Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Zanu PF youth and a history of abuse

By Tim Mutsekwa

Greetings once again to you all. l hope l find you in the rudest of health and all is well in your neck of the woods. Emmerson Mnangagwa effectively dismantled a trio within Zanu-PF’s Youth League that had become powerful enough to attack his business and political benefactors.

Lewis Matutu seen here greeting President Emmerson Mnangagwa in this file photo
Lewis Matutu seen here greeting President Emmerson Mnangagwa in this file photo

When the three went on their latest anti-corruption crusade they called for the arrest of a member of the president’s advisory committee and benefactor, Kudakwashe Tagwirei, and another key ally to the presidium, Billy Rautenbach.

Tagwirei enjoys a monopoly in the fuel industry. He is also the main player in the Command Agriculture programme that has since its inception in 2016 gobbled more than US$3bn of state funds. Matutu called Tagwirei, “the most corrupt person in the country” at a media conference on Monday. In 2018 the same accusation was made against Tagwirei by Christopher Mutsvangwa, who was later dropped as presidential adviser.

This was the youth league’s second attempt at getting those alleged to be corrupt brought to book. In their first effort last year, they named senior party members such as secretary for administration Obert Mpofu. At the time Mpofu was not amused and he almost physically charged at Matutu during a politburo meeting. Mpofu later sued Matutu for ZWL$10m — the matter is yet to be heard in court.

A number of governments on the African continent have their roots in liberation struggles. In countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Uganda, liberation armies turned into political parties after armed struggle against colonial or repressive regimes.

They have been in government for decades and the ‘liberation narrative’ continues to figure strongly in their claims to be legitimate and stay in power. Yet, in all of these countries, the current generation of young people was born after the liberation struggle. Feeling aggrieved that they have not seen the fruits of the liberation and experiencing high levels of un/under-employment and economic adversity, it seems that these youth no longer accept the ‘liberation narrative’.

On their part, governments are increasingly aware of the youth demographic and high rates of youth unemployment and are afraid they may become a threat to power. Rather than reforming and opening up through democratic revolution, it looks like the African liberation regimes are only handing over power to younger generations who are ‘already deeply caught up’ in their ‘political culture of authoritarianism, patronage and self-enrichment’.

In November 2017, the military ousted Mugabe in what has been labelled a ‘soft coup’ and Emmerson Mnangagwa was put forward as Mugabe’s successor. After the coup, many G40 members were purged from the party and some of its leaders went into exile. It was a clear sign that gerontocracy had won and handing over power to younger generations was far away.

Ideology and framing of youth in Zimbabwe

The framing and labelling of actors, including through using nicknames, has been identified as tool used by ZANU-PF to undermine its opponents and legitimate certain policies and actions. The discourse and framing of youth throughout the 1980s and 1990s remained closely entwined with the liberation ideology, supporters of the ZANU-PF government were discussed in terms such as ‘committed revolutionaries’ and ‘defenders of the revolution’. When challenged, government officials were quick to dismiss opposing voices as dissidents and sell-outs, as they had done previously when discussing student activists and unions starting from the late 1980s. The architecture of the ZANU-PF party for the youth from national to cell level served to reproduce this rhetoric.

A discourse of political nicknaming served to portray the opposition as enemies of the nation, which worked to instil fear and build a narrative of the indispensability and legitimacy of ZANU-PF. The labelling of – and messages to – the youth evolved in parallel.

President Mugabe and other government and party officials started to use the derogatory term ‘born free’ to refer to the generation born after Independence, accusing them of taking independence and freedom for granted without appreciating the liberation struggle and its fighters.

Born-free youth were portrayed as being susceptible to foreign influence, as evidenced by their support to the MDC. ‘Good youth’ are therefore those who respect the liberation ideology and kind of patriotism promoted by the ruling party.

ZANU-PF is an increasingly ageing party with the majority of its councillors, parliamentarians, and ministers being over 50 years old. ZANU-PF Youth League has been important for mobilising young cadres as a vehicle for patronage and as an institution for socialising youth into the liberation ideology.

ZANU-PF Youth league

The youth wing of ZANU-PF serves mainly to reproduce the voice of the party leadership. The ZANU-PF Youth League (YL) has been an active youth wing through which young people can demonstrate loyalty to the party and develop a political career and accumulate wealth through patronage networks.

The YL has been central for political mobilisation, especially for campaigns and elections, and has been strongly associated with organising and conducting political violence and intimidation.

