‘I have never voted. I loathe politicians,” seethes Reneilwe Kemoeng* as we sit at a restaurant table, sipping on cold non-alcoholic cocktails to ward off Gaborone’s scorching heat.
“Here we have politics of the stomach. Everyone is concerned about enriching themselves through political positions and contacts. So why should I care?”
Reneilwe is one angry woman. She numbers among a rapidly growing band of youths who now turn up their noses at politicians and show little inclination to vote.
Among her peers, politics is vulgar. It is a seedy world steeped in corruption and empty promises. It is associated with below-the-belt attacks, with the muddy mirth of ‘getting ahead to a life of opulence’.
Fed by negative perceptions politicians are rapidly attracting, voter apathy among Botswana’s youth is heading south. It is now worrying low.
Can a disaffected army of youth be lured back to polling booths in large numbers? Across the globe, the pattern is one of rising youth engagement in politics. Botswana is heading in the opposite direction.
History throws up some useful lessons on how youth vigilance and the hope that a militant youth carry can alter society and politics. It is this kind of hope that saw South Africa’s class of 1976 revolt against a social and political system that had reduced them to semi-functional human rubble. That same hope catapulted Barack Obama to the US presidency, as his votes comprised mainly of young voters hell bent on seeing change become a reality.
Following the recent launch of the coalition United Democracy for Change (UDC), its elected leader, Duma Boko, stated their intention to lure young voters and get them involved in political mobilisation and voting.
A few days later, at the IEC bridge capacity workshop, Margaret Nasha, Speaker of Parliament, decried voter apathy, especially among the youth, citing it as a threat to democracy.
Botswana’s youth make up 60 percent of the population. However, politicians are often befuddled with issues concerning young people. It is difficult to know what young people want, when you are not so young yourself.
Issues that affect youth include shortage of land, unemployment, poor service delivery, education funding, employment, job training programs, accessible health care, reproductive rights, environmental concerns, and farming.
These issues directly impact on the quality of life of young people. This is why the youth have the right to influence or partake in decision-making.
Youth want to be assured that their lives will be improved; that they will be listened to and taken seriously; that they will be treated with respect and given equal opportunities, with age being used as a denominator in all transactions, whether employment or business.
Botswana is struggling to grapple with social changes, especially in a world that has become a global village, where things change in the blink of the eye.┬á
In their campaigns, political parties often miss the youth ÔÇô a core constituent.
Why? Because election after election, the percentage of eligible youth who actually register and vote is small when compared with demographics.
This of course does not mean that the youth market isn’t a force to be reckoned with, but rather, it isn’t a motivator considering the small number of young people who take to the polls at election time.
As we head deep into the 21st century, youth carry an unstated duty to keep politicians on their toes.
With more and more youth decrying the current state of politics, you get a sense, in conversations with young people that though they feel shut out, they want a greater involvement in political affairs.
UDC’s youth representative, Phenyo Mokete Segoko, says the coalition party has
devised a pragmatic youth master plan that rolled out in July. It identifies and encourages young people to stand for elections as opposed to being peripheral walls.
“We have partnered with local musicians who have produced songs biased towards our project. We also host debates and panel discussions frequently at tertiary institutions, to sensitise young people on the importance of voting and educate them on our constitution,”┬ásays Segokgo.
He took a swipe at the Botswana Democratic Party for failing and the youth of Botswana and contributing to voter apathy.
“Many young people do not have faith in the BDP as its stale conservative policies have failed on aspects of education and job creation,” Segokgo says. “Skyrocketing corruption is also affecting the economy.”
Youth want practical ideas and policies that will urgently resolve their issues. ┬áSegokgo maintains that their party is fully prepared.┬á
“We have the employment policy. Voluntary Early exit policy is vital at this stage to have a proper succession plan in the civil service and employ fresh graduates with new and relevant ideas.
