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From Rhodesia to present day Zimbabwe

“Freedom, my friends, does not come from the clouds, like a meteor; it does not bloom in one night; it does not come without great efforts and great sacrifices; all who love liberty, have to labour for it.” Feminist Ernestine Rose, 1860.

Former Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Smith has just died, but his patriarchal legacy, of dictatorship, violence and sexist oppression lives on.

The use of violence in contemporary Zimbabwean politics, is part of the machismo political culture inherited from settler colonialists, which successive political systems are failing to dismantle.

I therefore, wish here to link, gender based violence within the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), to the question of political power and women’s emancipation, based on our experience as a women’s political leadership. My position being that patriarchy as a system of oppression is not going to willingly dismantle itself, it has to be fought.

Historically, Zimbabwe’s violence politics, has been grounded in the quest for political power and positioning, with women often being at the receiving end of it. Thus today, MDC women are still subjected to all forms, of violence, by both the party and the State, as both systems grapple for political power.

Just as during the liberation struggle when women combatants, were told national liberation first, their emancipation later, today, women who have gone into front-line politics are being sold this ‘two stage’ approach model. This approach implies that the struggle is gender neutral, and that we suffer the impact of State repression the same way, and that when freedom is attained we(men and women) will have the same political will, to reverse gender disparities or to dismantle patriarchy.

Events on the ground in the MDC, however, speak differently.

Days before the annual, International 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign celebrations, MDC women, were once again subjected to another public humiliating bout of violence, this time, by their male counterparts.

Women protestors, against the unfair sacking and treatment of the Women’s Assembly chair-person, Lucia Matibenga, were beaten up in front of the party’s head-quarters Harvest House, on Sunday the 18th of November. The known assailants used fists, kicked, threw stones, to subdue and stop the female demonstrators, from proceeding with the protest in which they were demanding audience with their MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, over the unresolved women’s chair matter.

Strangely, though it seems that it was beyond Tsvangira’s political comprehension that the women were practising their democratic right to demonstrate and seek audience with him, as their leader, instead he shunned them. The message they got was violence. This is not accidental, but a political message.

The irony that played itself out in this scene, is that the MDC male leadership is forcing a new chair-person for women on the women, as part of their “empowerment” or “building efficiency” within the Women’s Assembly, yet the beneficiaries of this male largess are denied the right to freely express themselves, as part and parcel of that political commitment to their liberation cause.

Apart from the violence and total exclusion, we have witnessed in this matter, the men will also not allow a democratic mechanism by which a proper process is carried out, of finding out who the most popular women’s leader is, and conferring the women’s chair on that person. Again, not accidental, thus the basis of my thesis, on political and gender relations within the MDC being rooted in patriarchal tendencies and practices.

The violence both physical and psychological meted out, against Matibenga herself and her supporters, is characteristic of the misogynistic nature of Zimbabwean society, inherited from Smith, which Mugabe has used against opponents real or false, replicated by men in the opposition. Sexist oppression has thus been validated as normal political practice in opposition politics.

And so it seems, each time male power in the MDC seems to be under threat, violence erupts in all its forms - physical and psychological, we have seen this in the party, prior to the October 12 split, when senior female leaders were targets of this violence.

The assault on MDC MP Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, twice at party events, in one attack she was with feminist Janah Ncube. The psychological or emotional abuse, of Sekai Holland when the men, callously removed her as secretary for International Affairs. Like Matibenga she was told, it was because she had been “inefficient” as secretary. I will not try to delve into an analysis of efficiency and male leadership, otherwise Zimbabwe would have been a better society.

Or the emotional trauma and stress I suffered when without warning funding was cut to me as MDC Representative to Europe. In fact I was slowly marginalised and excluded from all party activities, until I made my own way home. I was an emotional wreck, as I failed to survive, to date this gross treatment has never been explained to me, by either of the male leadership in the two MDC factions.

Last year, MDC MP Trudy Stevenson, suffered, severe physical attacks in an MDC constituency, which left her bruised with a broken arm and deeply traumatised. These are examples of women who have come out, I respect those who remain silent, there are more cases, of physical and emotional abuse. Including instances of sexual harassment of female staff members that have been suppressed.

All the abuse we have suffered has been condemned internationally, as being retrogressive to the women’s emancipation agenda.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, (CEDAW) or the International Women’s Bill of Rights, defines discrimination as "...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

Matibenga’s abuse has also led me to revisit the notion of sacrifice within the framework of gender power relations, in the party where others are “sacrificers” or “sacrificed” and others hold positions of power and privilege that insulate them from those “sacrifices.” It is an open secret that in her tenure of office Matibenga never had a vehicle allocated to her, in spite of all the dangers she was exposed to, such her brutal torture in September, 2006.

For a long time we have suffered silent persecution, like the horror stories of the rape of female comrades during the liberation struggle, by their fellow male comrades, that have never been really openly talked about or the perpetrators brought to book. The negative reaction to the screening of the “controversial” movie Flame, which sought to highlight these crimes against women during the liberation struggle was met with such a strong backlash by those in the Zanu PF leadership.

