Zimbabwe: Furore Over Youth Quota Directive

"YOUTHS" in Zimbabwe have a chequered if not infamous role in the political and socio-economic affairs of the country beginning with the overzealous, communist-style Zanu PF youth brigades of the 1980s.

Prior to the 1985 elections, the youths, clad in their trademark green shirts and khaki trousers, went on the rampage under the direction of Zanu PF, meting out violence on those believed to be supporters of former vice-president Joshua Nkomo's party, PF Zapu.

Homes were burnt, mob beatings and murders were reported as the youths responded to President Robert Mugabe's alleged call to "go and uproot the weeds from your gardens".

In 2001, Zanu PF sought to change this violent image through the introduction of the National Youth Service, purportedly to instil a "sense of responsible citizenship among the youth" and prepare them for "the world of work".

"The youth service will provide opportunities for employment and participation in development, contribute towards the eradication of poverty, promote healthy lifestyles and personal well-being of the youths," said the late Border Gezi, who was the Youth, Gender and Employment Creation minister at the inception of the controversial youth training service.

The youths, derisively dubbed "Green Bombers", emerged from the training camps only to enhance their notoriety by allegedly torturing, raping and intimidating perceived opponents of Zanu PF, especially in the run-up to the 2002 presidential elections.

Now in 2013, Youth Development, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment minister Saviour Kasukuwere has come up with what could be a make-over plan which he says would save the country's youths and finally see them take their rightful place in the socio-economic development of Zimbabwe.

Kasukuwere has crafted a directive compelling foreign-owned companies, already forced to cede 51% of their stake to indigenous Zimbabweans, to have a 25% youth representation on their boards of directors in line with the contentious Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act. These youths must be under the age of 35 years.

"This is a way to empower our youths and we want to ensure full compliance," Kasukuwere said this in Mt Darwin a fortnight ago. "I have noticed that the youths have a tendency to assume (that) sitting on the boards of big companies is a preserve of the older generation and by so doing they are discriminating against themselves."

On the face of it, this appears to be a noble move which could lead to empowerment of the country's youths, but that has been the case with many other policies enunciated by the Zanu PF government since Independence and as such the move has met with much scepticism.

It remains to be seen if the policy will be properly implemented by bringing in the right mix of suitably qualified professionals free from the political partisanship that has been the defining feature of Zanu PF-crafted policies.

Kasukuwere's initiative resonates with the Institute of Directors of Zimbabwe (IoDZ) and the Zimbabwe Leadership Forum's call for new skills on corporate boards to avoid recycling the same individuals.

IoDZ chairperson Johannes Mudzengerere said companies tend to look for the "very few" well-known persons to sit on their boards.

"Having the same people on various boards will certainly limit the effectiveness of boards as you are bound to have restricted skills, increased conflict of interest and reduced independent judgment," Mudzengerere said.

Kasukuwere's deputy Tongai Matutu of the MDC-T has given the proposal the thumbs up describing it as "a noble plan that will facilitate the youth's participation in the economic affairs of the country provided they appoint people with the technical know-how".

Institute for a Democratic Alternative for Zimbabwe public policy and governance manager Jabusile Shumba welcomed the move as an initiative that would ensure youths participate more effectively in national policy processes and the laying of an important foundation for regeneration of leadership in pursuit of national developmental aspirations.

"Zimbabwe has a highly youthful population constituting about 53% of the total population," said Shumba who also sits on the Zimbabwe Youth Council (ZYC) board.

The ZYC is a quasi-government institution established by the Zimbabwe Youth Council Act (Chapter 25:19) which advises government on youth matters.

Indeed, the youth can have a significant role to play in national processes because, after all, the first mass political party, the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress (SRANC) formed in 1957 was born out of the City Youth League which had young firebrands in the mould of James Chikerema and George Nyandoro.

The 1970s liberation war was fought by young men and women including the likes of the late General Solomon Mujuru and Zanu PF secretary for women's affairs Oppah Muchinguri, culminating in the first independent Zimbabwe cabinet featuring baby-faced Simba Makoni and present Vice-President Joice Mujuru.

Shumba's optimism is however tempered by a caveat, born out of mistrust for any policies manufactured in Zanu PF's self-serving political laboratories.

"Empowerment is inherently a political process vulnerable to partisan political manipulation," warned Shumba. "This good idea can easily be manipulated to advance partisan interests by rewarding violence merchants ahead of merit in the appointment process."

Shumba's scepticism was shared by Dumisani Nkomo of Habakkuk Trust who said Kasukuwere's latest directive is part of Zanu PF's patronage system to accommodate party apologists and forestall potential backlash from the youths by giving them "decorative positions in economic entities".

"If we had a proper and functioning economy there would be no need for all these so-called policy actions to empower the youths," said Nkomo, who added that lessons should be learnt from the then young entrepreneurs like Strive Masiyiwa and Nigel Chanakira who succeeded in the corporate world without the assistance of political patronage.

Pedzisayi Ruhanya of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute was more scathing, describing Kasukuwere's directive as a "mobilisation agenda to bring back those youth brigades and Border Gezi groups ahead of elections with the lure of cash and positions".

Time will tell whether the country's youths, with a reputation for thuggery and violence under the tutelage of Zanu PF, would exchange these for suits, seats and the sophistication of corporate boardrooms.

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