Voter apathy in general and youth voter apathy in particular remains a major challenge in Botswana. Thus the rationale plus hypothesis of the 4th October 1997 Referendum that among others; reduced the voting age to 18years has arguably never been realised. This is unfortunate for the referendum had important implications for Botswana's democratic system in general and the electoral system in particular. The issue of principal concern was that the electoral system should widen political participation to groups that were previously excluded from electoral politics; emanating the advances of emerging democracies in the region such as Namibian and South African (at that time). In a journal article titled ‘The political implications of the 4 October 1997 referendum for Botswana’ veteran political scientist, Mpho G. Molomo clarifies unambiguously the referendum as an instrument for improving Botswana's electoral system.
The Independent Electoral Commission (ICE) has correctly been blamed for this undesirable state of our democratic and electoral fabric. Their incompetence cannot be over emphasised; their continued failure to embark in meaningful and sustainable political and citizen consciousness, their constant disappearance after national elections only to surface for bye elections or the next general election; the absence of the long overdue online registration and voting, general failure to stimulate momentum and sometimes trust among citizens as well as failure to reach their own realistic 1.4 million registration target this year. Nonetheless in direct and indirect wording, IEC has on several accounts admitted to their lack of effectiveness and in most cases promised to improve.
The scope of this article is not to recite the well-known shortfalls of the IEC, which is undeniably propelling voter apathy at large. This article serves to accentuate a parallel and uncommon school of thought regarding flourishing voter apathy at large, particularly Youth Voter Apathy in Botswana.
Side by side with IEC, Youth Leagues (YLs) have fruitfully created an environment that supports and nurtures a trend of youth voter apathy to flourish. This submission and observation is substantively informed by the purpose of existence and establishment of YLs. According to the constitutions of mainstream political parties (with and without active YLs) one of the major fundamental roles of YLs is to attract youth membership and youth votes to the respective movements. Thus, the existence and measure of YLs should be based fundamentally on figures of youth that join and maintain party membership, eventually registering and voting for the respective movement during elections. This is a process very independent form the IEC as you may sense.
In a multi-party democracy like ours YLs have an obligation to invest their (limited/abundant) resources, energy, innovation and time in youth political education above anything else. Without this any other effort from these structures is purely entertainment or recreation and does not essentially translate to votes and party membership. If need be, I will be glad to quote endless forums were Botswana youth have made it clear they will not participate in the up-coming general election for they do not see the need. The notion of youth being used as ‘Political Fodder’ is not a mere academic hypothesis; it has been raised by youth over and over but never rebutted beyond reasonable doubt. This notion plus low levels of political consciousness principally accounts for youth voter apathy in Botswana. World famous icon, Nelson Mandela made it clear that it is only through talking to a human being in his ‘language’ that we can be able to make meaningful impact in their lives: In this regard it is not the party elders nor the IEC that is best placed to speak to youth (about elections), it is their peers in party and leadership positions. The ‘fanagaloo’ that youth use on a day today basis, is the language that should be used by youth to speak to the minds and hearts of other youth; borrowing from Mandela’s recommendation. It is for this reason that YLs should be challenged to lead this process, revisit their mandate, focus and purpose of existence. Their fundamental objective is to bring numbers (membership and votes) to the movement everything else is secondary. Similarly the mother party and the lager party membership should task YLs with meaningful and quantifiable membership targets short and long term. In this dimension (consciously/unconsciously) the statics of youth that take interest in the democratic process and ultimately registering to vote increases. Consequently and collectively, youth voter registration will be increased, as a direct and large role of progressive and effective YLs, independent of IEC.
It will be narrow-minded to discuss and challenge YLs without cross-examining the socio political environment they exist in. It is an open secret that YLs face acute challenges that restrict them from effectively serving their intended functions/roles these include; server apathy/neglect, dysfunctional structures, ambiguous legal standing, constitution disregard, relegation to cheerleading roles and singing in choirs, financial vulnerability of youth leaders, severe infiltration by mother-party factions plus, weak financial and structural capacity. Political commentator Ralph Mathekga summaries these as the ‘Youth League Dilemma’ political parties have to address before expecting anything from YLs. In her book ‘An inconvenient youth’ Irish political and current affairs journalist Fiona Forde illustrates these YL challenges using some recent political developments in Africa and Nairobi political scientist Cosmas J. O. Kanyadudi presents tried and tested sustainable solution to these challenges in a journal publication titled ‘From the Wings to the Mainstream’.
In respect of the above submissions, IEC or no IEC; YLs have a fundamental duty to serve. They have an exclusive obligation to escalate youth political consciousness and activism at party and national levels. It is an onus that ought to be honored for healthy growth of our cherished republic and it’s internationally acclaimed democratic fabric.
*Taziba is a youth advocate and researcher with keen interest in youth policy, civic engagement, social inclusion and capacity building.