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The problem of youth in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe
by Obert Ronald Madondo

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Zimbabwe has been in the world news for some time over issues like farm take-overs, threats of election violence and unfair and politicized food distribution. An important factor in all of this has been President Robert Mugabe's policies of using youth to implement his more violent actions. They have been both victims and perpetrators of Mugabe's descent into dictatorship. Obert Madondo, AfricaFiles' Zimbabwe editor, has had first-hand experience and gives us an insider’s view. He was part of the  political opposition to Mugabe and lets us know how youth, instead of being trained toward civil occupations, have become politicised and brutalized. It is a problem that will remain for Zimbabweans to resolve long after Mugabe is gone.

Green Bombers

They terrorize innocent Zimbabweans, brutalize opposition supporters, force people to buy ZANU PF party membership cards and have been implicated in politically motivated murders over the last three years.  During the drought and food shortages of 2002 and 2003, they played enforcers of government policy – attacking overcharging retailers, arresting people in possession of scarce commodities, confiscating goods and stopping opposition supporters from getting food aid.  They are the Green Bombers, Zimbabwe’s government controlled and supported youth militia. In return for their services, they are rewarded with immunity from prosecution and with jobs in the military and police forces. 

Domestic and international calls for the disbanding of the Green Bombers have gone unheeded.  The militia is sworn to prop up Mugabe’s beleaguered ZANU PF government.  Mugabe insists agents of the imperialist West – in particular Britain and the United States - are conspiring to re-colonize Zimbabwe.  The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), independent journalists and civic activists agitating for the restoration of the rule of law are regarded as Zimbabwean agents of this conspiracy.  For the last five years, these domestic forces have proved so threatening that the youth militia has become the government’s tool of choice for subduing any form of dissent. 

The militia also serves ZANU PF’s need to control an increasingly restive population fed up with an autocratic government which ignores their most basic needs. Fueling that restiveness are the extreme levels of poverty and hunger and an economy in freefall. Indeed, the Zimbabwean economy has so sharply plummeted in the last five years that the current level of unemployment is 70% while inflation soars at more than 600%.

Pre-independence origins

The Green Bombers, said to originate in 2001 when the government initiated the National Youth Service (NYS), are actually the latest of many political youth wings. During the 1960s' and 1970s' struggle for independence from illegal white supremacist rule, the ZANU PF liberation movement was already showing that it expected absolute cooperation from the masses it sought to liberate.  It was, historians have always noted, extremely authoritarian, but since it was fighting a racist government, its allies in Africa and the West turned a blind eye to the killings, torture and cruelty of the ZANU PF leadership, beginning with Mugabe. Cadres who opposed or questioned the leadership were severely punished. The masses who strayed from the course were branded sellouts and publicly punished and humiliated. 

“What was expected of its newly created youth wing was not anything creative or liberating for young people; it merely expected submission.”

Indeed, ZANU PF has always viewed political competition with suspicion and open hostility. Its leadership has always been highly commandist, expecting absolute conformity and accepting no challenge. It was in this context that the first youth militia, the ZANU PF Youth League, was formed. It was also during this time that the party began revealing its very traditional approach to leadership -- for what was expected of its newly created youth wing was not anything creative or liberating for young people; it merely expected submission to the party and loyalty to its leaders. 

Culture of obedience

Tragically, Zimbabwe youth fell victim to a traditional leadership model found in most, if not all, political parties in Zimbabwe before the MDC. Traditional African culture dictates youth obedience. Young people have little input in decision-making processes. They are expected to comply without question.  As a result, Zimbabwe youth are generally disempowered and prone to exploitation. 

But the approach of ZANU PF from its founding in the late 1960s is an extreme example of this traditional approach. The Secretary for Youth has always been an older person. The most recent, retired Air Marshall Josiah Tungamirai, is a military man in his fifties.  Whatever input the Youth League had in decisions concerning young people is derivative of the attitudes and wishes of this older generation.  For all its rhetoric on youth empowerment, ZANU PF has an entrenched system of reward and patronage which ensures youth remain dependent on the party leadership.  Jobs in the public service are channeled through the party as rewards for hard work, mostly to youth leaders, who in turn keep control over the rest through promises of similar rewards. 

“Indoctrination is the only kind of education in the party. Opposition is regarded as an enemy of the state, to be crushed.”

