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Shouting to No One in a Vacuum: Mechanisms of Exclusion, Disempowerment and the Missing Voices of by Tenford Chitanana

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Shouting to No One in a Vacuum: Mechanisms of Exclusion, Disempowerment and the Missing Voices of

Shouting to No One in a Vacuum: Mechanisms of Exclusion, Disempowerment and the Missing Voices of the Youth in Zimbabwean Politics*

Written by Tenford Chitanana

*This article was first published in 2010 by The African forum for Catholic Social Teachings in Political Participation in Zimbabwe, edited by David Kaulemu.

(please contact the author for a full version including footnotes)

The scope of youth development has since around the turn of the decade been typified by many things. Most significant have been the questions asked about the role of the government. More often than not, concentration has been on the negatives – limitations, problems and challenges. In most cases these have been bundled on the government’s doorstep. Almost naturally, the government has rejected responsibility. It has denied responsibility for the current pathetic condition of the youth, pointing towards the youth themselves as the major culprit contributing to their own situation. This polarisation has continued unabated and the reality has remained that youth development, and political participation in particular, remains an unattainable elixir. Underdeveloped and powerless, young people remain excluded from decision-making processes in local and national institutional leadership.

This paper analyses how the youth have remained unheard within the broader political playground. It focuses on the Zimbabwe National Youth Policy as a framework targeted at addressing the concerns of youth. It explores how the policy has failed to protect the youth against exclusion from local and national politics. To redress the situation, there is a need to understand the historical background that has shaped the present. In this analysis, I look at the traditional role of the youth, the history and legacy of youth participation, the political context and meaning of youth and participation, and the state of the education system. It investigates the mechanised contribution of these dynamics to the challenges facing the youth. I suggest ways of addressing the challenge of the absence of youth in the decision-making processes. The bondage of an unquestioned tradition

Participation of young people in politics remains peripheral and tokenistic. The complex regime that governs the perception of politics, power, leadership, governance and decision-making in Zimbabwe is woven into a thoroughly strong socio-cultural tradition that relates authority, power and leadership to age. It is borrowed from a strong patriarchal tradition that places fathers as heads of families and chiefs and kings as natural rulers. This culture of fathers and rulers has found its way into modern politics: political leaders are treated as fathers who are, by some sort of divine ordinance, in control. They are fathers who, instead of leading, rule. The political participation of the youth in such an environment has automatically been reduced to that of children, subjects and servants who by 'fate' are expected to obey their fathers and serve their rulers with extreme subordination. Young women, like their mothers, are expected to occupy nothing but the kitchen and to bear children.

Young people are expected to take orders and produce results and to be accountable to their elders, not the reverse. Any act of assertiveness and enquiry on transformative possibilities is an act of insubordination tantamount to treason. This notion is effectively implanted in the conscience of the entire society where, from primary socialisation, the balance of power and leadership has more to do with age than merit. Young people nurtured in such a culture can do nothing but accentuate the status quo; they cannot make political decisions because they are young. The culture becomes so factual and instinctive that even when menial political responsibilities are thrown to them, young people seriously believe they cannot take up positions of authority nor make significant political decisions, thus ignorantly granting authority to older people who in turn dominate and control them. The political context and meaning of the terms ‘youth’ and ‘participation’

Young people are treated with suspicion and contempt regardless of the nobility of their sentiments and contributions to national development. The crop of young people born after the liberation struggle, who constitute more than half of the population, have been derogatorily branded as ‘born frees’ or amafikizolos (literally, ‘just arrived’). Both terms meant to reflect the youth’s lack of knowledge and experience of the liberation war. The same attitude has been adopted to justify the exclusion of youth from critical leadership and decision-making positions where young people have been accused of lacking in capacity.