We seem to be ingrained with this, culture of silence around the forms of violence or abuse, we suffer as women in politics. We have been socialised into a political culture of only talking about State sponsored violence.

Matibenga’s battle helps us to further interrogate and demystify these primitive notions, of our silent persecution vis-à-vis our role and placing as women in politics and the respect we deserve from our male comrades.

Two weeks ago, Matibenga was locked out of Harvest House by rowdy youths and told to go away and form her own party. She was seeking an audience with the party leadership which was about to hold a National Executive meeting. There was no condemnation of this treatment of the widow Matibenga, in fact in typical Zanu PF fashion, all rights are suspended when one is seen to be at variance with the powers that be. Yet another example of the terrible abuse, she is enduring.

A social liberation party that articulates so well, violence against itself in the quest for political power, but fails to understand the same kind of violence against its own leaders and members, presents us with bigger questions about the Zimbabwe we are fighting for, as women.

This is because, the women’s emancipation project has been subordinated to the political whims of those in power, who are not willing to let go of patriarchal privilege, thus the different political systems in Zimbabwe have failed in the endeavour of women’s liberation.. Each historical juncture, has seen women lose earlier gains, as they are forced to renegotiate with patriarchy for their survival, be it in the home or in politics. Male bigotry, in both the ruling party and the opposition, has resulted in the further narrowing down of spaces women had carved out for themselves as a movement.

When I first wrote on Matibenga’s unjust sacking I was attacked by men in both the ruling party and the opposition, and so my thesis is based on my personal experience and of other women in politics, and the backlash we suffer when we raise our heads. Most women in politics, are subjects of political violence, both emotional and physical, but are socialised not to talk about it. The way violence in the domestic sphere has been treated as a “private affair” and men getting away with increased cases of femicide, rape and other forms of violence.

Looked at within a historical context, what women at the front-line of Zimbabwe’s struggle for social liberation and democracy are going through is no different to what their sisters in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle were up and against. It is always a double struggle internal and external.

Writes feminist Patricia Chogugudza on women liberation fighters, “Zimbabwean women, like their counterparts in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau, joined the armed struggle. Their hope was that with the revolution, gender equality would be certain. Women who could not conform to tradition saw the revolution as an opportunity to escape difficult situations. Yet feminist critics argue that at the end of the struggle, women’s status actually fell as nationalist leaders and nationalist-oriented societies, in the quest of preserving tradition, expected women to be guardians of culture and respectability, or mistresses of the emerging ruling elites, or wives and mothers, recruiters for political parties, and labourers for the new market economy, while men were engaged in competition for political power in the state and the accumulation of wealth.”

Thus today women who have delved out of the socially constructed roles of wife, mother or mistress into the public arena of politics have had to deal with much back-lash.

Feminist critique has shown us that power and democracy are historically exclusionary notions, as they remain class based and androcentric. The MDC example is important in this analysis, as the dust settles on the utopian vision and idealism many of us viewed the party with, as a fulfiller, of liberation goals, and ultimately our emancipation, that the nationalists failed to deliver on. It is in this context that I will further locate the analysis on the cycle of violence in Zimbabwean politics, from the State, to the opposition, and how it impacts on women’s participation, in politics.

In this vein it is also important to take the analysis further to the rise and consolidation of power by Tsvangirai’s “kitchen-cabinet”, and the brutal expression of sexist oppression, that has accompanied it.

The rise of this elite core group of male and female financiers is important to the feminist discourse within the MDC because our political engagement has changed totally, from the values upon which the party was founded to a new finance driven, elitist political culture, that lacks popular support and legitimacy.

It is now power politics, in total and not a pro poor, people centred social liberation struggle, that is just, recognises history and honours sacrifice including women’s role in that struggle. Thus the suspension of these values, explains the crude injustice against us as we are further marginalised and excluded from political processes. Violence in the party becomes self perpetuating as this group seeks legitimacy, outside the organisations formal or official structures and boundaries.

Feminist Patricia Macfadden, writes “And even when such systems aspired to be inclusive and socially expansive, they remained essentially exclusionary and patronizing of those who had been constructed as Other in relation to power as the most critical resource in that society. Across our world we struggled for what appeared to be collective visions of freedom and justice, and while it is critical to acknowledge the opportunities that nationalist liberation struggles and anti-colonial resistance provided to those groups in our societies which had been up till then excluded from the public, for example women, we must also critically evaluate the implications of nationalism as an ideology which is fundamentally sexist and exclusionary of women, particularly during the neo-colonial period.”

To further my thesis on how power relations between Zimbabwean women and men have not evolved with time, from nationalist notions and understanding of our roles in society with the use of violence being a common denominator between the systems, I will now look at Zanu PF’s system of violence.

