Zimbabwe agreement not gender neutral
As I listened to the live coverage of the signing, I was struck by consistent absences in the reporting as well as in what could not comfortably be used in the interest of the celebrated moment. One reporter, live outside the venue in Harare, noted that even as the ink was drying on the paperwork, a group of MDC women approached him to say they had been attacked by ZANU-PF male youths moments before. I was somewhat relieved that this was a radio, rather than a television broadcast because I did not want to see more brutalised bodies. I could not help noticing that this information was quickly passed over.
I recoil from the sight of more bruised and bloodied bodies not because of what Gail Smith has called ‘compassion fatigue in relation to the crisis in Zimbabwe,’ but because there are other ways to make sense of our continent. A.C. Fick insists that when we privilege particular forms of evidence over others ‘we run the risk of giving the former more power than they already have in our world.’ Therefore, we trap ourselves in a certain cycle, since ‘we are educated to understand the world in particular terms.’ Furthermore, we remain so accustomed to our particular view that we completely miss the presence of other events and ‘critical languages’ in the very same moment in which we attempt to understand. Part of what we have grown accustomed to is the near total elision of women’s lives, contributions and agency from large political events.
Consequently, I turned away from the coverage I had been obsessively following in between teaching, and reflected on what was unfolding through other events I have access to. Sometimes it helps to turn away in order to better make sense of what we are in the midst of. This is the approach I brought to my reading of the text of the power-sharing agreement signed on Monday 15 September.
In August, I formed part of a group of South African women who went on a feminist solidarity trip to Zimbabwe. The excursion was coordinated by activist and international relations and development expert Bunie Matlanyane Sexwale, and divided into a group that went to Harare and one that flew to Bulawayo. My group, the Harare group, included the essayist Gail Smith, as well as poets Lebogang Mashile and Gertrude Fester. We went to have conversations with a variety of women’s and civil society groups; unionists, students, health activists, law and human rights activists and so on. This trip clarified many of the niggling questions that had been plaguing me in previous years. The Johannesburg office of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition had made the trip possible, also offering us insights into what we might encounter upon arrival. Among us, Bunie was the only feminist who was personally familiar with the different Zimbabwean epochs.
To the extent that it had been impossible to live in South Africa without reflecting on Zimbabwe constantly, the trip followed numerous conversations with people more familiar than I with the crisis in Zimbabwe. Two artist friends, one a filmmaker and the second a novelist, who had grown up in Zimbabwe as South Africans in exile, noted upon returning from visits recently that this was a different Zimbabwe from the one they knew. There was sadness in one’s eyes and anger etched onto the face of the other. My child’s day-mother, herself Zimbabwean, had remarked upon return from an earlier trip that her homeland made her despair. Colleagues commented on how fatigued they were at being asked to comment about their home country at every turn. I was careful to listen to information volunteered, but not to pry and further exhaust them. Only one said ‘things are not the worst they have ever been.’
I had questions raised by other areas of information as well. Where were the women in all the coverage of Zimbabwe, in the negotiations, in the interviews broadcast, among the experts explaining and helping the continent and the world make sense of the crisis? I know from reading, watching and from interactions with feminists from the continent over the years that Zimbabwe has a very strong women’s movement. How is it that I was hearing so little about what women were doing, when they were not being brutalised, inside Zimbabwe?
The trip was to help me grapple better with some of these struggles.
Unfortunately, it also raised many more. Very few of the new questions are addressed in the resolution we are all invited to celebrate. The Harare we arrived in at the end of August brought different worlds into collision. In a very public sense, it was the Harare in which the (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) WOZA 14 trial was scheduled to start, after many postponements. These are women considered so dangerous that the Zimbabwean State imagines their varied activism treasonous. This was also the Harare which staged the opening of the new parliament, during which MDC leaders, among them the leader of Senate Sekai Holland, shouted for Mugabe to go back to the talks so much that he was visibly flustered as he tried to open parliament.
When Holland agreed to meet us in a public place, with unionist and former MDC Women’s Assembly Chair, Lucia Matibenga, the disbelief was palpable on the faces of many young Zimbabweans in the Harare CBD location where we met. There was no question that both women were recognised. As they explained to us, it was unusual for powerful Zimbabwean politicians to be seen in a food court. Holland and Matibenga had both been driven underground by the physical and other attacks instigated by ZANU-PF and other agents of state sanctioned violence. They shared some of these experiences with us. But more so, and interspaced with a wicked sense of humour shared by both, they articulated a very clear vision for a new Zimbabwe. These were women who demonstrated what Pregs Govender has called ‘insubordinated spirit’, in their actions, incisive analysis of power and in rising after being personally attacked. I was saddened by the fact that as powerful and active as they have been, even these women’s names were often lost in the reporting of what occurs in Zimbabwe.
I wonder how much of such voices we will hear in the future, given the bizarre half-protected freedom of speech as articulated in Article 19 of the agreement signed on Monday. Recognising the necessity for freedom of speech in Zimbabwe, the article nonetheless opens doors for dismissing certain media outlets if they are ‘foreign government funded external radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe’ since these ‘are not in Zimbabwe’s national interest.’ What about radio stations operated by Zimbabweans in exile as one of the few ways to contest state-controlled media outlets? So what if another government or its agencies fund them? What if that government is Botswana’s? How will the stated desire to ensure ‘the opening up of the airwaves and ensuring the operation of as many media houses as possible’ translate in a context where ZANU-PF youths allegedly attack people outside the signing?
<read the rest of the analysis at Pambazuka