For instance, the then-ZANU-PF Youth Brigade enacted violence in the Matabeleland region in the early 1980s as part of the Gukurahundi mass violence. The group also violently disrupted campaigns, meetings and rallies by the opposition and engaged in arson and intimidation in areas suspected of support to the opposition. Officials have used ZANU-PF youth to attack opposition supporters and politicians, creating impunity by offering them protection.

During the land reforms in the early 2000s, party youth operated alongside war veterans and security agents when farmers were violently evicted from their land. In high-density urban areas, organised party youth control access to resources, like housing and stands for selling goods, and water sources, excluding opposition supporters.

There is very little information on the role of young women in the Youth League and it is unknown whether there are differences between young men and women in terms of how they are recruited into the YL, mobilised for different types of political activities and violence, and how young women move across from the YL to the women’s league.

Yet, ZANU-PF does not offer ‘real’ political power to youth. In the 2013 & 2018 elections, the Politburo of ZANU-PF dominated the selection process of candidates. They put forward young candidates in constituencies where they had little chance of winning and ignored calls for a youth quota. In the 2013 & 2018 elections, it appeared that the government deliberately prevented the registration of urban voters, especially youth voters, expecting they would vote for the MDC.

Factionalism manifested itself within the ZANU-PF Youth League. After 2013, a section within the YL was controlled by the Mujuru faction, but many of them were expelled when Mujuru and her allies were purged from the government. The leadership then supported the Mugabes and became associated with support for G40.

Before the November 2017 coup, YL chairperson Chipanga criticised Gen. Chiwenga and the military, but apologised for this only days later.

Other prominent Youth League members quickly sided with the new party leadership and military. They expelled Chipanga and other YL leaders, and Chipanga was arrested and put on trial for ‘communicating falsehoods’ that caused disaffection in the military.

The new YL leadership firmly denounced G40 as ‘dangerous cabal’, which had forcefully persuaded many youth members to join them, and clearly communicated YL support for Mnangagwa. The YL actively mobilised voters for Mnangagwa in the 2018 elections.

When it became public that Mugabe was forming a new party, the National Patriotic Front (NPF), the Youth League spoke out against it, saying he might ‘lose his legacy’. The YL has since endorsed controversial government measures, like the ban on US dollars in June 2019.

Mid-2019, frictions between the Youth League and the party leadership emerged. At a Politburo meeting in July 2019, party youth accused former ministers and senior party officials of corruption and published a list of names of accused officials, while maintaining support for Mnangagwa’s economic policies and fight on corruption. Yet they were accused of acting on behalf of senior officials from rival ZANU-PF factions (which the YL denied).

Vice-President Gen. Chiwenga dismissed the YL as “overzealous youths who were according themselves too much power”. YL leaders continue to make statements against corruption among senior officials, consistently citing Mnangagwa’s plight to ‘fight’ corruption.

The YL’s stance on corruption by senior government officials led to the arrest of Minister Prisca Mupfumira on allegations of corruption and abuse of office. It is clearly apparent these are not genuine complaints but actions that divert attention from the government’s inability to resolve the economic crisis.


ZANU-PF has effectively used different forms of patronage to maintain both resources within its networks and loyalty to the party. Recruitment into the civil service, for instance, became a prominent strategy especially after the first victory of the MDC in local elections, and also served to extend its control to the local level . The partisan allocation of land, food aid and humanitarian relief, is another form from which opposition supporters are excluded.

Youth have been integrated through appointments considered ‘ghost workers.’ The Ministry of Defence; Ministry of Youth Development, Indigenization, and Empowerment; and the Ministry of Interior continue to recruit despite the Treasury ban on recruitment to save money.

The estimates on ghost workers vary. An audit conducted by a foreign consultancy firm revealed there were an estimated 75,000 ghost workers, the vast majority of which were youth, and graduates of the National Youth Service programme (below).

ZANU-PF dismissed both this report and an audit report which said the Ministry of Youth had employed around 10,000 workers during the 2018 elections. Although youth officer-ghost workers were predominantly urban youth, several youth officers were recruited in rural areas. Rural youth officers mobilise support for ZANU-PF at the grassroots level and spearhead election campaigns.

Government personnel vote prior to election day thus the large numbers of youth recruited into the military and police likely contributed to election rigging in the ‘special vote’. Those recruited as ward officers focused on protecting their jobs by obeying the demands of Zanu-PF politicians.

Youth militia are strongly involved in monitoring who gets access to food aid and agricultural inputs in rural areas and access to housing and vending stalls in urban areas.