Indoctrination is the only kind of education in the party.  Opposition is regarded as an enemy of the state, to be crushed.  The onus is on the Youth League to help the party win elections at all costs.  On the campaign trail, youth engage in Toyi-Toyi, an intimidating military-style war march, chanting party slogans, denouncing and threatening the opposition. 

Independence and the Youth Brigades 

Following Independence in 1980, it was clear that Mugabe intended to create a one-party state in Zimbabwe.  Machinery was required to bring the population, which had no experience with democratic institutions, into line, and it became the Youth League’s job to enforce support and stifle opposition. However, the party leadership decided that the Youth League, while a vital tool in the party arsenal, was not enough. A few months after Independence, therefore, the Youth Brigades movement was launched. 

The stated purpose of the Youth Brigades was to create “politically conscious youth” who wished to participate in developing their newly independent country without necessarily joining the party. In reality, however, the Youth Brigades were simply a duplication of the party’s Youth League.  Both participated in state violence against the opposition.  Thus, whether young Zimbabweans were part of the Youth Brigades or ZANU PF Youth League, they were doing the same thing – and, if one was a member of one, one was likely a member of both. 

During these years, I myself was a target of the miseducation of youth embedded in Zimbabwean society.  Just after independence, my father, then an insignificant party official at the district level, fervently spoke about my duty when I grew up to “crush” Zimbabwe’s enemies.  The last couple of years have given potent meaning to the words “enemy” and “crush”. 

Killing the opposition 

In 1982, two years after Independence, a brutal civil war erupted in the country’s southwestern Matabeleland and Midlands provinces. The government blamed followers of its former liberation partner, the opposition Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo, and launched a double-pronged attack.  The army, police and Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) went after the dissidents.  The ZANU PF Youth League and Youth Brigades, augmented by special units of the army, police and CIO, were unleashed on ZAPU and its unarmed civilian supporters. Some 10,000 innocent civilians were massacred and as many as 30,000 injured and displaced up until 1988, according to a credible investigation, Breaking the Silence: Building True Peace, undertaken by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Legal Resources Commission and made public in 1997. The government has never responded to this report. 

“The repression ... generated and institutionalized a culture of fear and consolidated the youth militias’ violent role.”

The repression in Matabeleland and Midlands generated and institutionalized a culture of fear and consolidated the youth militias’ violent role. Although the Youth Brigades were disbanded in the mid-1980s due to a shortage of funding, the Youth League continued as the party’s enforcers. Preceding the 1985 general elections, ZANU PF party officials made inflammatory speeches encouraging violence. Mugabe himself then said: “The ZANU PF axe must continue to fall upon the necks of rebels when we find it no longer possible to persuade them into the harmony that binds us all.” ZAPU was branded a “snake in the house”, whose head had to be chopped off, and its members were “weeds in the garden” that had to be removed. Not surprisingly, the election saw more organized violence and destruction of property, perpetrated by the Youth League. Mugabe also began playing the role of benevolent protector, pardoning the killers in his party, the perpetrators of the civil war and election violence – mostly youth. The 1990 general elections saw even more violence by the Youth League, whose members, once again, were pardoned. 

Lost decade 

The 1980s were a tragic decade for the political development of Zimbabwe’s youth. Independence and the multi-party elections of 1980 had failed to usher in a culture of pluralism. Because of the violent repression in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, opposition politics had become the equivalent of a death wish. Indeed, the 1987 Unity Accord dealt a decisive blow to what was left of opposition politics when Mugabe dragged ZAPU, the only viable opposition, into a merger.  The remaining opposition parties lacked national character, and so had little appeal for young people. 

Buoyed by its new status, ZANU PF challenged the population to participate in the consolidation of national unity and peace. But youth who were eager to participate had only one avenue open to them – the Youth League.  To be a politically active young person in Zimbabwe in the 1980s required one to have a ZANU PF party card and to participate in party-directed activities. Abstaining meant losing out on government loans and economic empowerment programs, which were often dispensed through the Youth League. 

Youth enlightenment 

The 1990s was the decade of disillusionment -- and enlightenment -- for Zimbabwean youth. Lack of opposition had temporarily thrown the Youth League out of business. The worsening economic situation affected youth more than any other group. Open disgruntlement replaced the fear of the eighties. University students became a source of inspiration for the young people who opposed the government. The students’ struggle – often over poor housing, lack of loans, high tuition, crumbling infrastructure and demoralized teaching staff – was far removed from national politics, but they boldly confronted police brutality when they went on strike. By demanding democratic reforms and speaking out against human rights abuses, the students filled in for an opposition and kept the democratic spirit alight. Civic organizations mushroomed and provided ordinary youth with democratic leadership training and platforms for human rights and democracy activism. 

