Social Media: A favourable e-democracy tool for youth engagement

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Lately, there has been a decline of youth presence and attendance in offline political and non-political activities in Namibia. This came to light as the youth view traditional political gatherings as not addressing their unique problems and situations. Although youth participation in national elections such as the national assembly and presidential elections is reported to be relatively high in the previous elections, there is a grave concern of youth participation in regional and local authority elections. Some studies reported that youth are not taking part in elections, disengaged, not members of political parties and find it difficult to communicate with their fellows in various political organisations. However this is debatable in the Namibian context.

I observed that during election campaign rallies, the presence of youth at these gatherings tend to be lower than that of adults and children. Apart from party politics, youth are also not seen at community meetings/gatherings such as constituency councillors’/village headmen’s meetings. This trend of less engagement of youth in regional, local politics and civic duties in Africa, particularly in Namibia is associated and linked to a number of challenges, including old guards (ageing politicians) across the political spectrum clinging to power, and the lack of youth representation in political leadership positions.

It is believed that youth feel that the current politics in Namibia is for older politicians that are not inclusive, self-centred and not accommodative when it comes to youth empowerment and capacity building. Youth also claim that going to those offline meetings or gatherings is only a waste of time rather than staying at home and do some other constructive work. They have cited a number of reasons such that at those meetings, speakers tend to focus more on political history and liberation struggle issues which are less important to nowadays youth.

Youth further stated that offline community meetings and gatherings are highly politicised, characterised by restrictive political protocols that need to be followed and youth do not feel free to express themselves in front of the elders as they may be seem to be violating cultural norms and values. They also said they are more interested in socio-political discussions that can pave way for improved standard of living for the youth in Namibia, especially addressing the high unemployment rate, land distribution, youth empowerment projects, do away with political favouritism, tribalism and politics of the belly.

Political participation in the eyes of old politicians, especially those that participated in the liberation struggle of the Namibian independence has been regarded as active attendance and presence of citizens at political rallies, meetings, conferences, and other gatherings like that. This has been declining as citizens particularly the youth opt not to attend these meetings as they can also participate digitally.

In recent years, reports have surfaced on the political engagement practices among civic and political leaders in regional and local authorities in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Namibia. They are accused by the youth of not involving their citizens actively in public debates, political activities and community projects. Citizens have complained that their government representatives are not easily accessible and available to listen to their needs, aspirations and the wants of their community members.

This has led to some of the youth to find politics less engaging and interesting. This prevails, despite the Namibian government’s efforts to construct regional councillors’ offices in all the constituencies around the country, in addition to the provision of mobile phones, phone allowances, internet connectivity and a car to reach communities, regardless of the geographic location of the villages. It became clear that youth and political leaders rarely use these facilities as provided by the government to interact in order to strengthen inclusive digital democracy. With an increase in mobile phone subscriptions in Namibia, civic and political leaders’ engagement practices are expected to leverage the newly created public sphere by these media to be as inclusive as possible to provide equal opportunities for all the citizens to debate matters concerning their regions or constituencies.

A recent research that I contacted recently in the Ohangwena Region reveals that, although, mobile phone numbers for regional politicians were made available publicly, the youth still found it difficult to talk directly to the politicians as their calls were either not being answered or they were instructed by the assistants in the councillors’ offices, who usually answered the politicians’ phones when they were in meetings, to make appointments. Given that, leaders are not reachable on their mobiles and most of the youth own mobile phones that enables them to use social media platforms, they came up with various e-democracy initiatives that serve as their digital platforms to discuss issues that affect their lives. They created various social media pages and account that make it easier for them to meet anytime. Not only the youth created digital platforms, but some regional politicians also created social media accounts as engagement platforms. Therefore, the implementation of a social media policy and implementation plan by the Namibian government may address some of these digital engagement practices. However, I am cautioning that the government really need to provide effective training on social media ethics and practices to the employees and the community at large. Failure to do this, this policy will not yield the intended outcomes as majority of the people, including the some political leaders are digital illiterate and have a negative attitude towards the use of social media platforms as engagement platforms.

Based on findings there is less inclusivity as anticipated with the mobile phone emergence and social media in the political sphere especially at regional and local authority level. I am recommending that, proper and continuous social media trainings should be conducted throughout the country, regional councils should appoint a trained and qualified digital media/social media officer for effective implementation and interaction with local citizens. I am also suggesting that, the appointed social media officer should be political neutral and free from political hallucination. Finally, I am of the opinion that each region should have a social media center/department. At the end we need to enhance digital participatory democracy and promote digital inclusiveness among our citizens.

*Sadrag Panduleni Shihomeka, is a Citizen Engagement, Social Media and Politics Researcher at the School of History, Culture and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He is also a Lecturer for Educational Technologies and Research at the University of Namibia, Department of Lifelong Learning and Community Education. E-mail: shihomeka@eshcc.eur.nl

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