A while back I wrote an article about whether or not students, tertiary level students, have a place in politics. Often after I write a piece, I’ll get calls and comments from those I know and sometimes those I don’t know. After that particular article, in which basically my position was that yes, youth have a place in politics and like everything, for their participation to have meaning, it requires education and learning so that they can use their political rights and might with care, skill and caution. So that they can make informed decisions and choices rather than acting-out impulsively or rashly, without having given thought to cause and effect. After the article I wrote was published I received a number of, “I read your article about the place of students in politics.”
Note that the comments were not, “I liked your article about students in politics” or “I thought your article was reasoned and well thought out”. They were simple statements of fact, that they speaker, whomever he/she might be, had digested and (this is what they call reading between the lines) thought what I’d penned was a load of bunk (no, not junk, BUNK, the ‘b’ standing for a word less than complementary). After discussions with the various souls who dared confront me (writers are notoriously sensitive) it emerged that they thought I’d given University of Botswana and Limkokwing students licence to riot over book allowances not being paid to them directly but instead to the bookstore entities charged with the supply and distribution of textbooks.
Once I realised this, I said no, my article was certainly not meant or intended to excuse or sanction students taking to the streets or rampaging. I pointed out that students of that age are legally entitled to vote, that we keep referring to them (no matter how clich├®d) as the future of this nation. That at the present time, those who can and will secure employment upon graduation, can count themselves extremely lucky because the state of the economy does not work in their favour. I pointed out too, that I believed (because I have faith that our students are smarter than we give them credit for) that the strikes and discontent over being mandated to obtain their books only at certain venues, was about more than them wanting more money in their accounts (so that they would have greater means by which to pursue whatever form of hedonism currently the rage). I was fairly certain that a number of these entities have failed, not once, but repeatedly and constantly to source said textbooks resulting in the students having neither the said texts nor the means with which to try and obtain them elsewhere. How do I know that this is what is happening? Because it happened when I was a student at UB, it’s happened to younger friends and cousins who came after me, it’s happened this very year to students I know at the University of Botswana. It’s not so easy then to write students off as ‘spoilt’, ‘ungrateful’ and ‘with too much time and money on their hands’. If we apply some education (the same education and learning we all hope that they’ll bring to society as graduates and responsible citizens) to the course book confrontations that have happened this past year, certain questions then have to be asked and answered (so as to ascertain cause and effect) such as: why were these textbooks not procured by those given the contract(s)? Were these institutions (university administration, the education ministry etc.) aware that these set books had not been obtained? What was being done to remedy the situation? What happened to the funds paid by government to these entities when the books were not secured? Was government reimbursed? Were said suppliers given contracts again? If so, why? Could not a better form/method of ordering and purchasing these texts be instituted? Yes, I was sympathetic to student concerns, as were others, because we’ve seen this situation before and some two decades after I graduated from UB, the problem still hasn’t been resolved.
Here, is where I now break faith with Botswana’s youth and how they choose to use and wield their political voice and power, it is the point where my commiseration with them culminates. Recently Botswana’s Independent Electoral Commission reported that the just past voter registration exercise was a disappointment in terms of turnout and signing up. It’s also been reported that youth turnout was dismal. It appears that Batswana under the age of 35 had far better things to do than show up at registration so that come 2014 they could perform their civic duty. I have no doubt however that this selfsame grouping will take to Facebook, Twitter, other blogs, cyber space, cell space and the radio waves once election results are out and marvel at outcomes, appalled in the aftermath and wondering what happened once we’ve gone to the polls and returned to the status quo. I put to youth and urban dwellers in general, the two most apathetic groups when it comes to voting, that instead of misdirecting blame, bad energy and anger towards those who opted to vote for ‘candidate suspected of corruption not to mention incompetence’ or ‘party of the present circumstances’ take a long hard look at yourselves and accept some responsibility. You’ve made yourself irrelevant to those in power by not registering to vote; what you think does not matter, they have no need to heed you, respect your point of view or even fear you. You can’t hold them accountable at the ballot because you couldn’t be bothered to register. You’re obviously too comfortable and complacent and when it comes to critiquing and complaining about government from your couch, your bar stool or around the braai stand, that’s when you have energy, when it matters the least. If Botswana’s youth want things done differently, well then that requires that they vote to effect said change. I was thinking that next time some youth issue causes ripples or waves through our society; I’d buy the paper where it’s not the headline story, or change radio station, just tune out. If youth don’t care enough to vote, why should the rest of us care about their issues? When they’ve purposefully chosen to ignore and neglect the most potent tool in the democratic arsenal? I’ve heard it said often that the way things are going, not just in Botswana but globally, we’ll one day wake-up and find ourselves in the midst of our own Tahrir Square type scenario. And to young minds I know that the thought of a student uprising that brings down a government is… romantic…heroic even, the reality however is far different. Ask the Egyptians, Tunisians, the Libyans and the Syrians if their Arab Spring led to a glorious summer?
And remember these are people who have seen and experienced autocracy, real dictatorship, despotism and at times they have waded in one another’s blood. It’s not something any of us want to experience. Those who have lived through such events will tell you that there’s a horror in it that defies description, when citizens turn on one another and the government of the day dissolves.
The destruction of persons and property that occurs in such is not the act of rational men or women and certainly has no situ for people who take such pride in being Africa’s longest standing democracy. If I thought it would help, I’d beg the youth not to take this opportunity for granted, not to waste it and to redeem themselves by making sure that they come out in droves for next year’s scheduled supplementary registration exercise. But then again maybe you think my language is a little too strong, perhaps I’m being too harsh, maybe the reason youth don’t seem to understand how important the ballot is; is because the lesson is there in some textbook that never got delivered.