Thursday, April 9, 2020

Youth under-utilising immense collective power as voters and consumers

There is no way in the world that President Mokgweetsi Masisi takes any real interest in a gangland-origin sport called car-spinning. A few years ago however, Vice President Masisi not only showed up at a car-spinning contest in Gaborone but also got inside a car that was spun around for the amusement of a crowd of enthusiasts.

The youth are now the largest voter constituency and electoral democracy demands that all roads to the State House should pass through youth interests. One road passes through car-spinning arenas where a politician can put in an appearance in order to ingratiate himself with youth voters.

This is immense political power but one that the youth are not using in a sustained and systematic manner. Either by design or coincidence, democracy works best and on a more regular basis for rich people. On the other hand, voters have to wait for the primary and national election seasons (which, combined, can be a little more than a year) to exercise any real power over politicians. That notwithstanding, that short window of opportunity brings with it real power. “Short window of opportunity” because after the elections, politicians don’t even pretend to care about voters – politics itself was never designed to provide such service. Only three months after the 2019 general election, some MPs and councillors have already stopped answering phone calls from their constituents and will continue doing so until the start of the 2024 election cycle.

Voters in general allow politicians to go on an extended honeymoon and in the case of MPs, to turn the Parliamentary Village, their official residence in Gaborone, into a luxury retreat. That is because voters are not organised in the same way that voters in mature democracies are. If there were vibrant youth movements, they would be able to lobby the government on issues that matter most to them. They would be organised under a non-partisan national youth movement which, unlike the Botswana National Youth Council, would be neither government-funded nor an extension of the Botswana Democratic Party Youth Wing. 

Top of the list of issues that affect Botswana youth the most are quality education and unemployment. Graduate unemployment has a lot to do with not just the vagaries of the job market but the quality of education that the young people are getting as well. The Botswana Qualifications Authority was supposed to firewall students against fly-by-night schools but the Authority has clearly not been able to do that. Truth be told, only public tertiary education institutions (TEIs) are properly resourced and private ones are just commercial ventures whose operations are guided by the profit motive. The latter are largely responsible for the unemployment problem because they produce graduates whom the job market cannot realistically accommodate.

The latter notwithstanding, there has never been a sustained and systematic campaign for quality education by the collective student body at the defaulting TEIs. There is understanding that electoral democracy is basically about trading favours and if the umbrella body for the student representative councils of these TEIs embarked on such campaign, the government would be forced to ensure that they get it. Opposition parties would also be forced to not only join this campaign but to also begin to address this issue in much more substantive terms. The latter is certainly not the case with any opposition party – which means that an Umbrella for Democratic Change win would not have made any difference.

Ironically, the grievance that the youth have made the most prominent (unemployment) is all too often addressed without paying regard to the quality of education that they receive – which is partly responsible for their employment status in the first place.

Education provides a perfect segue into another area where the youth are also underutilising their power. Not only are they the largest voter constituency, the youth are also the largest consumer demographic – which explains why most adverts are delivered in language that only they understand. Most businesses in Botswana need the patronage of the youth to survive and virtually all of them hire the youth – whom they exploit very badly. Four years ago, Sunday Standard published a story about how waiting staff at Dros Restaurant in Molapo Crossing Mall in Gaborone were being pre-emptively fined P5 per shift for drinking glasses they might break. It turns out that many more high-end restaurants in town are doing the same thing, with one Masa Square restaurant charging waiting staff P20 per shift. Generally, these restaurants exploit the youth in a variety of other very cruel ways. While hired as waitresses, these young people end up doubling as cleaners – which creates a public health risk. In between serving food to customers, these waitresses have to unclog disgustingly-number-two’ed toilets, often without protective clothing.

If the youth coalesced into a consumer movement and embark on an ethical consumption campaign that targets establishments that exploits youth workers, the situation would change overnight. Ethical consumption (alternatively called ethical consumerism, ethical purchasing, moral purchasing, ethical sourcing or ethical shopping) is a type of consumer activism that is based on the concept of “dollar voting” – pula voting in Botswana’s case – and moral boycott of unethical businesses. With liquor laws having been relaxed, high-end restaurants operate for much longer hours, with the service being provided by exploited youth. If Botswana youth waged a national ethical consumption campaign and mobilised the support of other Batswana, such establishments would be systematically targetted on a sustained basis. If they resisted, they would collapse as viable commercial enterprises within days.

This is not an idle theory but something that has actually been successfully tried in Botswana. In 2011, employees of Cresta hotels went on a nationwide strike to demand better pay. Management stuck its position that there was no money to increase salaries until the Botswana Land Boards, Local Authorities and Health Workers Union waded (BLLHAWU) in. Then BLLHAWU president, Pelotshweu Baeng, warned that if Cresta management was not going to give workers a fair day’s pay, his union would instruct its members to boycott Cresta group hotels. Not only did Cresta management caved in immediately, it also paid the employees more than they had asked for. So, if a national youth consumer movement gives notice to boycott all businesses that exploit young people, there wouldn’t even be need any more to seek the intervention of the Department of Labour and Social Security.

However, there is spade work that needs to be done – lots of it and use of social media in this endeavour will be very limited. Despite its limited success, the Arab Spring is often held out as an example of how the youth can use social media to bring about change but the issue is actually much more complex. The revolutions that swept through the Middle East and North Africa were feeding off the energy of brick-and-mortar movements that preceded the digital era and had taken years of hard work to build. These movements had solid structures on the ground, which structures Facebook and Twitter only piggybacked on to ignite the Arab Spring. A movement that relies on social media alone will fail and a good Botswana example is #IShallNotForget, the short-lived campaign to end the sexual abuse of children. While well-intentioned, this hash-tagged activism turned out to be little more than a made-for-Facebook, pseudo movement and soon fizzled out. That was because it had no solid foundation on the ground.

To sum up: Botswana youth have immense voting and purchasing power; they just need to learn how to unleash it to get the government and capitalism to work for them.

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