Zimbabwe pressured by youth bulge

Young people lent ardent support to Tuesday's demonstrations in Harare.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Heeding a call from Zimbabwe's beleaguered opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), protesters shut down much of Harare Tuesday in the largest expression of public discontent since tumultuous presidential elections one year ago this week.

Opposition supporters in the capital city threw up makeshift barricades, burned at least one bus, and shut down shops and factories. At the same time, police helicopters swooped overhead, and heavily armed riot police tear-gassed crowds in at least six places around Harare.

The demonstrations against the government of President Robert Mugabe, who denies MDC charges that he stole last year's election, are a sign of new life for the opposition, which has faced increasing criticism for failing to take strong action. They also highlight the urgency many Zimbabweans feel for change.

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With more than half the country under the age of 18 and employment opportunities bleak, young people often dream of a better future outside Zimbabwe. But the size of yesterday's demonstrations indicate that many here are willing to try to change things from the inside.

"People have heeded this call because 70 percent of the population is unemployed. They have heeded this call because of the heightened oppression...." says MDC spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi. "We decided that it was time for the people of Zimbabwe to make their voices heard."

Mr. Nyathi estimates that 80 percent of businesses in Harare have been closed due to the strike and that at least 100 people have been arrested and 20 injured.

Many of the strike's most ardent supporters are people like Moses Chamanga, an unemployed former student who handed out fliers in Harare today in support of the mass action.

Many in Mr. Chamanga's generation, known as the "born-frees" because they were born after Zimbabwe's independence, blame the government for the country's current economic troubles, and place less value on the freedom-fighting credentials of the current leadership. They are more Western, urban, and better-educated than their parents. And because they now comprise well over half the country's population, largely due to the decimation of older generations from AIDS, their voices are becoming an increasingly important force.

"This is a generation that says, 'Don't teach us about the struggle, talk to us about the present and where we are going,' " explains Masipula Sithole, director of the University of Zimbabwe's Mass Public Opinion Institute. "I look to the young people rather than the generation past. They're already beginning to change things."

Zimbabwe is one of the youngest countries on the world's youngest continent. This seismic demographic shift is most evident in cities like Bulawayo and Harare, to which many young people have flocked in recent years in search of work.

Young people tend to bear the brunt of Zimbabwe's high unemployment and deteriorating economy. Economists say that annual inflation hovers around 220 percent and could top 350 percent by year's end.

Surges in youth populations have overwhelmed schools and other public services, taxing already overstretched government budgets. And when young people begin to flood the job market, as they have here, the economy is simply not large enough to accommodate them all.

Although economists say the decline here began as long ago as a decade, Zimbabwe's economy has been in a two-year-long tailspin brought on by the government's chaotic land reform program and strict economic controls. Instead of the ABCs, people here are talking about the "Three Fs:" no food, no fuel, no foreign currency.

The urge to leave is pervasive among the country's more educated youth. Many dream of going to school in America or finding jobs in England.

"The whole situation for young people in Zimbabwe doesn't give you much hope," says a 25-year-old architecture graduate named Lesley, who can count only a handful of college friends who have stayed. "If you have the money, then the first thing you think of is how to leave."

A recent study of Zimbabwe's youth conducted by Professor Sithole and the Mass Public Opinion Institute indicates that 75 percent of young Zimbabweans, from primary school age to 25, would like to leave. The results cut across gender and education levels and hold true for both urban and rural youth.

The government is aware of the strength young Zimbabweans wield and has pressed many into National Youth Service, pro-ruling party militias nicknamed the "green bombers" for the uniforms they wear.

The bombers, who receive food, clothing, and housing from the government, are said to commit rape and torture against urban communities believed to be pro-opposition, a claim they deny.

The government has vowed to crack down on today's MDC demonstrations, which they call illegal. Protests were expected to continue today.

Professor Sithole says many young people will stay to fight or return if they see the possibility for change. "We were less willing in the beginning to become involved," he says of his generation and the liberation struggle. "But eventually we became involved. The born-frees will come back."

Material from the wire services were used in this report.

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