform the political behaviour of Zimbabwean youths away from the propensity to engage in violent conduct during political processes?

Zimbabwe is facing the deleterious effects of a demographic youth bulge whose effects are exacerbated by economic mismanagement and elite corruption leading to high youth unemployment, crime and drug abuse. Empowering the youth politically. Socially and economically is not only a priority but a panacea for Zimbabwe’s multi-faceted crisis. According to Piazza (2011), youth present the biggest threat to peace consolidation but also a major opportunity for development with their high energy levels, innovative mind-set and natural optimism making them society’s driving force.

Action Civics is guided experiential civic education which simultaneously motivates students to become civically engaged in the future by contributing to their sense of empowerment and agency, connecting them to adults and peers who model civically engaged behavior, and enabling them to use their knowledge and skills to achieve concrete results (Levinson, 2009). Through this civic engagement exercise participants, gain civic and political skills such as public speaking, critical thinking, persuasive communication and group collaboration which will help them to explore the many rights and responsibilities of active citizenship.

The goal is to empower youths with civic and political skills and competencies that will enable them to be active and effective citizens through experiential learning. Action civics promotes critical thinking skills versus traditional civic education approaches that concentrate on appropriating specific content such as knowledge about civic processes/issues. The overall goal of the project is to educate young people to become powerful civic and political actors – to think and act as citizens who co-create their worlds – and to deepen democratic education and democratic societies.

This novel approach to civic education fits succinctly the capacities needed by Zimbabwean youth. It empowers youth with Civic knowledge, civic dispositions and civic skills while allowing civic organizations and individuals to invest in youth political leadership and empowerment. This will also capacitate a new cohort of youth leaders able to competitively contest and win local, parliamentary and presidential elections which are due in Zimbabwe in 2023.

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