If recent events, in which women’s roles in Zimbabwe’s liberation war are degraded through sexualised accounts, have taught us anything, it is that our rotten political culture stands in the way of democratisation.
By Miles Tendi and Grace Chirenje
During the struggle for liberation, Zanu PF lacked ideological devotion to the rights of women.Chrispen Mataire (nom de guerre: David Todhlana) was the first director of Zanu PF’s Whampoa College, which was set up in 1976 to run wartime leadership and Marxist-Leninist studies. Mataire believed that Zanu PF’s struggle for revolution in Rhodesia ought to emancipate women. But his early attempt to introduce political education about the centrality of women’s rights to the liberation struggle faced resistance because of the patriarchal beliefs of Zanla’s male cadres and it provoked near riotous behaviour. Whampoa College, and its successor the Chitepo Ideological College, never acquired the kind of intellectual freedom, longevity and human and material resources necessary for the generation of a critical mass of male and female Zanu PF cadres with commitment to women’s rights in the liberation struggle.
In the present day, this historical legacy of the marginalisation of women in the nationalist pantheon is evident in the gender composition of liberation struggle figures buried at the Zimbabwe Heroes Acre. Dead old black men are by far the overwhelming majority interred at the Heroes Acre. And it goes without saying that most of the minority of women buried at the Heroes Acre were either married to, or were siblings of, powerful nationalist male politicians, for example: Sally Mugabe (Robert Mugabe’s first wife), Sabina Mugabe (Mugabe’s sister), Johanna Nkomo (Joshua Nkomo’s wife), Julia Zvobgo (Eddison Zvobgo’s spouse), Victoria Chitepo (Herbert Chitepo’s partner) and Ruth Chinamano (Josiah Chinamano’s wife), among others. Thus, Zimbabwe’s struggle history is the quintessence of male-centric nationalism.
The premature demise of Whampoa College and the constrained activities of its heir, the Chitepo Ideological College, are often attributed to the Zanla commander Josiah Tongogara, who is cast as populist and anti-intellectual. However, it is partial to blame Tongogara alone for the ideological deficiencies of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle because the political leadership of Mugabe is equally blameworthy. We say this because Tongogara died on 26 December 1979. consequently, if Mugabe was authentically devoted to the production of principled Zanu PF members with commitment to women’s rights, it would not have taken his leadership 36 years to establish the Chitepo Ideological School in independent Zimbabwe. And, having perused the intellectual material party graduates of Chitepo Ideological School are currently exposed to, we can conclude that women’s emancipation is not a central objective in the ongoing teachings.
Indeed, the Zanu PF government’s record, since 1980, on women’s emancipation is contradictory at best. 1981 saw the instituting of a Women’s Affairs ministry. But it was not a standalone ministry. Instead, Women’s Affairs was oddly paired with a Community Development portfolio. Despite this problematic organisational coupling, women gained from educational (increased entry of women in schools) and legal (Legal Age of Majority Act) amendments driven by the Community Development and Women’s Affairs ministry. Conversely, even as these policy strides were made, they were denounced and undermined at every turn by Zanu PF. For instance, one of the key resolutions at Zanu PF’s 1989 congress was that government re-evaluate the Legal Age of Majority Act “so that it takes further account of our cultural background, with a view in particular, to raising the age of majority to 21 years”. As Sita Ranchod-Nilsson writes: “other resolutions at that same congress sought revisions to the Maintenance Act limiting the number of children for which women could claim maintenance from different fathers”.
Furthermore, although the post 2000 fast-track land reform programme achieved its stated goal of redistributing the majority of productive land from white to black farmers, gender considerations scarcely entered official discourse about the process of land redistribution. As a result, black women fared worse than black men in terms of access to land and tenure arrangements. This outcome is unsurprising given that in 1994 Mugabe ruled out the possibility of married women co-registering land in resettlement areas with their husbands in the following terms: “if these are ideas being brought by whites amongst you as they come from Europe, they are bringing you terrible ideas. I cannot have it that property that is family property should be registered in two names. If the woman wants property in her own right, why did she get married in the first place? Better not to wed then, because marriage means you are together with the husband who is the head of the family”.
Jessie Majome, a leading opposition party Member of Parliament for Harare West constituency, was reading for her undergraduate degree in Law at the University of Zimbabwe when Mugabe made the abovementioned comments in 1994. “I was so incensed by Mugabe’s patriarchal remarks it inspired me to write my final undergraduate dissertation on the socio-legal aspects of women’s access to land and security of tenure”, Majome reminisced. Majome has been a forthright campaigner for women’s rights ever since. Still, after two decades of activism, Majome submits that the strides Zimbabwean women have made in politics and wider society are limited. “What is democracy if it is not also about the adequate representation of women who are the majority anyway?”, Majome asked in a maddened tone.
In 2016, officials in the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development speak of longstanding downgrading of their activities. Similarly, members of the Zimbabwe Gender Commission, who were appointed by Mugabe in 2015, complain that they are under-resourced and that their work is hardly taken seriously. The few women who have advanced their careers in Zanu PF and opposition political parties, as well as in some sectors of civil society, inevitably encounter misogynistic and patriarchal charges that they slept with a powerful male figure (or figures) in order to get ahead.
Significantly, it is not just women in politics who are degraded and ostracised by way of gendered and sexualised accounts. For example, Morgan Tsvangirai was infamously branded an “open zip, open mouth and shut mind” in 2013. Sexualised “legends of the carnal sea”, linking Tsvangirai to endless “girlfriends and women” were also promoted by his political rivals. Additionally, it is worth recalling how Zanu PF addressed Archbishop Emeritus Pius Ncube’s critical commentary on the status quo in 2007. State surveillance devices were secretly installed in Ncube’s home and images of him engaging in sexual intercourse with women were subsequently leaked to public media in order to ostracise his critical voice.
Patriarchy, misogyny and sexualisation are all important tools for the ostracisation, degradation and control of both women and men in Zimbabwean political culture. These tools may be effective in furthering particular agendas between political rivals but they certainly do not progress the prospects of improved democracy in Zimbabwe.
Grace Chirenje is a feminist living and working in Africa
Miles Tendi teaches African Politics in the University of Oxford.