“I revealed through my own participation how easily the attitudes cultivated in the ZANU PF Youth League trickled down to other Zimbabwean youth.”

This was when my own activism began – and when I revealed through my own participation how easily the attitudes cultivated in the ZANU PF Youth League trickled down to other Zimbabwean youth. In 1995, I led youth supporters of former outspoken Member of Parliament Margaret Dongo when she stood as an independent candidate against a ZANU PF candidate during a by-election in Harare South constituency.  We defended ourselves from the violence of marauding ZANU PF Youth Leaguers with violence of our own.  To guarantee that our mothers would make the trip to the polls on election day, we ‘neutralized’ the ZANU PF Youth League in the constituency.  Our modus operandi, attitude and goal -- to win the election at all costs -- was the same as that of the ZANU PF Youth League. And we succeeded. After Dongo’s victory, Harare South became a no-go area for ZANU PF.  They had to join us or shut up. 

In 1996, another government attempt to maintain control of Zimbabwe’s youth was launched. The 21st February Movement, an organization commemorating Mugabe’s birthday, was given the prominence befitting a national holiday. Although it achieves little by way of youth empowerment, no expense is spared in bussing and feasting youth between the ages of 10 and 30, who exult and glorify Mugabe with cult-like fervour. But the further Zimbabwe sank into the political and economic quagmire, the less young people identified with the “Great Leader”. 

2000 elections and the National Youth Service 

In the run-up to the 2000 parliamentary elections, the ZANU PF Youth League joined with another party-sponsored organization, the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans’ Association, allies of Mugabe and avid supporters of his skewed land reform policy.  These two groups went on a rampage – killing opposition supporters and white farmers, destroying property and invading commercial farms.  Their thuggery filled the country with violence, helping Mugabe to beat Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC by just over 400 000 votes in the 2002 presidential election. 

However, the 2000 parliamentary elections revived an increasingly militant youth.  The opposition MDC, launched in 1999, already had in its top leadership a sizeable number of young people, most of whom had been student activists.  A strong youth presence in the MDC did not just provide a counterbalance to the ZANU PF Youth League but also meant the beginning of the end of the ruling party’s stranglehold on Zimbabwean youth.  It exposed the failure of the Youth League and its hirelings as viable youth movements. 

But the government was not about to give up its cheapest resource without a fight. This time its counter-strategy was the National Youth Service program (NYS). In proposing the NYS in late 2000 -- barely six months after the election (MDC taking 57 of the 120 contested seats) -- the government deliberately sought once again to hijack Zimbabwe’s youth. Ominously, the creation of “politically conscious youth”, the catch-phrase of the Youth Brigades, was again put forward as the main argument for the new programme by the then Minister of Youth, Gender and Employment Creation, Border Gezi. 

The NYS also aimed to instill a “sense of responsible citizenship among the youth” and to prepare them for “the world and for work in their country”.  It proposed to inculcate youth with a sense of national duty, patriotism and responsibility to uphold Zimbabwean and African culture and values.  The syllabus proposed to “integrate youth in all government policies”, “provide opportunities for youth employment and participation in development” and “develop vocational skills”.  It also proposed to “reduce teenage pregnancies, the spread of HIV/AIDS, alcohol and substance abuse… (and) promote gender equality”. 

In reality, however, the programme was used to punish opposition youth. An NYS certificate of attendance became a pre-requisite for joining the army or police or for enrolling in government vocational training institutions. HIV/AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, unwanted pregnancies, rape and poor health from lack of food were what the NYS really got, according to press conferences held by those who ran away to South Africa. 

“In reality (the National Youth Service) was used to punish opposition youth... (and) to create a ready human bank for militia recruitment.”

Furthermore, it soon became obvious that the NYS was a guise to create a ready human bank for militia recruitment.  By July 2003, weapons training had been included in the curriculum and the programme had become indisputable recruitment turf for the Green Bombers. Indeed, perhaps the most frightening aspect of the program is its militarism.  The program is run by retired Zimbabwe National Army Brigadier General Boniface Hurungudu.  Instruction during training is provided by military personnel, war veterans and ex-dissidents, linking the programme to the liberation war and to the atrocities committed in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces by both the military and dissidents. 

