Today President Mugabe capped thousands of graduates at the University of Zimbabwe, the first time he has done so after his election victory on the 31st of July this year. Tonight there will be numerous parties in and around Harare as these young people celebrate their academic triumphs and the beginning of new phases in their lives as employable professionals.
A few days ago, on Tuesday afternoon, President Mugabe ended weeks of speculation when he announced his cabinet. The new cabinet has stirred debate, particularly concerning the competence of the appointees, the relevance of some of the ministries and the recycling of faces who have been in government for decades. The usual spin doctors in the State media hailed the new cabinet for having “tried and tested comrades”. On the other hand the private media and social media were not so generous; the cabinet has been labeled a “pension scheme” for President Mugabe’s lieutenants and a project to take us “back to yesterday”.
These two events, while ostensibly unrelated, are intricately connected and of particular interest to Zimbabwe’s young people. The first, today’s graduation at the University of Zimbabwe, means more professionals have entered the job market when there is already a shortage of jobs. I am reminded of what my good friend and President of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU), Pride Mkono, said at a policy conference last year. He remarked that: “Every time there is a graduation at any of Zimbabwe’s Universities and Colleges, the national unemployment rate goes up”. This is the truth. Once the parties and celebrations die down, sobriety will set in and the recent graduates will be awakened to the harsh reality of our country: there are very few opportunities that require what they spent years studying in school. They will join other graduates from years past who are still struggling to gain meaningful employment.
In Zimbabwe education is highly valued and with graduation comes responsibilities and society’s expectations. The vast majority of parents expect that after finishing school their sons and daughters will be on their own. In fact the majority of parents are not well off and will be looking forward to getting returns from their children- younger siblings to be cared for, bills to be paid and debts to be settled. Encumbered by these expectations and responsibilities, many graduates end up doing odd jobs, like working at fast food outlets and washing cars. I know several acquaintances who have taken to selling and trading mobile phones and other electronic gadgets at the infamous Ximex mall.
Against this backdrop it is no surprise that many people were eagerly awaiting the announcement of the country’s new cabinet. There is much work to be done, industries need to be revived, infrastructure developed and visionary policies need to be crafted. There was a lot of expectation that President Mugabe would choose capable and youthful individuals.
The new cabinet was therefore not only a harbinger of things to come; it also gave hints of the government’s attitude towards young people. The hints are not good.
For starters, the ages of the ministers clearly show that the government is not willing to entrust the youth with important responsibilities. The majority of our new ministers are above sixty, several are in their seventies. In the previous cabinet- in which the MDC formations were in a coalition with ZANU PF- there were ministers in their thirties and forties, who, admittedly are still too old but at least much better than what we now have. Dr Simba Makoni, a former minister who was appointed to cabinet in his twenties over a decade ago, lamented this and pointed out that when the current leaders of ZANU PF got independence many were young including Vice President Joyce Mujuru who became minister at 25.
The age factor presents two problems, firstly in the older one gets the more lethargic they become. At such a time as this, when the country is currently in regression, we need all the energy we can muster. As Luke Tamborinyoka cheekily said in a column in yesterday’s edition of Newsday, “And then the new minister of Energy, Dzikamai Mavhaire (78), is old, tired and weary to the extent that he needs the energy himself first before he can give it to the rest of the nation.”
Secondly being too old not only means lethargy, it also means the minister will be out of touch with the majority of the population. In Zimbabwe, as in most African states, the vast majority of people are below thirty-five. It will be difficult for a seventy year old man to reconcile his own, archaic and obsolete views with the aspirations and dreams of young Zimbabweans. Surprisingly the former Minister of Youth activities, Savior Kasukuwere (41) was replaced by 54 year old Francis Nhema.
The new cabinet also only has three (3) women as ministers out of a total of twenty six (26). This sends a distressful message to young Zimbabwean women who may have been aspiring for leadership positions. Eminent Pan-Africanist, revolutionary and soldier Captain Thomas Sankara, a former leader of Burkina Faso- who was himself a young, dynamic and principled leader- once remarked that “women hold up the other half of the sky”, a half that must not be ignored if the New Africa is to rise. This message, like so many others, appears to be lost on those who call themselves Pan-Africanists.
There is hope though. The government says our industries will soon be up and running and many jobs will be created as we revamp our dilapidated infrastructure. The youths are also set to benefit from the youth empowerment fund. The program continues to face criticism as unsustainable, open to abuse and also as being distributed on political grounds. I am yet to apply for this fund, but I will- I need to see for myself before making conclusions.
We also hope the government clarifies its indigenization laws and also adequately explains to us, the youths, how we can be involved and benefit from this scheme. A more moderate and transparent indigenization program not only discourages corruption and looting but will also encourage foreign investors to invest in Zimbabwe bringing in much needed money and employment for the highly educated populace we take so much pride in.
Our new cabinet must already be up and running, we cannot afford to lose any minute; those whose advanced ages prevent strenuous work must still work hard or resign. But even if they work very hard, our policies and the fickle nature of our laws, corruption and the impunity of those in power will make progress very difficult.
If I could, I would tell all those who graduated today to cut down on the parties and costs as they are setting on a rough road, tougher than any University assignment. But perhaps they already know, and will use the partying as a reprieve from the troubles we, young people, will undoubtedly face in the coming years.
The future of Zimbabwe’s youth looks bleak.