U.S. and Zimbabwean youth debate participation in politics

Harare, July 6, 2012: Over 40 young people from the United States and Zimbabwe on Tuesday discussed youth activism and participation in politics at a Food for Thought discussion in the U.S. Embassy auditorium at Eastgate Mall.  Leading the discussion were two American graduate students currently working as summer interns at the Embassy.  The Americans highlighted the growing influence of information and communication technologies in recent U.S. elections and noted social media’s growing popularity in Zimbabwe’s context.

Zimbabwean youth and US students involved in politics debate

Zimbabwean youth and US students involved in politics debate

“It is important for youth throughout the world to get out and vote for candidates.  Our votes will be considerably different than the adult population vote,” said Michael Caldwell, a law student at Loyola College of Law in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Caldwell co-facilitated the Food for Thought discussion with Grace Chung, a student of International Relations and China at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The discussion was attended by several youth groups and covered aspects of the American 2008 elections, which resulted in the Barack Obama presidency.  The definition of a “youth” in the U.S. is someone between the ages of 18-29; 18 is the voting age.

“Youths are increasingly being involved in politics through technology.  75% have a social networking account,” said Caldwell, who highlighted the work of websites such as Moveon.org where youths create profiles and can post petitions.  “This is another way we stay engaged in the political system in America and how the ideas of the youth are being heard,” he said.

Chung added, “I get tons of political news through Facebook, where young people will talk about politics and how it affects them.”  She said phone applications were being developed to engage youth every minute and attributed the huge turnout of youth in the 2008 elections to sites such as Facebook and the historic candidature of eventual winner President Obama.

Their Zimbabwean counterparts queried issues regarding politically motivated violence, the use of force to coerce youth to participate in politics, and political campaigns on campuses.  The use of technology in Zimbabwe was also noted as the country has witnessed significant growth in the ICT sector recently.   In his 2012 budget speech, Finance Minister Tendai Biti noted that the “Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector remains one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.”

“Concurrently,” noted the Minister, “the voice penetration rate or tele-density has improved, reaching 68% in 2011, of which mobile penetration accounted for 65%, making Zimbabwe one of the countries with the highest rates alongside South Africa, Botswana, and Mozambique.”

The three main mobile service providers now have 8.1 million subscribers.

Chung and Caldwell are in Zimbabwe as State Department summer interns on a program which allows American students to gain hands-on experience in the work of the U.S. government abroad.

During the wide-ranging discussion, the two students cited the generation gap, race, passion and personal and family circumstance as key determinants in political participation for youth in the U.S.

“Old people are angry with the government… more young people are satisfied with the way U.S. is going….  There is a huge generation gap in the way young people and old people view issues that are very important in U.S. politics,” said Chung.  – ZimPAS(c)  July 6, 2012.