New levels of violence 

Until five years ago, youth violence in Zimbabwe had been confined mostly to the electoral season.  After elections, youth ceased their violent ways and dissolved back into mainstream society. Even during elections, youth rarely had access to the kind of conventional weapons that the Green Bombers use today. Nor was their training so militaristic. 

Today, the violence of the Green Bombers is always in season. “Traitors” pay dearly.  Traitors are people who want democracy, who demand their rights and freedoms. No one should question the Third Chimurenga, the war of liberation by which the land previously expropriated by white colonialists is being seized. Zimbabweans should be grateful. They owe ZANU PF an eternal debt of gratitude for their liberation. Indeed, the party has not really changed from the guerilla movement it was 25 years ago. It still sounds and acts like an uncompromising, undemocratic guerilla force. In a speech President Mugabe gave on August 11, 2003, during the commemoration of heroes of the liberation struggle, he said: “Those who seek unity must not be our enemies.  No, we say to them they must repent…  They must first be together with us, speak the same language with us, walk alike and dream alike.” And of course, failure to do so may well merit a visit from the Green Bombers. 

“The B-team” and the future 

The creation and arming of the Green Bombers along with the war veterans was a desperate but well-calculated ploy by Mugabe to arrest the current winds of change and sabotage the opposition and any successive government.  This militia for a long time to come will fight to retain ZANU PF in power as a continuing guarantee for immunity from punishment under the law.  The militia acts with absolute impunity.  In an interview with the Solidarity Peace Trust, Zimbabwe and South Africa, in late 2003, a militia member said: “We got a lot of power.  Our source of power is the encouragement we’re getting, particularly from the police and others. It was instilled in us that whenever we go out, we’re free to do whatever we want and nobody was going to question that.” 

Recently, a Green Bomber was quoted in the local papers as saying, “We’re ZANU PF’s ‘B’ team.  The army is the ‘A’ team, and we do the things government does not want the ‘A’ team to do.” 

Alarm bells should sound loudly, for a more lethal, better trained and equipped militia awaits the opposition in the next parliamentary elections due in March, 2005. Should ZANU PF lose the next election, the new government would have to confront a section of society blindly dedicated to an ideology defined by narrow nationalism, hatred and vengeance.  These youth have been indoctrinated and, in a future democratic Zimbabwe, they will require “constructive engagement” -- a re-education in human rights and civic responsibilities. Counselling and rehabilitation will be imperative. The aggrieved Zimbabwean population will have to show a willingness to forgive the youth, accept them back into society and do all it can to re-orient them to the time-tested African ideal of respect for fellow human beings. 

“In a future democratic Zimbabwe, (youth) will require ‘constructive engagement’ – a re-education in human rights and civic responsibilities.”

In short, the current Zimbabwe opposition will have the weighty responsibility of giving back to youth that which Mugabe and ZANU PF robbed them of – dignity. 

AfricaFiles select bibliography and links: 

  1. AfricaFiles: Zimbabwe pagewww.africafiles.org/zimbabwe.asp. (Many articles on our website.)
  2. Behind the Smokescreen: The politics of Zimbabwe’s general elections by John MW Makumbe and Daniel Compagnon. (Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications, 2000).
  3. Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980-1988. (Harare: The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and The Legal Resources Foundation of Zimbabwe, 1997, two volumes.)
  4. Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the struggle for power in Zimbabwe by David Blair. (London and New York: Continuum, 2003.)
  5. National Youth Service Training: An overview of youth militia training and activities in Zimbabwe, October 2000 – August 2003. (Johannesburg: The Solidarity Peace Trust, September, 2003.)
  6. Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the tragedy of Zimbabwe by Martin Meredith. (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2002.)
  7. The Struggle for Zimbabwe: The Chimurenga War by David Martin and Phyllis Johnson. (London: Faber and Faber, 1981.)
  8. Where We Have Hope by Andrew Meldrum. (John Murray, 2004.)
  9. Zimbabwe: The politics of national liberation and internal division. (Harare and Brussels: International Crisis Group, October 2002.)

Forum Discussion

       "Well, each dictator uses young people. Hitler had them too and we have heard of the KANU Youth wingers in Kenya as well. The problem is that they are not educated through committing atrocities. This has to stop. How can we allow Mugabe to destroy yet another future generation for his personal gains?
       "The young people should be told that they are Zimbabweans; what they do is not right and it will have a long term effect on their lives even after Mugabe has left."
       — Bagenda-Sssemugooma
       Manchester, United Kingdom

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