The term ‘youth’, also sometimes wrongly used to mean the same as ‘youths’, has been or is being used within a wide and elusive range of meanings in Zimbabwean society. In the domestic and social realm, ‘the youth’ implies children. In political party doctrine, ‘youths’ are the confrontational and mobilising arm that has little role in decision-making platforms. In police and security terms ‘youths’ denote a collection of rowdy touts who are moved by indiscipline and violence; a population sector which the police have to confront with little remorse. In economic and human development platforms ‘youth’ is synonymous to immature and undeveloped persons. They are the able-bodied labour force which has to toil, toss and turn for their employers regardless of their potential to be business-owners and employers if given enough capital, infrastructural and legal support.

In governance, ‘the youth’ are treated as lacking experience, bookish freshers who have nothing to share but everything to learn. In social activism, ‘youths’ are the needy partners who are often driven by excessive and misguided passion that will soon die down with experience and frustration. In religious circles, particularly in churches, ‘youths’ are generally the energetic elements that sing in praise-and-worship teams, help with cleaning the church, brave the harsh weathers in crusades and outreaches, and do little, if any, preaching in the church. The youth remain treated as that segment of the population that is violent, unruly, undisciplined and underdeveloped.

Equally appalling is the use and meaning of ‘participation’ in socio-economic and political development terminology and practice in Zimbabwe. It has come to be a catch-all term, and almost fashionable, so that development workers, beneficiaries, social and political leaders have used it loosely to suggest anything that suits their needs. The Zimbabwe National Youth Policy document, for instance, makes some inferences and references to the term on countless occasions but neither of those instances is preceded or followed by set parameters of what participation entails, thus creating a problem in the actualisation of youth participation whether it is set as a goal or falls within the entire policy objective.

The political participation of youth in Zimbabwe from the days of the liberation struggle has been minimal and limited to menial tasks such as mobilisation. The critical need for participation is mistakenly minimised to idealistic considerations as human rights or the desire to undo despotic rule , rather than developed to an understanding of its inherent power as means for articulating genuine needs and satisfying them through self-reliance and mass mobilisation.

The history and legacy of youth political participation

Zimbabwean politics is strongly visible during the time of election. A recurring feature in these eventful yet short periods is the sloganeering, swearing, promises and blood. Along with the traditional faces of 'professional', 'God-sent' old politicians are faces of young people who, are casual ‘youths’ as they are called, pursuing unknown agendas They have been largely used as weapons of political violence.

The political system has kept young people outsiders. Their participation does not go beyond representation. From as far back as the independence, Zimbabwe has considered the need for a ministry responsible for youth. Although the idea of such a ministry was abandoned for a while, there seems to have been a subconscious concern for the youth, even though the concern was accompanied by manipulative thought and practice. However, that consciousness has not led to practical efforts to aid youth participation in decision-making processes. The offices of the ministry remain under the authority of a post-youth generation whose articulation of youth concerns is inadequate, for it is a secondary process.

If young people constitute nearly seventy per cent of the national population, how then they have less than two per cent representation in the organs of a democratic government, which by simple definition is a government of, for and by the people. Their exclusion from the key government portfolios has guaranteed cyclic system of exclusion at the expense of the present and future generations.

A classic example of the marginalisation of the youth from positions of key responsibility is the case of Margaret Dongo, who in the 1996 presidential election was refused certification as a candidate on the basis that she was too young to meet the constitutional requirements . To Dongo and other critics, the discrimination was part of the Zanu(PF)’s efforts to discredit the opposition. To others it is a testimony of how difficult it is for young people to occupy key offices even if they possess the talent and potential.

Paradoxically, the same constitution and political processes that distance youth from decision-making have failed to protect them from growing abuse by the powerful. Constitutionalism has been used to protect a few islands of power, creating institutionalised vulnerability especially in the youth. From around the year 2000, the recurring phenomenon of bandana-clad, banner- and placard-carrying, stick- and stone-wielding 'youths' in party regalia chanting hatred slogans and lost in the harmony of praise choruses to their political fathers, rulers and masters is testimony to the growing underdevelopment of young people.

