Constitutional Amendment more of Tokenism than true participation of young people

The inter-parliamentary union report of 2016 observed that young people worldwide are sidelined from formal politics, considering that only 14% of the world’s Members of Parliament (MPs) are aged under forty. In an attempt to address this anomaly, only seven states in Africa have implemented quotas for youth representation.

Zimbabwe is considering joining their ranks with the proposed constitutional amendment number 2, which was put forth in Parliament in January 2020. The amendments under  Clause 11 seeks to extends the provision for the party-list women members of the National Assembly by another two extra Parliaments (from two to four Parliaments), and makes provision for the party-list representation of youths in the National Assembly adding a further 10 youths to the National Assembly. 

What’s driving the adoption of this new youth quota? History has shown that there are three main drivers behind the adoption of youth quotas.  These include the identity groups (who are the affected people themselves), international actors, and the political elites. However, in the case of Zimbabwe, the youth quota has been initiated from the top going down by the political elites as opposed to the former first two actors that use the bottom-up approach.

Since  clause 11 that seeks to create 10 seats for the youth in parliament was proposed by the political elites in additional to the gender quotas, there is no convincing evidence to show that youth movements in Zimbabwe had mobilized for the adoption of an electoral quota.  Despite the background of youth-led protests that include #ThisFlag, Tajamuka and Citizen Manifesto, while political transformation was part of youth activists’ agendas, no precise requests for a youth quota were ever voiced. 

In the case of Zimbabwe, the founding provisions of the constitution clearly states that youth must “have opportunity to associate and to be represented and participate in political, social, economic and other spheres of life.”The call to amendment the constitution to include a clause to reserve 10 seats to youth becomes avery calculated move by the regime. Gerschewski (2013) observed that an authoritarian regime may use the youth quota for legitimisation and stabilisation since the incumbent government is suffering from trust deficit and a bad tag of rigging the 2018 presidential elections. By amending the constitution they hope to win the political support of the young people who compose a very big chunk of Zimbabwe’s population and an audience for politicians.

The youth bulge theory posits that societies with a bulging youth population are constantly at risk of social unrest because young people are a catalyst for protest and violence when a state fails to cater to their needs, as happened during the Arab Spring. To contain the youth, states may “fence the youthful population,” a term used to describe a systematic way devised by authoritarian regimes to silence or capture the youth constituency without the use of brutal force. Governments may also attempt to reintegrate youth into their national projects by proactive effortsto reach out to them. Youth quotas in Zimbabwe’s case could thus be understood as one of those efforts. 

It is important that progressive youth organisations and activists take this opportunity to reject the half-backed amendment bill and call for democratisation of the civic space, opening up of political space so that young people are safe to participate in politics, repeal of all retrogressive laws that inhibit freedom of association and expression and the creation of equal opportunities for all regardless of age.

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