BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - It could be a scene from any African mobile phone ad: flanked by two mohawked teenagers and shuffling stiffly to a pulsing hip-hop beat, an old man puts a phone to his ear and addresses a young lady with an awkward “What’s up?”
But the ageing, suited star of “Getting Connected” is Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and the message is political not commercial: the veteran leader is making a big pitch for the youngsters who have little time for his long speeches.
However desperate it may look - Mugabe is an 89-year-old social conservative who prefers choral arias to hip-hop - the video is a sign of the importance given to the generation of Zimbabweans born after the liberation struggle.
This year, for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980, more than half the 13 million population are ‘Born Frees’, offspring of the nation that emerged from the shackles of white-minority rule in the then-Rhodesia. The median age is 33, according to the National Statistics Office.
An election due this year, with youth and technology loosely pitted against history and conservatism, will serve as an important barometer of whether Africa is moving on from an era in which anti-colonialism holds sway over its politics.
It also has important lessons for South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, which faces its own demographic day of reckoning in a decade, having only won its struggle against the white-minority apartheid government in 1994.
On paper, Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s 61-year-old rival, appears better placed to tap into a social group desperate for jobs and leadership change to mend a limping economy.
A 2000-2008 economic crisis blamed largely on Mugabe’s policies forced a quarter of Zimbaweans to leave the country. HIV/AIDS and malnutrition are among factors contributing to life expectancy that is below the sub-Sahara average - 50 versus 54, according to the World Bank.
“The future lies in dumping this grandfatherly generation that came to power before many of us were born,” said 27-year-old engineering graduate Mthulisi Mpofu, warming himself by a fire in a thatched hut near the second city of Bulawayo.
“They are old and tired and have nothing to offer us. If the youth does the right thing, I don’t see how we are not going to have a new government, new policies and jobs.”
However, Mugabe’s liberation generation ZANU-PF party is fighting hard and - in the absence of any reliable opinion polls - the outcome of a general election is hard to predict.
Mpofu is one of over 150,000 high school and college graduates joining the job market annually, the product of huge investment by Mugabe in education after 1980 that is now coming up against one of the world’s highest unemployment rates.
On average, just 20,000 graduates will manage to find a formal job each year; the rest will join the 80 percent of workers sitting idle and frustrated - an affront to a nation that claims one of Africa’s highest literacy rates.
But it is far from given that the potentially huge numbers of disenchanted youngsters will come out to oppose Mugabe as he seeks to extend his 33 years in power.
A million or more are estimated to be working - in most cases illegally - in South Africa and will either be unable to return home to register or reluctant to risk signing up at embassies and consulates in Zimbabwe’s neighbor.
As a result, local rights groups working to promote a free and fair vote after three violent and disputed elections estimate that only 20 percent of those on the current voters’ roll are under 35.
In Harare and Bulawayo, potential new voters are being turned off by the bureaucracy of a registration process that requires them to present a national identity card and utility bill under a family name proving residence at a given address.
“This whole system is designed to frustrate people,” said Lawrence Fakazi, 23, who queued for two hours with friends in Harare before giving up after being shunted from one office to another. “We are not going to bother again.”
In the countryside the system is even more onerous, requiring a testimonial from a village head to confirm a new voter’s address, a step that raises suspicions ZANU-PF officials are blocking supporters of Tsvangirai’s MDC.
The end result is widespread youth apathy.
“Although we are the biggest victim of bad governance, the truth is our generation is also not committed to politics in the same manner that the old generation is,” Mpofu said.
The MDC has also fallen short of its promises, failing to set up youth voters’ clubs promised three years ago apparently for fear of exposing its plans and ideas to rivals.
Shifting the blame, MDC officials say ZANU-PF is at fault for making the registration process deliberately clunky, especially for a generation hooked on Facebook and Twitter.
“ZANU-PF is working to stifle the registration to avoid being overrun at the elections,” spokesman Douglas Mwonzora said. “Zimbabwe is going through both a political and generation change in these elections.”
Instead, the push to mobilize voters is falling to rights groups trying to energize people with text messages, radio jingles and website ads, riding on a doubling in the use of new media and social media since the last elections in 2008.
Latest government figures show that 90 percent of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people now use mobile phones and Internet users have more than doubled to 4.5 million people in the past year.
Typical of the trend is a coalition of 10 pro-democracy youth groups called X-1G (www.x1g.org) asking first-time voters to be the “political game changers”.
“We are a non-partisan organization but our view is that the young now constitute a majority of the population and must assume some big responsibility in how the country is governed,” X-1G activist Tawanda Chimhini said.
ZANU-PF is not standing idle. It has been offering cheap business start-up loans of $20,000 to youth groups and promising opportunities in foreign firms forced to sell 51 percent of their shares to locals under a black economic empowerment push.
Spearheading the drive is the young and tech-savvy ZANU-PF minister Saviour Kasukuwere, nicknamed Tyson for his combative style. For most young Zimbabweans, Kasukuwere’s creaseless visage and gleaming smile stand out starkly against a ZANU-PF gerontocracy in which even Mugabe has confessed to feeling lonely because so many of his comrades have died.
Young voters are generally unimpressed by ZANU-PF’s fondness for 1970s liberation war history lessons, recalling instead hyperinflation of 500 billion percent, food shortages and 4,000 dead from cholera at the nadir of the economic crisis in 2008.
“Nothing is given, but I think the party that is able to motivate its supporters and to win the new young voters stands to win the elections,” said Eldred Masunungure, a University of Zimbabwe political science professor.
Reporting By Cris Chinaka; editing by Ed Cropley and Janet McBride