By Zukiswa Zimela and Kelvin Kachingwe
Johannesburg/Lusaka — James Banda, 27, is an unemployed youth although he occasionally is hired to act as a bus conductor at Lusaka's Kulima Tower Bus Station. He may not have a permanent job, but it is easy to find him.
Anyone looking for him just has to go to the bus station and ask. Everyone knows who he is. Banda, or 'ba-Jay' as people call him, is a young man who commands a lot of respect from his friends – he is a thug for hire.
He may find it hard to get employment during the year, but come election time Banda becomes a young man whose services are fervently sought after. He is hired together with his friends by different political parties to conduct campaigns.
But Banda is not a card-carrying member of any political party. And the kind of campaigns he is hired to conduct do not involve explaining policies to the electorate but is about intimidating opponents and voters. Party officials give him and his friends money, alcohol and hire a van for them to travel round the constituency to disrupt the meetings of rival parties and to intimidate opposition voters.
When rival cadres or voters resist, they either beat them up or threaten them with machetes.
"Our job is simple, it is just to convince people in whichever way to vote for the party we're supporting in a particular election. Whichever party comes first, and with a good offer in terms of money, we go," he says.
Banda, like many youths, cites the lack of employment opportunities as the reason why he allows himself to be used in political violence.
And research shows that he is not the only one. The Southern Africa Trust report 'Ending the Age of Marginal Majority', released on Jul. 20 found that many young people in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region were vulnerable to violence as victims or perpetrators when they did not have access support structures or networks.
The study noted that the SADC region has been characterised by violence and conflict and this violence had become normal part of society in the region. As a result it was "rare for people engaged in, or affected by, these forms of violence to view them as criminal."
Emily Mabusela, programme manager of the Youth Violence Prevention Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation says that one of the reasons for youth violence is the pervasive nature of violent acts in our society.
"Violence is in all our spaces, at homes, in our communities and in our schools children are getting murdered, we cannot avoid it. What are we teaching young people when they see Xenophobic attacks and violent road rage?" she asked.
Mabusela pointed out that unless an intervention takes place violent young people grow up to be violent adults. "Violence is like learning to read, when you are young you are not that good but when you grow up you get better. When you start being violent at a young age the chances are you will get worse," she said.
According to Helene Perold, executive director at Volunteer and Service Enquiry South Africa and one of the contributing researchers to the report, during adolescence young people are often trying to foster their identities and are going through a confusing period of change.
During this time the youth are susceptible to several influences. She further highlighted that it is important to engage the youth and integrate them into mainstream society.
"We live in a society where it is acceptable for parents to beat their children and husbands to beat their wives. We are saying that there needs to be a way to include the youth, most young people feel alienated in the society because their issues are not taken into context," she said.
Masebula said that it was important for interventions to be carried out to mitigate violence among the youth. "If we ignore violence then it gets worse and worse. We know that violent behaviour is learnt. Children start by pushing each other and then gradually move on to slapping and hitting each other. Once some one learns that being violent makes them powerful then they see that as a way to solve problems in the future."
South Africa currently has some programmes and policies which try to rehabilitate young people. Ansa Verster is a manager of a Diversion Programme for young people at the Restorative Justice Centre. The centre mediates a resolution between victims and perpetrators of crime and also offers life skill programmes for youth who have been in trouble with the law. She believes violent youth can change, if given the correct support and proper guidance.
The report findings concurred with this and called for public policy in the region to take into account the needs of the youth and to address the circumstances that prevented the youth from gaining employment, among other things.
And it seems as if it could be a solution. Banda admits that if he had a permanent job he would not hire out his services to intimidate voters.
"If we had other alternative sources of livelihood, we wouldn't be doing this. But there are no jobs, what we do here in the station is just piece work, and the money is hardly enough. But when these politicians come, they offer us good money, and also buy us beer," he says.
He adds that he is looking forward to next year's elections because it will be an opportunity for him to make money.