Fyness Magonjwa, the Member of Parliament for Machinga South East Constituency, is the youngest legislator, who at just 23 years of age, garnered the trust of thousands of fellow constituents including those with considerably advanced ages. Just like Roy Comsy and Angela Zachepa in the recent past, this young woman constitutes the greatest epitome of political participation by youths in this country.
However, the presence of these individuals in the August House ought to be conceived as negative political participation. This is because their political rise is a result of a bottom-up process. Thus, it had to take the whims of a bigger local population to recognize their potential and capabilities and entrust them with a such huge responsibility.
In contrast, Positive Political Participation has to be top-down. This is where those in the corridors of power create a conducive political environment in order to encourage youth participation in political processes. A good example in this regard rests with Jennifer Chilunga who, at just 29 years of age, was made a Cabinet Minister in Joyce Banda’s government.
Others would quickly argue that Jennifer’s case is not new, anyway. The likes of Aleke Banda and others were also in their 20’s when they, at some point, served as cabinet ministers in Kamuzu Banda’s government. However, these two cases lie in a sharp political dichotomy. Kamuzu Banda was restricted to a small pool of politically informed young lieutenants. Today, the pool has widened and deepened with the majority of the youth living in immense political civilization.
The 2018 Housing and Population Census puts Malawi’s population at 17 million. In this demographic count, the youth population (from 1 to 35 years of age) lies in the excess of 12 million. And who in this current Peter Mutharika Cabinet, for example, falls within this age range? Does this blatant and seemingly ‘affirmative exclusion’ of the youth in such high echelons of political spaces imply, in any way, the absence of desirable managerial and/or political skills in the youth?
Joyce Banda’s appointment of Jennifer, therefore, has to be regarded as extremely rare and almost non-existent among the contemporary political leaders. It is within the same context that any political rise by youthful individuals attracts significant excitement and extraordinary optimism in many. The ecstasy and increased optimism in the youth-like Saulos Chilima. For example, can be argued to have prevented voter apathy among many youths in the May 21 elections. The youth are perhaps enchanted by innovative political engineering which blossoms in political leadership of the youth.
Barriers to youth political participation
The presence of the youth in most significant sectors of the economy and society is blurred. How many are involved in meaningful business enterprises, for example? How many complete formal schooling at tertiary level? Compare this to the number of young men, for example, that have become fathers only for the sake of finding an ‘occupation.’ Check how many young men sit idly around towns.
In the same context, the population of youthful persons that engage in mass protests against governance ills is alarmingly high. This reflects the perception that the youth are more inclined to participating in informal political processes. In many cases, the avenues for such informal political processes include activism, protests and campaigns. But also, the youth are often driving forces behind reform movements.
Contrary to these, apparently, politically undesirable practices, there is a tendency by the youth to get involved in civic, service-oriented activities, such as volunteering for a social cause. As it is often observed, a lot of young people may exude significant inclination to joining seemingly apolitical projects such as tree-planting projects than to join a political party, which may be talking about planting trees in the future.
All in all, however, the absence of the youth in political processes is particularly disturbing. It challenges the representativeness of the political system and leads to the marginalization of young citizens. Furthermore, it buttresses typecasts that treat young people as disinterested in political issues, as objects of social policy or simply as troublemakers.
The barriers to political participation by Malawian youth ought to be understood at three levels of capacity. At the individual level, most of the youth experience dearth of technical skills, which effectively prevents their competitive advantage in political processes. But also, they lack motivation to participate in formal, adulted processes.
Another major barrier at the individual level includes the youths’ lack of economic resources, which makes them unable to initiate their plans and actualize their visions. But also, they become susceptible to political manipulation by influential politicians.
At organizational level, most youth-led groups in the country appear to have limited organizational know-how. Again, internal mechanisms, rules and procedures, especially among formal political organizations such as political parties seem not to favour the inclusion of the youth. This, thus, shutters the youths’ aspirations for leadership roles, thereby effectively enhancing their disregard for political processes.
With regards to the environmental level, the Malawian youth are faced with structural constraints including, for example, high eligibility age to contest for elections, especially for the presidency (at 35). As such, the solution to include youth in political processes cannot lie in the capacities of individual youth alone. The socio-political environment, organizations and the youth themselves all have to change in order to move closer together.
The significance of fostering youth political participation
The starting point is that participation is a fundamental democratic right. It should be an end in and of itself to remove existing barriers to youth political participation. From a more purely pragmatic perspective, if young people have the perception that formal political processes are not accessible and/or attractive for them, this can shape their attitudes for a lifetime, with potentially long-lasting negative impacts on a country’s political culture.
It has been found that in new and emerging democracies, the inclusion of youth in formal political processes is important from the start. Through their active contributions, democratic values can come to life, paving the way for the overcoming of authoritarian practices.
In countries where youth led protests have forced authoritarian regimes from power, significant frustration is likely to arise if youth are not included in new formal decision-making procedures. This might have a destabilizing effect on democratization.
What’s real political participation?
Due attention should be paid to the difference between meaningful youth political participation and what can be called tokenistic, pseudo-participatory activities. Many activities claiming to foster youth participation do not effectively give young people a voice and influence in decision-making.
Tokenism in this context implies a situation when young people appear to have been given a voice, but really have little or no choice about how they participate. It is participation for participation’s sake or for a photo opportunity.
On the other hand, effective and meaningful youth political participation can be seen in three ways. First, it can be consultative, where young people’s voices are heard in an adult-assigned consultation process, where they have capacities, a mandate and information to fully perform their roles, or through a youth-led advocacy initiative.
Second, it can entail a youth-led participation, where young people have a direct impact on decision-making within their own youth communities, such as through youth-led NGOs, student councils, youth parliaments with competencies and budgets, just to name a few.
Third, it can involve youth collaborative participation, where young people effectively take part in regular political decision-making processes, including as voters, or as members of parliament, political parties or advocacy groups.
How to foster meaningful and effective youth participation?
To enhance positive political participation, there is need for the political leadership to make deliberate efforts to include the youth in the high echelons of power. Where the leadership also engages the youth, then a number of principles ought to be observed and regarded so earnestly.
There is need for those in power to be transparent. Thus, they need to inform the youth about the purpose, scope and procedures of the process they are participating in. It should be clear from the beginning what the potential impact of the exercise is.
At the same time, they also have to respect the position of the youth by approaching them as active agents who have the rights to participate and be heard. In the same way, to avoid making the participation a one-off event, mechanisms need to be in place to ensure follow-up, implementation of youth decisions and accountability to youth constituencies.
Again, activities to enhance youth political participation should be as youth-driven as possible. Young people themselves can decide on their priorities, methods and tactics. The environment and working methods can be adapted to participants’ capacities and needs.
Depending on the target age group and context, activities might focus on, among other options: informal, results-oriented projects; low access barriers; easy language; being issue-driven; being competitive with a game element; or technology if educated youth are targeted.
To achieve inclusivity, appropriate methods can be applied to give marginalized groups of youth equal chances to participate, such as young women, ethnic minorities, illiterate youth, rural dwellers and youth with special needs.
Njoloma is a regular contributor to the Lamp Magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org