Last week Thursday, I was privileged to join Zimbabwean youth leaders at a dialogue session co-sponsored by the United States Embassy at a Harare club.
For someone who is over 40-years old, my participation in this event was not on accord of being a 'youth' but on the basis of my on-going professional and academic interest in youth development programmes.
In my working life, I have had the opportunity to work with university students on diverse issues ranging from HIV and Aids awareness, gender mainstreaming, leadership and character-building, entrepreneurship and conflict management. At a national level, I have had the privilege and honour to work with the Ministry of Youth Development, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment in the capacity-building of the Zimbabwe Youth Council while my academic research interests lie in exploring and creating opportunities for Zimbabwean youths on the basis of entrepreneurship.
It was on this basis that I created time to listen to what youth leaders had to say on the dialogue topic: "Does the youth have a role in rebuilding Zimbabwe?" Albeit youth leaders of the three political parties in the inclusive government had been slated to give their own views on the topic, only representatives of the two MDC formations, one led by Morgan Tsvangirai and the other by Welshman Ncube turned up with Absolom Sikhosana, the ZANU-PF youth secretary making a no-show. MDC-T was represented by the youth chairperson, Solomon Madzore while Ncube's MDC was represented by youth secretary-general, Decent Bajila. To complete the panel were representatives of two youth groups, the Student Solidarity Trust and the Zimbabwe Young Women's Network and Peace Building. It was curious that the Arthur Mutambara MDC faction was not represented on the panel.
Madzore, set the tone by lamenting the paucity of opportunities for youths despite their historical role as the vanguard of any revolution: "We fought for jobs, freedoms and good lives. Of the aforementioned, we have none." This absence of opportunities has condemned youths to being a fragile group which is open to the machinations of powerful forces within society and this has given credence to the belief that youths are 'often used as cannon fodder' or sacrificial lambs by politicians.
While there is converging consensus that the typical youth in the developing world, including Zimbabwe is blighted by disease, poverty, unemployment and conflict there remains a gap in terms of youth development programming on what needs to be done to uplift this disturbing condition of the youth. The recent World Economic Forum on Africa held in Cape Town was unanimous on the need for urgent remedial action to redress rampant youth unemployment across much of the African continent.
The approach recommended by the Intern-ational Labour Organization to stem youth unemployment focuses on a tripartite approach involving government, labour and business although a panelist at the youth dialogue believes that effective responses to youth problems have to come from the youths themselves.
"Rebuilding Zimbabwe has to do with the youth being able to define their roles. At the micro-level we need to start asking ourselves what each individual can do to rebuild Zimbabwe", said Grace Chirenje who is director of the Zimbabwe Young Women's Network for Peace Building.
For youths to be able to have this role clarity, it is important that they are empowered and are not dependent on patronage from powerful forces within society as this can only compromise their independence.
Youth empowerment depends on effective youth mainstreaming or participation in all spheres of life be it in the economy, education, sports, business, politics and religion. Our youths need to able to create space for themselves in all these areas and youth development programming needs to enhance youth participation.
"Youth participation is key and pivotal if we are to move forward as a nation but it is not an easy role", declared Madzore.
However, youths are angry that the current set-up does not foster such participation and inclusion. "The trend in our politics is that when it comes to eating the cake at the top table, youths are told to step aside", lamented Bajila.
In its current 3-Year Strategic Plan, the Zimbabwe Youth Council has prioritised youth participation in all its work particularly in promoting youth associations throughout the country, strengthening the children's parliament and up-skilling youths in entrepreneurship so that they can participate fully in economic activities.
It is therefore important that there be effective policy co-ordination between political youth leaders and their parties and the Zimbabwe Youth Council in enhancing youth participation in all spheres of society.
Judging from the presentations made during the dialogue, it would appear that youths are still pre-occupied with political power perhaps underscoring the reality that politics in Zimbabwe remains a zero-sum game in which those without political power cannot effectively lay claim to economic power.
In South Africa, the African National Congress Youth League led by its fiery leader, Julius Malema, has become a dominant key player in that country's politics and has been able to claim economic space for its constituency in that country.
The youth leaders at the dialogue bemoaned the absence of a charismatic role model in Zimbabwe in the mould of United States first black President Barack Obama who could effectively inspire youths to dream big. "One of the disastrous issues about the role of youth in developing Zimbabwe is that we have run out of role models in Zimbabwe", remarked Bajila
While the issue of role models may be true in politics, this writer believes that Zimbabwe has produced several good role models in business, particularly in entrepreneurship, which can inspire our youths to take risks in pursuit of their dreams of financial independence.
That there was scant reference to entrepreneurship as an attractive route to creating opportunities for youths in Zimbabwe during the dialogue came as a surprise to me in view of strong empirical evidence attesting to its power to empower youths.
Overall, the youth dialogue proved to be a lively platform upon which youths and stakeholders in youth development can engage each other in serious and independent thinking on those issues pertinent to them.