In Defence of Democracy: The role of youths
By Ashton Bumhira
“No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be involved from birth. A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline.”
These are the words of former United Nations Secretary-General, the late Ghanaian Kofi Annan which aptly captures the unquestionable and indispensable role of youths to the success of any society and the success of any process thereof, democracy included. At the heart of the entrenchment and survival of democracy are young people.
If young people are at the epicentre of democracy, it follows that they have a huge role to play in preserving and fighting for it in cases where it is under threat.
Before stating the role of young people in defending democracy, it is important to define the term democracy.
Several scholars have come up with short and voluminous definitions of what democracy is to them but generally, it can be agreed that democracy is governance by the people. This thus entails that laws, policies, leadership and major undertakings of the state or any institution are directly or indirectly made by the people, the majority.
Like any system of governance, democracy is not immune to factors that threaten its very existence even though it is the widely accepted system of governance across the globe. From the simplified definition of democracy proffered above, there is one key element that stands out in a democratic system- the involvement and participation of the people. Once the people are sidelined from partaking in key processes, decision-making institutions and bodies of the state, democracy is under threat.
In defence of democracy as a governance system, young people are duty-bound to fully participate in all tenets of a democratic system. Young people constitute more than half of the world population and in Sub Saharan Africa, they constitute an average of 70%. If democracy is hinged upon the participation of the masses, meaningful democracy needs young people who are the majority and likewise, youths need meaningful democracy to thrive and maximize their potential.
Whereas youths' partaking in the democratic process is an acceptable way towards them defending the system of democracy, their participation is threatened by a myriad of obstacles that they have to overcome.
There are forces within the echelons of power who are better served by the status quo where young people participation in governance systems is very limited. The same forces are the ones entrusted with creating a conducive environment for youth participation which has been very difficult especially in our Zimbabwean and African context.
It is thus incumbent upon youths not to wait for conducive environments to be created for their participation. They ought to take the bull by its horns and create spaces for themselves to meaningfully participate in shaping the future they aspire and envision.
The time to wait for the older generation to create spaces for youths is long gone.
What is being witnessed today is a clear threat to democracy and the systematic exclusion of young people is evident. Faced with this challenge, youths must not give up but be resilient in claiming their place for history tells us the destiny of any nation is not handed on a silver platter.
As a motivation to young people of today, Zimbabwe’s war of liberation was waged by courageous youths who saw an anomaly and devised ways to correct it. This is not a call for violence, but an example to show youths that no one is going to knock on their doors and invite them to participate in the governance of their country.
Young people ought to have confidence and self-belief and change the old and tired myth that youths are unstable and cannot be trusted with deciding the destiny of a nation. They ought to recognize that indeed, they are powerful active agents of change in the democratic system and this change can only be brought about if they are active participants.
Young people have much to offer societies and their systems – from innovation to creativity to new thinking as well as energy and vibrancy. Their participation in democracy promotes active citizenship, strengthens social responsibility and can enhance democratic processes and institutions. When democracy is strengthened it survives the apparent onslaught it faces especially in Africa.
Confidence can easily be derived from acquiring skills and building personal capacities and forging youth partnerships. Young people have the power of numbers on their side and are still very active to give up on democracy, the ideal system.
There are so many youth organisations and movements that can easily cooperate and galvanize youth participation in elections both as voters and candidates, mobilize youths for active civic participation in such processes like budget consultations, outreach campaigns by Parliament and local authority meetings which are open to the public among other important national processes.
These are democratic processes that shape the direction of a country and young people ought to take the bull by its horns and be actively involved in these leveraging on their numbers. Unity among the youths will sustain democracy and ensure young people are at the forefront of shaping the national discourse. Coalitions of youth groups and movements must cultivate civic participation and education from a tender age, thus building towards the sustenance of democracy.
As alluded to earlier on in this article, the powers that be are not threatened or moved if young people do not participate in democratic processes. Democracy in its letter and spirit threatens their existence. Ideally, they would want it in partiality as an appeasement gesture. They usually make youth participation very difficult and tenets of democracy are regularly trampled upon.
Blood, sweat and sacrifice are what is needed to maintain democratic principles. Just like yesteryear African young people who took up arms to face our erstwhile colonisers head-on, youths must be innovative enough to find ways to sustain democracy, a system that is inclusive and ideal for development.
It is worth noting that meaningful youth engagement and participation is faced by a plethora of challenges that are mostly perpetuated by political elites who have more to lose. Poverty, unemployment and limited economic opportunities rank among some of those factors that affect meaningful youth contribution to democracy.
A poverty-stricken youth is easy for the ruling elite to deal with. They are given fish and not taught how to fish as a means to perpetuate dependency. Young people are in most cases well-placed to help tackle the challenges they face but frequently have limited opportunities to meaningfully participate in democratic actions.
This calls for a multi-faceted advocacy campaign by youth civic leaders and activists towards creating an independent youth who can participate in democratic processes fully without blinkers controlling where and when to look.
Youths need to be very consistent and persistent in claiming their space in the democracy spectrum. Even in times when it seems hopeless, the eyes must be kept on the ball towards inclusive participation in protecting democracy and its institutions.
Youths ought to appreciate the forces that trample and would want to see democracy obliterated do everything in their power to divide and rule.
Political party affiliation has been used to entrench and sow divisions amongst young people as a way of weakening their voice in the fight for democracy.
Youths ought to realize what brings them together is more valuable than petty political affiliation. It’s time for young people to adopt an injure one injure all policy as a way to diffuse divisions that are deliberately sown from the old guard.
True democracy is reflective of diversity and inclusivity in the key operations of the state. Youths must never be used as tools to disenfranchise their peers from meaningful participation in democratic processes.
Political participation plays a key role in influencing other forms of involvement in a democratic system. Young people must fight for political participation, an enabling environment to do so as a gateway to full democratic participation.
Ashton Bumhira is the Director of the Youth Forum Zimbabwe