40 years after Independence, the young people of Zimbabwe want to use their energies and entrepreneurial spirit to find their place.

But they face environmental hardships, a struggling economy, and a challenging political system. 

Zimbabwe once held the nickname ‘the jewel of Africa,' thanks to productive agriculture and natural resources, and strong public services. However, 40 years on since the country’s independence, a misfiring economy and difficult political climate have taken their toll.

As the latest in our Next Generation research series finds, young people aged 18-35 have been severely affected by dwindling opportunities and a limited voice. 

A 'hustling' youth

In 2017 the 37 year leadership of the late President Robert Mugabe came to an end and there was a window of possibility for change. Yet recent challenges have marginalized young people, and voter apathy is rife as they no longer believe in their ability to influence. 

One respondent summed it up by saying: 'As youths we are told to vote each and every time there is an election in Zimbabwe, but I don’t really see the use of voting because the outcome is always the same. We try to act and be patriotic… but it’s always the same; we are the ones that suffer whilst other people gain.'

The impact of a struggling economy has dominated the lives of young Zimbabweans and was focus of much of the report. Whilst 59 per cent of those surveyed identified as being employed, around half of that employment is informal. Within this group, a strong discussion revolved around the practice of entrepreneurism and ’hustling’, with one respondent pointing out that it’s much easier to make a decent salary ‘hustling’ in the unofficial economy than trying to get a formal salary.  

With over 80 per cent of young people defining success as being financially independent, and 61 per cent aspiring for a career as an entrepreneur, the lack of access to business loans and a supportive policy environment has pushed many into informal or even illegal sectors.

While many young people do possess the individual motivation to engage in entrepreneurial activities, others see this as their only option. As one respondent comments: 'If we really want to make it big, our fortunes lie not in formal employment but in entrepreneurship. It is only when you are your own boss that you can really get meaningful returns and care for your family like you would really want to.'

Furthermore, because employees are no longer able to be paid wages in cash, as one respondent said: 'we have to go to town to collect our salaries, where we spend hours in bank queues.' 

What is evident is not a lack of desire or ability to work, but a need for employment opportunities to be available and financially worthwhile.  

Formal employment seems to be higher amongst European- and Indian-background minority youth within Zimbabwe, which many attribute to their families passing on the family business and employment opportunities to family members. 

For the 41 per cent who identified as unemployed and dependent, many still see the benefit in pursuing an education, despite high costs. With hope of the job market improving whilst they are building their skills and education, 71 per cent of respondents would seek opportunities abroad. Brain drain is a growing reality. 

Finally, many in Zimbabwe note issues with lack of technological skills and infrastructure in light of the 4th industrial revolution, and need to be addressed if young Zimbabweans are to be prepared for employment and a changing global economy.

Politics and disengagement

Young people in Zimbabwe have historically played a role in shaping the direction of the country. Black African activists, Joshua Nkomo and Ndabaningi Sithole mobilised young people against the repression of colonial Rhodesia in the 1960’s, culminating in the formations of various nationalist political formations such as the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its offshoots, including the ruling ZANU-PF, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). Political parties and their youth wings have played and continue to play a role in daily life. 

However, many have grown to feel disenfranchised and disengaged with politics. There is a lack of trust in the democratic process, with participation in politics strongly based on party affiliation. As some Zimbabweans put it '…one’s participation is determined by their political affiliation' with 'the government… continu[ing] to perpetuate [the] marginalisation of many.'

This is not to say that governments and civil society actors have not tried to provide solutions to the challenges facing Zimbabwe’s youth. Initiatives such as the Youth Empowerment policy have been implemented in coordination with government ministries, local organisations, and international NGOs. Yet awareness of such policies is limited, with over 80 per cent of respondents not aware of them.

The report recommends better engagement, communication, and consultation with young people in order for the government to be able to support their needs.

With a tense and contested history between different ethnic communities, colonial legacies remain in today’s Zimbabwe. Post-independence policies too have continued to impact the social integration of different ethnic groups.

In the shadow of land reform practices in the 2000s, young people of European descent feel unwelcome in the politics of the country. As one young Zimbabwean of European descent mentioned: 'I studied Political Science at university, but I cannot put it into practice here in Zimbabwe. My dad would not allow it. He says politics is not for me anymore.' 

The countries that the young people surveyed said they had the most positive attitudes towards were the USA, UK, and other Anglophone countries.

Interestingly, given the growing presence of Chinese business interests in Zimbabwe and the wider content, China was only 9th most popular out of 15 countries asked about in the survey. 

The southern African philosophy of Ubuntu/Unhu, meaning that one is a product of their community – 'I am because you are' - is both challenged and reinforced throughout the report. On the one hand, many young people feel that the concept of community and ethical behaviour is limited and getting worse, in part due to political frustration and the economic situation.

Additionally, young people and families are having to seek employment elsewhere in Zimbabwe and beyond. The situation has caused a stronger sense of belonging to their local communities, but less so at a national level.

In order to move past its current problems and be better prepared for a globally connected and technologically driven future, the youth of Zimbabwe are calling for a greater degree of participation.

Some of the recommendations made by young people called for Government to help install structures to allow greater engagement with young people, and promote a bottom-up approach which uses their collective power to drive change.  As one respondent puts it 'we must unite as youth or we shall perish together.'

* With thanks to Roland Davies, Country Director Zimbabwe British Council