Harare, Zimbabwe – On Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa will clash in a crucial presidential election – the second time they meet at the polls in five years.
In 2018, Mnangagwa, with ZANU-PF, polled 2,460,463 (50.8 percent), while Nelson Chamisa, formerly of MDC-A and now CCC, garnered 2,147,437 (44.3 percent) votes, according to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
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Before Wednesday’s election, citizens were complaining of substandard healthcare and harsh economic conditions including high cost of living, high unemployment and high inflation.
According to the 2022 census, people under age 35 make up more than 60 percent of the country’s population. They are a demographic that has struggled during Zimbabwe’s economic woes.
Among these young people are many college and university recent graduates who have resorted to working for meagre pay as fruit vendors and bus conductors, hardly making enough income to survive.
For those voting for the first time, they will be hoping to play a role in defining the trajectory of the nation’s leadership and potentially reshape its future.
Charles Mhaka, a 25-year-old street vendor in the high-density suburb of Budiriro in Harare said he was excited about performing his civic obligation for the first time on Wednesday.
“In 2018, I did not vote, I was not even registered,” he told Al Jazeera. “This time around, I decided to be part of the process and I am confident my vote will make a difference.”
Approximately 6.5 million people are registered to vote but the ZEC has yet to release the voter breakdown, making it hard to determine how many first-time voters there are or how many people between the age of 18-35 are voting.
Still, organisations like the Election Resource Centre have said that compared with previous years, there has been a significant increase in the number of youths who expressed a desire to vote.
That assessment was backed by a report it released in July this year.
“According to our survey as many as 71 percent of youth are registered and ready to vote in the upcoming election and 29 percent are not registered to vote. This is an increase from 44 percent in 2018, 22 percent in 2013 and 8 percent in 2008,” said Babra Ontibile Bhebhe.
Mobilising for the vote
Since the turn of 2022, a groundswell of civic society organisations, political actors, and activists have turned to traditional outreach and social media to rally Zimbabwe’s youths around the importance of this year’s elections.
Project Vote 263, a youth-led initiative to promote youth participation in democracy, has been conducting voter education through collaborations with artists, sports tournaments, door-to-door outreaches, musical concerts, and roadshows.
Project Vote 263 used Zimdancehall artists and dancing groups during their roadshows and concerts which had thousands in attendance. Zimdancell music, a subgenre of reggae is popular among young people from Zimbabwe’s rural areas, where the majority of the population resides.
In these areas, youths were encouraged to participate in different sport tournaments, and against that backdrop, there was messaging encouraging players and spectators to register to vote.
“We have managed to reach more than five million people, physically and through social media. With other players, there was a culminating effect of more than one million people registering to vote across all ages,” Project 263’s executive director Youngerson Matete told Al Jazeera.
Harare-based Accountability Lab Zimbabwe, a civic society supporting citizens to build communities around new approaches for change, launched “Voice to Represent”, a musical competition engaging young creators, innovators and filmmakers to create awareness around governance issues and politics.
Finalists in the competition were trained in lyrics, style, and performance, as well as advocacy for good governance. Each artist was paired with a professional music producer for mentorship and coaching to perfect their songs and find their authentic voice.
McDonald Lewanika, director of Accountability Lab Zimbabwe, told Al Jazeera that the curriculum mix of music and political engagement was essential to accelerating the inclusion of young people in politics.
“These are issues that have got a lot to do with our day-to-day livelihoods,” he said. “At the end of the day, politics governs our economic opportunities and governs the extent to which we are able to enjoy our freedoms,”.
Young people, Lewanika added, can only hold office bearers responsible and accountable if they are part of the process of electing them.
“One of the things that we’ve tried to do is to debunk the myths around political issues and governance issues being expert issues,” he added. “What we’ve tried to do is to open up the conversation through ensuring that there is effective representation of young people into the conversation,” said Lewanika.
‘An important moment’
Pamela Mukombe, 28, works as a maid in the Kambuzuma neighbourhood of Harare. After five years at the same job, her hopes of getting better-paid employment have dimmed but she was excited to be voting this year to push for economic change.
“This is an important moment in my life,” she told Al Jazeera. “We are near the Harare industrial area … but no one, even one of the youths here is working in the industry. My vote is about my future,” said Mukombe.
Tinashe Hunde, 29, a cart pusher in Mbare, Harare’s busiest area, said he did not vote in the previous elections due to some anomalies on his identity documents. This year, his story is different.
“I … need a job now. The message of hope was clear during the campaigns through song and speeches but it takes me to decide,” he told Al Jazeera. “I woke up today without electricity and water has not been running here for months. So elections give me that platform to express my grievances and decide.”