The two political active women Mbirih Mulamba and Grace Banda belongs to the group of 18-35-year old’s, that comprises more than 65 % of the total population of Malawi. But even though the group is a majority, youth has a very little say in political matters. The young party members are trying to get rid of an image of being aggressive troublemakers; an image that belongs to the past. Today, the youth want to be taken seriously within their parties in order to shape party politics and create change and development in Malawi. The youth are doing what they can to prove themselves as capable in politics, but a big challenge for them comes from within the parties
“The mother party and the elders of our communities have to give us a chance to work together with them.” The words come from Mbirih Mulamba, who is a 29-year old woman and member of the party United Democratic Front. Mbirih has experienced how it feels to seek political influence, but not being given much space within her party.
Most of the five parties of Malawi are younger than 25 years, but those party members who have influence are much older than that. The issue is not that the elder party members see no idea of working with Mbirih and young people like her; all five parties agrees that the challenge of involving young people meaningfully are one the key issues of intra-party democracy. But despite good intentions from the party leadership, very few steps towards actual influence of the youth have been taken. It might have to do with myths on youth involvement. One myth comes from South Africa and another comes from the past.
The fear from South Africa and from the past
If the party leaders of Malawi look some kilometers further south to South Africa, it becomes clear to Malawians, that independent youth wings can bring about challenges. The ruling party of South Africa, African National Congress (ANC), has been troubled with years of internal conflict since the youth league evolved to be actual competitors rather than supporters of the ANC. Balancing between loyalty and rebellion was hard to the youth of ANC, and that message echoed in the rest of the region of southern Africa.
Another story that still echoes in Malawi, is a story from past about young politicians as being troublemakers. Earlier days the youth of the parties participated in politics by harassing the opposition party and creating riots and havocs in the streets. But the Malawian youth of today are different: they have tons of visions for Malawi. They have views on issues from gender quotas to job creation. They write speeches and organize debate trainings. They do social media campaigns on their favorite policy issue. In their own words, they are capable. “As youth we are capable. We have the capacity and the mindset to participate in politics. We are responsible and have many ideas that can make a difference in our country”, says Mbirih.
After exchange activities between the Socialist People’s Party, the Liberal Party and the five Malawian parties, the advantages rather than the risks of having independent youth wings has started to become clearer to the party leadership. Grace Banda, who is a young member of the party Alliance For Democracy, has visited Denmark twice. To her it is key to involve young people early in their lives: “In Denmark I saw how students were involved in politics at a very early age in schools as well as in youth wings. It is important to involve the youth in the democracy in order for us to learn about democracy”, Grace states.
Together with Mbirih, Grace is trying to dispel the myth that the youth of Malawi are troublemakers who joined politics in order to compete against their mother parties.
The more influence, the more engagement
The youth of the political parties will not settle with just being invited to the table when it suits the mother party. They see it as crucial to be involved in a meaningful way. To them, that means participation from their own independent platform. Actual influence is the key ingredient that leads to greater engagement in politics, Grace and Mbirih notes.
The young people of Malawi have been doing their best to prove to their mother parties that they have the capacities to participate politics. In 2017, the youth of four out of five political parties of Malawi sat down and drafted what they call Youth wing constitutions. They have now put their request for an independent platform for youth on paper, and it is now up to the party leadership to discuss the drafted constitution. The youth are open for amendments from the leadership, but they hope that the process will end out with an approval from the party leaders. For Mbirih it is clear that it takes two to tango: “We as youth have to prove ourselves as capable to do politics, but at the same time the elder leaders have to give us space to participate.”
Report by Anja Katrine Søndergaard, Socialist Peoples Party Youth (SFU)
The Youth in Politics project is a multiparty project between Socialist Peoples Party (SF), The Liberal Party (Venstre), their youth wings and the five political parties of Malawi in the Centre for Multiparty Democracy.