In research conducted by Youth Initiative for Democracy in Zimbabwe (YIDEZ), it is noted that respondents who participated in the research have, one way or another, taken part at some time in political demonstrations . The report notes with concern that males have participated in these demonstrations more than females, owing to their relative tendency to partake in violent activities. Those young women who have braved the violence have often fallen prey to sexual harassment, exploitation and rape. Those who sail through all deterrence have been branded as of loose morals who gain political mileage through a sexual buyout of the dominant male leadership. Fear of victimisation and intimidation has all frightened young people from participating effectively in politics . The understanding of politics as a dirty game dominates the minds of many young people who have watched their peers being arbitrarily detained in prisons or admitted into hospitals, or have even attended the funerals of their murdered parents and siblings. While all these occurrences persist, little has been done constitutionally and in terms of our political culture to regulate the potential calamity on the youth.

The state of students and the education system

It is often blindly shared that Zimbabwe boasts of one of Africa's best education systems. This claim is built on the premise that the literacy rate is around 97% and primary education is almost universal. Yet no serious introspection has been devoted to the actual assessment of the quality and nature of education being offered in schools. Furthermore, the assertion has not been questioned against the realities of the current state of the education system in Zimbabwe.

The evidence on the ground testifies to an increasing incapacity of youth to take on significant roles in the political mainstream of the country because of inaccessible and unaffordable formal education and training. Since the withdrawal of government financial support to university and college students, they have been exposed to the harsh realities of their impoverished backgrounds. With many families struggling to make a single meal each day owing to poverty and unemployment, many students can no longer afford fees, living and travelling expenses, forcing them to pull out of college education. The colonial trends of a bottle-neck system have re-emerged. University education has become, once more, the preserve for the socially well-up and the politically correct. Those students in college accommodation have to face pathetic living conditions, where every day they have to pull through psychological challenges and try to ignore dozens of health hazards in the form of lack of food and sanitary services. For both male and female students, student life has been reduced to enduring squalid conditions.

A growing tide of student activism seeking redress becomes an act of aggression that is harshly arrested. The political life of students and their academic freedoms, rights of expression and association become void and nullified. The Ordinance 30 and the University of Zimbabwe Act continue to be used as tools to frustrate students' political consciousness , rendering them powerless and blinkered on books, lectures and tutorials. The victimisation of students and their repression into silence can be noted in the increasing numbers of violations of their human rights. The Student Solidarity Trust report records 1,483 violations ranging from unlawful arrest, detention, torture and suspension to political discrimination and assault. While 'common wisdom' holds the belief that Zimbabwe has one of the best education systems on the continent, the system itself has become a tool for the control of students’ political consciousness. The education system and curriculum are outdated and designed in ways that keep students as subjects of their learning process and empty vessels that have to be filled with teachers' deposits of wisdom and knowledge. The products of such a system have been coerced, half-baked graduates whose knowledge of the world is narrowly and rigidly bookish. The graduates' personal disposition and free judgment is replaced by a pile of indoctrinated facts, formulas and theories which they obey religiously. Free academic discourse and critical thinking has been compromised by an adherence to education rather than learning, and this has impacted on the quality of human resources in all sectors.

In politics, the education system is responsible for breeding a short-sighted youth whose appreciation of politics is primarily on a binary ‘either-or’ option. Little time has been devoted to constructive criticism and debate that can help redefine and positively transform our society. As such, choices of political parties made by young people are based on the basic ‘either-or’ pick that often breeds from fanaticism as opposed to critical assessment of the policies and capacities outlined by the prospective political leaders.

Beyond being a basic human right, education is a tool for empowerment and a vehicle for civic participation. With the enlightenment, ‘education is an indispensable means of realising other human rights’, ‘promoting democracy’ and protecting young people from exploitation . In a sharp contrast, Zimbabwean authorities have undermined the common good in thwarting youth activism, academic freedom and political consciousness. The education system has in the process become a disempowerment mechanism fairly responsible for the leadership deficit in Zimbabwe. As a product of the colonial past, it has inherited the flaws of the colonial system in which education repressed many of the supposed beneficiaries. Half-baked products from the factories of rigidity, students have carried the blinkers out of the classrooms and into government and society, parroting government propaganda on education, without critically questioning the nature and form of the education they claim to have received.

