At 37 years of age I am still confused by the need older people seem to have to refer to me as mukomana or mfana, both meaning boy. Do they think it’s a term of endearment or do they feel some subliminal obligation to put me in my place, that being below them in the patriarchal hierarchy that is, for lack of a better term, African society. This happens in just about every kind of interaction imaginable and I can’t think of any situation where such a reference would be anything but derogatory.
I consciously don’t do it to men younger than I am because I know how much it pisses them off too. Where it is most irritating is when it happens in professional situations, there you are trying to get through a meeting, taking or giving instruction and it gets thrown in like some random slap in the face to wake you up from any illusion that you were being taken seriously. At what age does one graduate from being called mfana, does it ever happen? I grudgingly take it from my father and older relatives but beyond this family circle should I have to tolerate it?
Time for real change
President Mugabe is on record referring to his cabinet and party executive as boys girls numerous times in both Shona and English. There are many stories of these same men and women literally grovelling at his feet, one minister has proudly acknowledged going as far as to sign his letters to the President, “Your ever obedient son Obert Mpofu”. Good for him if that works for him but is this really what or who we are? Recently Prime Minister Tsvangirai publicly castigated the MDC T youth leader Solomon Madzore for allegedly inciting violence, in warning him and the youth league, the PM said ” manje vapfana vangu . . ” (now my boys . . ). Now besides the fact that Madzore, in my opinion did no such thing, where does the man who claims to represent change get off referring to a senior party member as a boy, at a rally no less? Madzore has been in and out of jail for his party numerous times in the last two years and still has cases pending linked to party activities and this is the man you name and rebuke in public whilst calling him “mfana”?
With this kind of prevailing attitude from our political leaders its then no surprise that they may have limited appeal for many between the ages of 18 and 40. On January 28 this year Minister of Youth Development, Indiginisation and Empowerment Saviour Kasukuwere was in Bulawayo to meet the youth and talk to them about government initiatives to empower them. He did not have an easy time of it as they expressed their displeasure at government intransigence on these same initiatives very clearly. Is this lack of commitment to the youth symptomatic of the practices I alluded to earlier? I believe it is and with these practices so entrenched in our society what hope really is there for true youth development in Zimbabwe? Are the over 60s who run this country willing to change their ways or genuinely hand over power to a more vibrant and attuned generation?
How to treat the youth (vote) right
Now I know this is an oft trotted out comparison but I believe it is incredibly relevant to this discussion. Barrack Obama’s 2008 presidential run is often cited as having changed the way political campaigns are done around the world. Countless analysts have identified the community organisation strategy as the secret weapon that won him the election. His campaign team composed of the greatest number of such youth volunteers ever assembled and they delivered. Recently whilst in South Africa President Obama held a town hall meeting at Johannesburg University’s Soweto campus with youth from South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, at no time during that meeting did I hear him refer to them as anything but young men and women or ladies and gentlemen. I am a keen Obama watcher and at no time since 2007 when he announced his bid for his party’s nomination have I ever heard him refer to his campaign team as boys and girls.
The mutual respect evident in that first campaign saw the youth volunteers come out swinging for President Obama the second time around ensuring a comfortable win and second term in office. This is non-existent in Zimbabwean politics and society at large, the youth are simply expected to do their duty. They are not seen by the politicians as a voting block who must be wooed despite making up the majority of the population.
Beware the ghosts of March
Whilst I don’t have the statistics, I would wager that those under 40 make up the bulk of Zimbabwe’s voters yet the messages coming out of the campaigns do not seem to be particularly relevant to them. For how long can politicians expect to continue with the same strategies every election and keep a dynamic electorate interested? During the Constitutional Referendum in March this year much was made about the poor voter turnout and many asked if Zimbabweans had not become disinterested in politics. I have not seen these questions being asked now that the elections are here despite the chaos of the voter registration exercise and the disastrous special voting for civil servant earlier this week. At the time of the referendum there was talk that the youth had not come out in their numbers and this voter apathy was a worry for the coming elections. Jump to two weeks before harmonised elections and what has been done to bring the youth to the ballot box? Very little from what I can see. Instead we have candidates continuing to treat them as their children and in some cases, private militia, moving through areas coercing people to attend rallies or to keep other politicians out of “their leaders'” constituency or ward. Youth voter apathy has not been properly dealt with and politicians might be in for a rude surprise come July 31, then again, I could be wrong.
In my ideal Zimbabwe no-one will manipulate the youth or anyone else for that matter in this way and mutual respect will reign supreme in all our dealings with each other. So Mr, Ms or Mrs Candidate, if you want my vote, don’t call me mfana!