BY MUSA MAKINA
GROWING up in the dusty and densely populated streets of Bulawayo’s oldest suburb, Makokoba, it took Zodwa years to realise that something was different about her.
Unlike her peers, who at puberty stage were developing sexual feelings for their male counterparts, Zodwa’s feelings were skewed towards other females.
While that didn’t bother her that much, it was her struggle to enter into political activism that killed her ambition to become a politician just like her late father.
With the then president the late Robert Mugabe declaring boldly his homophobic views against gays, she felt it was risky to openly take part in politics.
However, her hopes rose after President Emmerson Mnangagwa appeared to warm up to gays and lesbians soon after taking over the reins in 2017.
Zimbabwe has largely been a homophobic country resulting in gays and lesbians failing to make a breakthrough in many spheres, including politics.
Zodwa is not an isolated example.
While women political aspirants in general are taken less seriously than men in Zimbabwe, gays and lesbians are even in worse situations.
The stereotyping against this minority sexual group has forced homosexuals to go underground, living on the periphery of society.
But, have the political spaces been really closed for lesbians in Zimbabwe in the face of all the glaring challenges?
“I and my few colleagues have in the past participated in opposition politics, but there is that form of discrimination that you experience from different individuals. I never encountered any challenge from the party itself or the constitution, but some individuals in the party who will be pushing their narrow interests,” said Zodwa, now a full-time sexual rights activist.
“I have not really given up on politics, it is something within me. I will see how it goes this time around,” she optimistically said.
While Zanu PF has over the years been clear on its position on homosexuals, opposition political parties have at times been found wanting by changing goal posts especially when it suits them.
“Our view is that all humans are created equal before God and our party and national constitution agree on that equality of our rights as citizens regardless of one’s sexual orientation or lifestyle preferences,” said MDC-T spokesperson Witness Dube.
Zapu spokesperson Iphithule Maphosa also shared Dube’s sentiments.
“Our constitution promotes human rights and this has become another of the rights individuals need to enjoy. We do not discriminate against anyone and our constitution is clear on that,” Maphosa said.
“Sexuality is a personal and largely a private matter of an individual and does not affect one’s participation in our party.
“The freedoms of choice and association are what our party promotes without needing to know choices and associates of individuals.”
On the other hand, a perusal of the Zanu PF constitution after its amendment in 2014 reveals that Clause 14 states that one of the party’s objectives is to oppose resolutely tribalism, regionalism, nepotism, racism, religious fanaticism, xenophobia and related intolerance, discrimination on grounds of sex and all forms of exploitation of man by man in Zimbabwe.
When it comes to homosexuality, the party is clear as it states in the next clause that it opposes resolutely homosexuality and same-sex marriage relationships.
As a result, this has put the lesbians’ participation in a party like Zanu PF in a precarious position.
However, the constitution of Zimbabwe passed in March 2013, does not recognise the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons directly, even though it has largely been considered progressive.
Section 51 provides for the right to human dignity, specifically stating that: “Every person has inherent dignity in their private and public life, and the right to have that dignity respected and protected.”
In addition, the equality and non-discrimination clause, Section 56, provides that: “All persons are equal before the law and have the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.”
These provisions are similar to the provisions found in international human rights treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Zimbabwe has ratified and is, therefore, obliged to uphold.
However, Section 56(3), which provides for the specific grounds on which a person must not be discriminated against, does not include sexual orientation or gender identity as grounds upon which a person cannot be discriminated against.
Based on latest statistics from the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz), across Zimbabwe’s towns and cities, the organisation has a membership of approximately 17 000.
To Galz, this is a sharp increase of the sexual minority population in the country’s urban areas compared to about 8 000 around 2015.
However, research shows that homophobia in Zimbabwe is commonplace, mostly being fomented by high-profile religious and political voices which have essentially led with the message that same-sex intimate relations are alien to the local culture and should not be permitted.
In 2011, for example, Zanu PF used even the mildest of statements made by the late MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai to the BBC, opposing discrimination against gays and lesbians, to not only whip up homophobic sentiment against the opposition party led by him, but to brand the MDC as a western puppet seeking to impose alien values upon Zimbabwe.
While Mugabe was clear about his position on gays, his successor Mnangagwa has largely remained silent on his personal position on gays, leaving it out to his government to show a somewhat engaging and tolerating stance.
Speaking to CNN’s Richard Quest during the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mnangagwa hinted on reforming the government’s stance on gays.
Later on, it was no surprise, when a Zanu PF delegation led by Victor Matemadanda met Galz representatives in a historic meeting, something that was unheard of during Mugabe’s era. After the meeting, Galz director Chester Samba described Mnangagwa as a “reasonable man”.
Observers described Mnangagwa’s move as part of his government’s agenda to turn a new page and leave its past mistakes. As a result, Galz says there have been few incidences of abuse of their members under the new dispensation.
Sexual Rights Centre (SRC) programmes manager Mojalifa Ndlovu said there was a long way to go before lesbians could freely and openly participate in politics.
This, he said, was due to the way sexuality had been unfortunately used as a political tool in Zimbabwe.
“The history of the politics of Zimbabwe ….you will notice that being gay or lesbian has constantly been used as a political tool either to de-campaign political aspirants. So the minute one is identified as gay or lesbian, it’s a problem.
“Even opponents are using that sexuality, whether it’s perceived or real, they use it as a method of de-campaigning their rivals,” he said.