Harare, Zimbabwe – For the first time in years, Tifangani Chikabure will take time off work on a weekday.
Chikabure, along with more than five million Zimbabweans, is eligible to cast his ballot in Monday’s closely contested general and presidential election.
As he plans to vote for the second time, he has little hope that the new leadership will bring any change to his everyday life.
“We used to vote and hope our vote will make a difference but it never did. This time, I don’t think it will be any different from before,” the 30-year-old told Al Jazeera.
For years, voter apathy among Zimbabwe’s youth, who make up more than 75 percent of the population of almost 17 million, was a real issue.
However, there is a new, palpable excitement among them this time, which may well drive more youth to come out and vote.
For the first time since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, former President Robert Mugabe will not be on the ballot.
The 94-year-old was pushed out of office last year by the country’s military after more than three decades in power. He was succeeded by his former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been fired from his position only weeks prior after a falling out with former First Lady Grace Mugabe.
The absence of the long-time leader from the ballot has energised the country’s youth like never before. At least 60 percent of the 5.6 million registered voters are under 40.
“I never thought the day will come when we will have a new leader. Every time we voted, we knew Mugabe will win no matter what,” Chikabure, who works as a driving instructor, said.
More than 20 candidates – all first-time contenders – are running for the top post, each promising jobs and better living standards. Many of the youth say the promise of better employment prospects will drive them to the voting booths on election day.
Bianka Magaya was selling newspapers during the morning rush hour standing a stone’s throw from the headquarters of ZANU-PF, Zimbabwe’s ruling party since independence based in the capital Harare.
Magaya says she is lucky to have a job while most of her friends are out of work. The 18-year-old replaced her older sister, who stopped working after getting pregnant.
“I finished high school last year. My family does not have enough money for me to continue my studies,” Magaya said, shielding her eyes from the sun with a cap.
“I have five siblings. I have to work to support my family. I work six days a week but will go and vote on Monday,” she added.
Astor Chingwa is a first-time voter hoping that this election will bring a change in his fortunes. Ever since he finished high school last year, he, along with many unemployed Zimbabwean youths, has been looking for work but to no avail.
“I don’t feel anything when it comes to casting my vote for the first time, but I’m excited about the elections,” Chingwa said, his eyes glowing.
“Things could be better. I don’t know what the future holds. We have suffered for a long time and I hope this election brings change,” he said.
To encourage more voters to turn up in this election, youth groups and non-governmental organisations have held music concerts and mass registration drives, pushing the message that young voters can change the country’s destiny.
“The youth vote is critical in this election because they are the majority of voters,” said Andrew Makoni, director of Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a local NGO that organised roadshows to encourage the youth to register.
“It is up to them to decide the future and nobody in their twilight years can make a decision on the next five years on behalf of young people,” he added.
For now, many of the youth say they will vote but that they are sceptical whether that will bring about concrete changes.
“I will vote because it is my right. But I don’t believe them (politicians). For all these years, they have been talking of bringing change but we haven’t seen anything. I don’t believe anything they tell us,” Astor Chingwa said.
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