Intoxicating vaccination

It may be argued that the crafting of the Zimbabwe National Youth Policy in 2000 might have offered an opportunity for youth self-determination. By the time of its crafting, a youth policy was one of the most wanted yet absent landmarks of youth development. But up to today, even with the Zimbabwe National Youth Policy, an adequate and relevant policy on the youth remains at large. Talk of genuine participation by the youth remains a dream.

Despite the fact that a policy exists and is said to be in process of implementation by the Zimbabwe Youth Council, many young people are either unaware of it or have denounced it. Key to the failure of the policy to attract the interest of the youth is the perception that the document has the self-serving agenda of a government facing a rising tide of opposition. The document itself was hurriedly put together with hardly any consultation, especially of the youth themselves.

With the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a seemingly ‘youthful’ political movement, the ruling party and its government sought to win the youth’s votes by showing concern about their predicament. In a hardly coincidental way, the policy came into being just after the constitutional referendum in which the government-proposed constitution was rejected. This happened almost back to back with an economic and social reform strategy in the form of Zimbabwe Programme for Economic and Social Transformation 1996-2000 (ZIMPREST). It was also in the same period that the National Youth Service was crafted and heftily financed through the 2001, 2002 and 2003 budgets, with a supplementary budget in August 2003 . This has augmented the suspicion that the policy is a tool for either ignoring youth concerns or controlling young people, both of which have, as noted, increased the disempowerment of Zimbabwean youth.

The creation process of the policy remains a hot issue among many young people in Zimbabwe. The architects of the document are accused of being non-consultative and selective, thus making the policy inapplicable. Firstly, the definition of youth in the document remains inconclusive and undetermined outside the context of its texts as it fails to guide other government policy interventions and statutes assertively . The term youth is used to refer to ‘10-30 year olds irrespective of their gender, race, colour, religion, political affiliation, marital status, physical or mental disability’. This reduces youth to a homogeneous social entity.

Whilst in its justification of the definition of youth it notes that ‘the lumping together of young people from 10 to 30 years of age risks masking the particular needs of sub-groups within that range’ , the policy makes no effort to contain the effects of the perceived limitations. Instead, it succumbs to the essential needs of the task by admitting that, ‘for various reasons it is difficult to arrive at a universally acceptable definition of youth’ . Though bold, the admission leaves youth an undetermined social cluster whose concerns are lumped in the age range broadly separable by gender, race, religion and disability. Whereas it is meant to set the pace for the inclusion of young people at least at the policy level, the document leaves the youth even more vulnerable and marginalised. Such flaws imprinted in the DNA of a policy which is meant to serve the youth, reflect both the short sight and monopoly of its architects.

Secondly, the document reveals an over-generalisation of youth concerns in its analysis of the youth situation. The policy points out inadequate youth participation as one of the realities of the situation, but it falls short of deconstructing areas in which there is inadequate youth participation. This undermines any prospects of intervention. Of the four key goals and the 13 objectives set out in the document , none is specific or time-bound, so that tracing accountability and transparency is illusive and hence undermines the implementation prospects of the policy. The first goal mentions participatory eradication of poverty. One of the objectives mentions inclusion of youth issues in policy, planning and implementation. But there is no inclusion of the youth themselves. Where their participation is underscored, is in development activities; more precisely, it is promotion of those activities through mere discussion. Political participation itself remains a mere theoretical possibility; the document is silent about its implementation.

Implementation of the policy is the third issue. The policy document states that ‘immediately after the approval of the Policy, a comprehensive Action Plan for the Implementation of the National Youth Policy will be prepared with the involvement of key stakeholders’ . Nine years later, the action plan has been scantily designed, hardly implemented, and is less involving, and certainly unknown to many young people around the country.

As a guiding framework, the policy is out of touch with young people's contemporary realities. Firstly, the policy's situational analysis is primarily based on the findings of the 1992 census. The question is, How can factual data gathered 8 years prior help develop an honest appreciation of the context within which a relevant policy framework is being set? For instance, the youth population was 45% of the national population in 1992. By 2000, the youth constituted about 50%; a figure that has steadily risen to over 68% in recent years. Secondly, while the policy document sets a regular ongoing review so that ‘it remains consistent with and relevant to the changing circumstances in youth work and the socio-economic realities of the country’ , the sincerity of the policy's oversight mechanisms and the integrity of its stewards remains questionable. By and large, from planning to implementation, the policy is obsolete.