Mugabe responded to the formation of the MDC and the threat to his continued hold on power through violence. On the character of the post-colonial state and the way it has responded to demands for reform, by the broader pro-democracy movement, in Zimbabwe academic Brian Raftopoulos, writes, “Confronted with a strong former liberation movement, led by a leader with enormous prestige on the continent, civic and opposition forces have had to face the combined obstacles of an authoritarian nationalist state constructed through the legitimacy of the liberation struggle, in a rapidly shrinking economy that has comprehensively undermined the structural basis for the reproduction of broad social forces in the country. Moreover, in the short term, this scenario has not engendered a spirit of reform in the ruling party. Instead observers have witnessed the intensification of repressive rule and the continued marginalisation of opposition forces, with the military taking on an increasingly prominent role in all spheres of the state.”

I celebrate sheroes of the struggle, like young Talent Mabika who lost her life to the regime, others have been raped, tortured, arrested and have suffered different forms of victimisation in the hands of the ruling Zanu PF party.

The Women of Zimbabwe Arise, (WOZA), has just released a report on the violence suffered by its members, in the hands of state agents, reads part of the report, “WOZA has conducted over 100 protests on various issues of civil rights and social justice in its five-year existence and up to 3,000 women have spent time in police custody. Many have been detained more than once, most for 48 hours or more and 112 members once spent five days in police cells. These women, front-line human rights defenders, are willing to suffer beatings and unbearable conditions in custody to exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms. They continue to suffer torture and other forms of cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment.”

Given the above analysis and the way it now mirrors the unhealthy situation pertaining in the opposition, of increased authoritarianism, lack of accountability and violence, I will further link this situation to yet another process and the danger it poses for Zimbabwe’s future political dispensation, in relation to popular participation, democracy and our emancipation as women.

As part of the deal under South-Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, SADC sponsored mediation, the two MDC formations agreed to endorse Constitutional Amendment number 18, against public opinion on the political recklessness of such a move. I will not go into the details of the amendment and how in many respects it contradicts the very struggle the pro-democracy movement has been waging, over the past years, and how the manner in which it was adopted short changes our quest for participatory democracy.

However, it is important to use this example to further illustrate, and magnify my point on the connection between ‘elite-deal’ making and politics of exclusion to increased violence and marginalisation of women, in the MDC. Civil society organisations, and the women’s movement got a rude awakening last September, at the voting for CA 18, when the Secretary General of the Arthur Mutambara led faction, Professor Welshman Ncube, literary told them that, their work was to lobby and advocate, they must leave power to politicians.

Defending their voting for CA 18, in Parliament Ncube said,“At that time I was the spokesperson of the NCA and President Tsvangirai was the chairperson. The NCA agreed that we needed a new constitution for Zimbabwe which would be crafted or written in an open, transparent and participatory manner. In that regard, we as members of the NCA were there to oppose two things. One: the piecemeal amendments to the Constitution of Zimbabwe, Two: the unilateral manner of setting such piecemeal amendments. Mr. Speaker, it is important to understand those two principles. Let me say that these two principles were conceptualised, conceived and adopted, not to be verses in a bible. They were strategic and tactical principles which were intended to forge the making of a people-driven constitution. I despair today when I read and hear the attempt to transform these principles into some fundamentalist decrees which, we are told, are to be regarded as completely sacrosanct. As far as we understood them, they were supposed to be means to an end.” And the end political.

Consequently, again by going this route the MDC has agreed to play junior partner to Zanu PF and so now they are on a reactive rather than proactive agenda, on many electoral issues, such as constituency boundaries, access to media, political violence and so on.

Zanu PF however feels re-legitimated as it sees a mirror image of itself in an MDC, that does not respect women, public opinion and is violent.

The men will broker a power sharing deal that will not transform our society, by reconstructing the gender, class and power relations, as they exist, today, but rather endorses the status quo.

And so the notion of liberation through this avenue, has to be viewed within a perspective, of it really being a reconfiguration and consolidation of patriarchy, in our politics, just as we witnessed at the Lancaster House Conference, without any popular participation or support.

Meaning that our experience as women, in politics should really be an eye opener to the struggle ahead beyond Zanu PF’s demise. This abandoning of values we have believed to be sacrosanct, by the men, should be an eye opener to the longevity of our struggle for emancipation.

Activist and journalist Charlene Smith writes, “Governments are by their nature hypocrites. The structure of modern political systems encourages this. Globally politicians are more concerned about getting the right sound-byte on television than in going into communities to hear what people have to say. Politics and perhaps even the way you and I live our lives, have become divorced from values. Values drive societies, they are the essence that sustains humanity. Without them societies decay.”

Given this sad scenario, as a political activist who has put in her all in the fight for a just and democratic society, I can only urge other sisters in the struggle to find new spaces, to continue with our struggle for emancipation, and for those who remain in the patriarchal systems, I can only give them my support.

In conclusion I say Smiths ghost will haunt Zimbabwean politics for some time to come.

*Grace Kwinjeh is a visiting scholar with the Centre for Civil Society and writes in her personal capacity

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