On August 12th, 2020, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema emerged victorious in the Zambian election. The subsequent peaceful transition from incumbent President Edgar Lungu marked a bright spot in a bleak year for democracies. Young Zambians have faced continual economic hardship under the Lungu administration — an estimated one in five faced unemployment due in part to the corrupt policies of the administration, whose abuse of resources also led Zambia to become the first African country to default on a loan during the pandemic. Over half of the country’s seven million registered voters are under the age of 35, so young voters played a pivotal role in electing Hichilema.

Scott Warren, the co-founder of the civics education non-profit Generation Citizen and a Visiting Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute, sat down with Grace Gondwe, ​​the research and policy analyst for BeRelevant, a Zambian youth-led leadership development organization. Gondwe discussed how activists in Zambia converted frustration into action, the lessons that other youth activists can learn from their electoral victory, and how young people plan to keep pressure on politicians. The interview has been edited and condensed.


What did BeRelevant do to promote youth political participation in the latest election?

 [Be Relevant] started two years ago, and the first activity that we did was a project around electoral violence. It was in the run-up to the election that we had earlier this year. Electoral violence levels were increasing, and we said, look, we need to deal with the issue earlier on and make sure that it doesn't get out of hand.

So what we did was research. We asked young people questions about how they felt about the democratic process. And then we did capacity-building workshops with young people from different communities in conjunction with the Electoral Commission of Zambia to have those young people be ambassadors in the communities. Our message was: your power is in your vote, and don't let these bigger political players use you for their agendas.

That was the genesis of the work: encouraging young people to understand that they have power to hold these people accountable [and] to engage themselves, whether it's by running for office or championing democracy .


Why do you think Zambian young people have historically been skeptical of politics or government? What are some of their frustrations?

There's a kind of disillusionment, just knowing, even if I voted or even if I got involved, nobody's really listening. Essentially, we feel excluded and that exclusion has led to disillusionment. There's a group of people for whom leadership is reserved for, and it's not us. In our research we saw young people saying, we do want to be involved, but we don't know how to go about it, or there's no place where we can go.


Let’s talk about the recent Zambian elections. Why were young people so important? 

Our previous government had gotten very comfortable in their power, and so we had things that you'd think would happen under wraps just happening in broad daylight. For example, people who were politically aligned with the ruling party had free rein to take money from bus operators and marketeers [on top] of the taxes that they already had to pay.

We would be on the buses, and these people would come and demand for money and you'd hear even the bus conductors complaining and saying, look, I'm leaving my house to make a living for my family and these people are coming to just take this money with no work done for it. And so it was a buildup of things like that. 

Sometimes it's easy to feel separated from the bigger scandals, but when it's brought home like that — that was where things shifted. Moving into the election, it was clear that people were tired of the ruling government. 

The opposition was [also] very engaged on social media. They did a lot of online campaigning and canvassing, and so they connected with our demographic that way. 


What spurred young people from saying, oh, we can't do anything and the government is too corrupt, to actually participating, and in some cases running for office in the election itself?

This election wasn't actually the opposition versus the ruling party. It was the ruling party versus the people. We were so exhausted from hearing story after story, scandal after scandal, and nothing changing. And so groups of people went to the polls and voted these guys out.


It's not often in more emerging democracies that you have opposition parties win. So what do you think this means for both Zambia and the rest of the world? 

This particular election was very important because of the role that young people played. What swung the vote was the fact that young people came out to vote in large numbers. We had conversations among ourselves as young people, and we had a general consensus and said, “Hey guys, the power is in our hands.” Up to this point, we had had conversations and people making statements, but in this particular election, we saw that if we as young people rise up and push for something to be done, it'll be done. 

Generally, we're not very confrontational people. We take a lot of things before we get to that breaking point. So I think this particular election was important because it marked a shift in how we view the democratic and political process.

And I think now I can safely say that we understand that our role is to hold governments accountable. The general consensus now is, “look, we got these guys in, but if they don't deliver, they don't do the job, we're going to get them out.” So even on the other side of the election, the very strong feeling is, we are the ones that have the power. We are the ones that can hold them accountable. 


One of the issues that always comes up is the balance between young people pushing for change inside the system versus outside the system. You interviewed some of the young people who ran for office. Can you talk through some of their motivations for running, and why they felt that that was an important way to effect change?

These young people said, look, I'm seeing these challenges, and I might not have the resources myself to fix these issues. But if I get into government, then I'll be able to speak and rally and lobby and get resources to fix some of these issues. So I think at the core of it, it was: I've seen problems, I've seen challenges, and I want to contribute to making a change.

Unfortunately, still even now after the election, we have no one under 35 in parliament. We know that there are certain things that you can only effect change from the inside, but getting inside is still a very big challenge. In the community, they'll tell you, you're too young, maybe wait a few more years before you take this step and so on. So at this point, our power is still very much on the outside. But we are coming to understand that young people need to be inside and young people need to be in these rooms where these strategic decisions are being made. 


What are the issues animating young people?

The economic situation is very difficult. A lot of what brings us together is how we can make our livelihoods. We want money. We want to be able to pay our bills. And so that's a big part of what brings us together. I think we're more open minded because the issue of livelihoods and economic and financial empowerment supersedes political affiliations.


What lessons can young activists in other places take from what's happened in Zambia?

When it hits home personally, you're more likely to have participation, to have engagement. As long as young people feel disconnected, as long as we still see it as this big thing, people won't be moved to engage. So whether it's by storytelling, find a way to make it connect to bring it home. And then people are more likely to engage. 

Additionally, young people should run for office even if there's going to be resistance — and there will be. Especially in the African context, there will be pushback. People will say, no, you're too young.But even if you don't win, you are creating that awareness that we want to participate. We want to engage, and we're going to do it even if we don't have majority support. That leaves a picture in people's minds. For example, a young man, Mwila, ran for parliament, and actually came out third place. He didn't win, but for him to have worked hard enough to be in close competition, considering also that he ran independently, that says something. So moving forward into the next election, he's going to be starting on that footing of, I was here, I've been here, I've been committed, and so young people know that I am committed.

The electorate knows that he's committed to making a change in the community. So, we can make our mark even if we don't win elections. Just by having run, we're making our mark and we'll be remembered. 

And then the third thing I would say [is that] grassroots canvassing was a very big part of what happened in our context. In the past, what elections looked like in Zambia was big rallies with the campaigners campaigning from these podiums or whatever in stadiums, and then the electorate listening. But with COVID, that couldn't be done anymore. And so they had to go door to door more than they did previously. 


Do you think that the government is starting to take young people more seriously?

Yes, I think they are beginning to take us seriously. Our president refers to young people a lot in his communications and speeches. We were in his acceptance speech. We were in his inauguration speech. He gave a statement at the UN General Assembly, and he mentioned the role that young people played. We really did do something meaningful in this last election. I hope that we can continue that momentum as we play the role of being a pressure group moving forward.


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