Youth Policies

Youth policies promulgated by the ZANU-PF led government were largely mediated by and a response to the deepening economic crisis and growing political dissent from urban youth who felt marginalised from economic and political processes.

The National Youth Service programme was meant to teach vocational skills and instil a sense of patriotism to raise young people as ‘good Zimbabweans’. In training camps across the country, approximately 80,000 youth were trained between 2001 and 2007, when NYS was suspended.

The NYS programme became a large-scale paramilitary training programme and NYS graduates were involved in various forms of state surveillance. While ZANU-PF has used youth militias ever since Independence, the NYS produced a new generation of youth militias.

The youth militias conducted election violence alongside war veterans between 2000 and 2008 and are complicit in the allocation of resources through ZANU-PF patronage by monitoring distribution of agricultural inputs, humanitarian relief and food aid, and access to other resources.

The government made NYS participation a requirement for accessing any government job or scholarship as well as state funded youth empowerment programmes, and therefore many young people completed NYS as part of their search for opportunities.

As such, for many youths, joining the NYS was viewed as a strategic move to gain access to scarce resources and employment opportunities in government departments. To be considered and recruited as police officers, soldiers, prison officers, nurses and other civil service jobs, the NYS certificate became a prerequisite.

Student Unions

Student unions are spaces through which university students and young people launch and develop their political careers. Indeed, many students view student politics as a stepping stone to national politics. Consequently, the regime has seized this opportunity to engage with youth in the student political landscape.

In Zimbabwe, there is a predominantly bifurcated student body, with the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU), the country’s oldest student union, largely aligned to the MDC, while the Zimbabwe Congress of  Students Union (ZICOSU) aligns with ZANU-PF. ZICOSU was formed as a splinter union to rival ZINASU which was viewed by ZANU-PF as aligned to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

ZICOSU helps ZANU-PF to mobilise youthful votes across the country’s tertiary institutions and beyond. Indeed, many ZICOSU students regularly meet ZANU-PF political leadership and are often provided huge financial support to fund their political campaigns and other activities on campus. For instance, the Zimbabwe Independent reported that from 2011 to 2014, officials from the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education allowed ZICOSU to access more than US $ 220,000 for its activities.

It is largely believed that many ZICOSU students are part of a surveillance network on campus, conducting surveillance in cahoots with the notorious Central Intelligence Organization (CIO).

Through such networks, ZICOSU students receive stipends from the government for their subsistence and upkeep on campus. Joining patronage networks aligned to the ruling ZANU-PF was one way through which students navigated the protracted socio-economic crisis.

The ZICOSU leaders and members also tend to get priority for campus accommodation and other scarce resources on campus, such as loans and bursaries. In fact, the majority of the students who access the presidential scholarships to study in China, South Africa and other countries are members of ZICOSU.


Zimbabwean government has deliberately targeted young people using a combination of ‘carrots and sticks’, with the ‘carrots’ largely aimed at binding youth into patronage relationships.

In its discourse, ZANU-PF has appealed to the youth and seeks to fashion a form of youth citizenship that aligns with its liberation ideology, and by implication respect for the older generation in power. ZANU-PF has institutionalised youth participation through the ZANU-PF Youth League, which has become important for mobilising constituencies and is part of the ZANU-PF apparatus for intimidating the population.

The Zimbabwe Youth Council, however, is mainly used to distribute funds to party-aligned youth groups. The Youth League particularly serves as an avenue for accessing power and resources in the party. The National Youth Service (2000-2008) demonstrates a critical instance of violence mobilisation of youth.

Although abandoned, NYS graduates continue to be part of ZANU-PF networks on the ground and are deployed for surveillance purposes. The development of patronage networks to youth constituencies, by maintaining ghost workers, the partisan allocation of scholarships and resources for education, and the allocation of various youth funds and schemes along partisan lines, has comprised a major ZANU-PF strategy to forge loyalty.

Governance and control through informal networks thus continues to be relevant, and this shows how this has been used by the now ageing liberation actors to both appeal to and control a young generation.

To conclude, through its discourses, programmes for economic empowerment, and political integration, ZANU-PF is trying to deal with the youth in a way that ensures its power can be sustained. Yet it also appears that ZANU-PF’s patronage may not be enough to appease the large numbers of youth who are currently affected by the dire economic situation. There is some evidence that suggests that not all young people are susceptible to patronage politics.

I shall leave it here. Have a wonderful week, till next time.

Tim Mutsekwa (Political Science and International Relations [University of Greenwich], Secretary for Party Business & Investments [MDC UK & Ireland], Twitter : @tsumekwa