As a result, the orientation of approaches to youth empowerment has remained contained in life-skills strategies and vocational training, where skills means welding and woodwork, and business development denotes having 50 young men and women rearing 10 rabbits for their livelihood as an income-generating project. The national definition of youth still carries issues of incapacity, underdevelopment and inexperience. The absence of an institutionalised definition of youth has been reinforced by the youth policy's failure to lead the nation with a more comprehensive definition that takes the needs of the youth more seriously. Instead, the policy reflects a minimalist perception of the youth, confining them to adolescents facing transitional challenges of sexuality and career choices.

The policy limitations in offering a comprehensive and relevant framework for youth development have rendered the call for genuine youth participation a mere shout in a vacuum, which, no matter how loud and elaborate, remains inconsequential in attaining either holistic development or an agenda for active youth participation. Interventions for youth empowerment should have a bold focus on the access and use of power and resources by the youth. Instead, current interventions have failed to go beyond the symptoms of youth underdevelopment. Efforts to bring a breath of fresh air to the National Youth Council Act have been frustrated by the bureaucracy and autocratic leadership that have no infrastructural accommodation for genuine contributions by young people who come from different social, political, religious and economic backgrounds.

Way to go

Even as it is generally agreeable that youth are the future – as in the old adage, 'youth are the leaders of tomorrow' – their role in the present is similarly important. It has a bearing on what they become in the future. As a call to sanity and the building of sustainable institutions, reforming the Zimbabwe Youth Council Act and rewriting the National Youth Policy should be of primary importance. This has to be done in a way that gives real definition to youth and creates a solid road map for their effective contribution to the decision-making processes of their communities.

Participation of young people should be seen beyond the mere self-serving tendencies of current politicians, it is rather a ‘social function [that] leads to stronger public policy and better governance’. The participation models must move from the tokenistic and ad hoc nature which undermines the importance of young people, to creating platforms for policy-makers to engage young people. This should come with the liberalisation of youth development in ways that provide space for other diverse players in the sector to make their contributions. Where there has been involvement of young people, the approaches should become more participatory, inclusive and meaningful with increased funding and capacity development for youth organisations . Investing in youth education should be considered a key empowerment tool that is backed by an ongoing critique and analysis of the quality of education and character of the curricula. It is important for the policy to re-direct youth development by redefining youth, taking into account the heterogeneous nature of young people and gender inclusion in the concerns and priorities of the policy.

However, the reform of the policy alone cannot be substantive enough to create real space and sustained commitment on the part of policy-makers for political participation by the youth. Regardless of how brilliant the policy may be in theory, its implementation has not been mandatory. Neither the ministry nor the council can be held accountable for their failure to implement it. Effective legal frameworks for accountability must be enshrined in the in the Youth Act, giving authority to beneficiaries and stakeholders to challenge inaction.


Obstacles to youth political participation as outlined in this paper are summarised below:

1. Perception of youth is shaped by a deep-rooted traditional belief that young people are children who are vulnerable and need protection.

2. Absence and limitations of policy have created a large vacuum. Young people are willing to participate in political processes. Nonetheless, they largely remain shadows, shouting to no one in a vacuum. The supposed recipients might listen but have no political will to turn the tables and provide space for the youth. In the same way, there is a void if not confusion about the essence of true participation. The current practice is narrow and shallow where, more often than not, youth are exposed to activities that harm their long-term development.

3. Advocacy and lobbying by and for youth has remained shallow as the sector is continuously disfranchised and divided against itself.

4. Coming from institutionalised ignorance in form of a boxed education system, young people have emerged weak in the face of their challenges. Instead of confronting them, they have resorted to individual apathy with a continuous belief that we cannot do anything to change the present. The youth sector has thus emerged an oppressed social cluster which, in Paulo Freire's pedagogy, lives on dependency. Psychologically disabled, young people bask in their learned helplessness wondering, ‘when is the government coming to develop us?’