Students who are abroad should also be allowed to look for jobs in their counties only if their area of study is saturated in our native economy. Affirmative action is needed to deliberately give upcoming entrepreneurs a larger share of tenders to empower them. Talent should also be nurtured at a tender age to help diversify the economy in entertainment industry and sporting fraternity. ┬áOne other eminent aspect is to have flexible banking laws to allow for banks to invest in upcoming business, particularly those run by youth.”┬á
┬áYoung people also want to know what is in it for them, should they vote to be involved in politics. Engaging young people and showing them how issues can affect them personally, will most certainly urge them to develop a political consciousness and take to the polls.┬á
Kaiser Sejoe, who describes himself as a loyal BDP member, says the ruling party still has a chance to redeem itself. But it should see youth as adults who can take part in the political landscape.┬á
“The opposition could use the BDP’s failing youth policy to sell its own policies to the country, but instead, they are focused on deriding the ruling party. Opposition must present something new, like economic empowerment policies that the current government does not have instead of always criticising. What they are doing is like a man who wants a woman, but instead of speaking for himself, starts badmouthing her lover or other possible suitors, in attempt to gain favour! It is self-defeating and doesn’t work! We should invest in the entertainment and sports industries, these are areas that could be used to reach out to young people and develop them. If opposition don’t do anything, then yes, the BDP will go to the drawing board and make the necessary changes and continue in power.”
Instability within the ranks of the opposition is also pushing young people to shun politics, says Sejoe.
“There is no solid leadership in our parties, particularly in the opposition. If you are not in power, but undivided, what will happen when you do assume power? These are issues young people look at and they are about basic trust.”
So whose responsibility is it then to urge young people to vote. The political parties? The independent Electoral Commission?
Segokgo maintains that the IEC is trying by providing educational material and road shows, but this is not enough. “They are confined by bureaucratic bottlenecks and lack of autonomy,” he says. “They only wait for election year to approach, forgetting that democratic dispensation is a continuous process.”
But how can the IEC best reach the youth?
┬á“Young people go to bars, clubs and sporting areas,” says Sejoe. “The IEC must reach out to them at those places and through social networks. It is not the responsibility of the parties to urge youth to vote; they only want the votes.”
While the IEC works to encourage young people to exercise their right to vote, young people today are unlike those of yesteryears; they are fast-paced, sophisticated, “busy”, and want change that is line with modern trends.
Freedom square politics are likely to have them shun voting and the political process further. A youth votes require thorough mobilisation, lobbying and groundwork to lay the foundation for a solid and quality legacy.┬á
┬áYouth are trendsetters, often at the forefront of social changes. Technology has become a very pivotal tool in reaching out to young people in the country and some of the local political parties are waking up to the power of social networks.
In the US, Obama has used social networks to stunning effect, building hype around his brand and getting young people to have faith and trust in him.
┬áYouth are impressionable. They will gravitate toward people they identify with or those who inspire hope or other aspirations of admirable improvement. Political parties therefore need to understand the importance of differentiation. ┬á
In his 2004 election, Saleshando seemed to have a passionate view on improving education. His campaign was powerful and inspired hope to multitudes of Gaborone central young voters who cast their baton in his favour, resulting in his clinching the constituency.┬á
┬áMost national issues that affect youth directly impact on their quality of life, and so they have the right to influence or partake in decision-making. If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about government decisions, no matter how much they “suck”. ┬á
If there is one thing that can peeve one off, it is the endless mindless ramblings on the bad political policies of a current government, spewing from opposition politicians and the mouths of eligible voters, who often take to arm-chair criticism.
When you live in a supposed democracy, you have the right to a voice in government. In some countries, people are literally dying to be able to cast a ballot and make a difference. In this instance, the youth vote seems like gold.
With these arguments presented, youth like Reneilwe* profess interest but want change. Aren’t youth capable of that change through involvement and voting?
Reneilwe pauses briefly and sighs. “Politics need to be sexy. I don’t mean affairs, sex or touches. I mean openess, accessibility and relevance. As a young person I must feel needed and that the politics of our time affect us.”┬á
*Not her real name