Mugabe takes on Zimbabwe's Generation X

Mugabe targets a younger generation in the lead up to Zimbabwe’s next election.

Robert Mugabe is making a big pitch for the youngsters who have little time for his long speeches. Picture: AFP

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe - 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 Zimbabweans 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."