5. The Youth Act and the National Youth Policy, which are meant to be regulatory and guiding frameworks on youth development, are welfarist in their approach and have facilitated political manipulation and domination. ‘They [have] act[ed] as an anaesthetic, distracting the oppressed from the true cause of their problems and from the concrete solutions of these problems’. Issues of youth participation have been relegated to secondary concern that requires no emergency attention as the country claims to be grappling with a political crisis and a collapsed economy.

6. The political landscape remains narrow and limited in its scope. The population is forced to conform to a narrow political basket where, for instance, democracy or patriotism are the only options to choose from. As political debate remains focused on binary oppositions grounded in political affiliation, and with deficient academic and media freedoms, young people's voices and concerns on effective youth political participation unfortunately remain a loud shout in a vacuum.

Trapped in such a precarious situation, the youth sector has fallen victim to exploitation by the opportunistic approaches of political parties, politicians and pseudo-development agents who masquerade as liberators of the youth. With the harsh realities, there has been further marginalisation and disempowerment. Contrary to the goals set in policy papers and mission statements that are nourished with the phrases echoing youth and participation, is the actual practice, which, according to Freire, attempts ‘to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation [which is equivalent] to treat[ing] them as objects which must be saved from a burning building; it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated’.

While the national youth policy can be seen to be a window of opportunity for a defined framework for youth participation, it falls short by making political participation a silent issue. Where it mentions participation in general, it makes it a goal of its own. By making participation an end, it suspends the immediacy and urgency of participation as a means of achieving meaningful youth development.

In the final analysis, the legacy that the present can leave for the future is a well-developed person capable of adapting to the reality of tomorrow. It is imperative for policy-makers to start developing the youth for tomorrow rather than building tomorrow for the youth. Where youth voices shout, they must be heard and supported rather than thwarted and silenced. That would certainly remove the current vacuum that has left many young people voiceless, apathetic, disempowered, and underdeveloped, their voices well distanced from politics.


Books Burkey, Stan. 1993. People first: A guide to Self reliant Participatory Rural Development. London: Zed Books. Ghai, D. P., Khan, A. R. et al. 1977. The Basic Needs Approach to Development: Some issues regarding concepts and methodology. Geneva: ILO. Freire, Paulo 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed Harmondsworth: Penguin. Lodge T., Kadima D. et al. 2002. Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa. Johannesburg: Electoral Institute of Southern Africa. Pearse, A. and Stiefel M.1979. Inquiry into participation: A research approach, Popular Participation Programme. UNRISD/79/C/14 Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Reports Student Solidarity Trust. 2007. Inside Pandora's Box: State of the Higher and Tertiary Education Sector in Zimbabwe 2006. Harare: Student Solidarity Trust. The Solidarity Peace Trust. 2003. National Youth Service Training -“Shaping Youths in a Truly Zimbabwean Manner”: An overview of youth militia training and activities in Zimbabwe, October 2000 – August 2003, Harare: The Solidarity Peace Trust. United Nations General Assembly. 2005. Making Commitments Matter: Young People’s Input to the 10-year Review of the World Programme of Action for Youth to the Year 2000 and Beyond. New York: United Nations General Assembly. United Nations General Assembly, Economic and Social Council. 2004. World Youth Report 2005. New York: United Nations General Assembly. UN General Assembly Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.1999. Implementation of the International Convent on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General, Comment No.13 paragraph 1. New York: United Nations. Youth Initiative for Democracy in Zimbabwe. 2006. The Economic Effects on Political Participation: The Curse of Zimbabwe Elections Harare: YIDEZ. Young Voices Network. 2008. The 10 Demandments Harare: YVN. Young Voices Network. 2007. Zimbabwe National Youth Dialogue Process: Country Report Harare: YVN.

Core Reference Zimbabwe National Youth Policy, September 2000. Zimbabwe Youth Council Act [Chapter 25:19] as amended in 1997.

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