Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version the chronic lack of representation for women within each of Zimbabwe’s main political parties, Shereen Essof asks how Zimbabwean feminism should proceed in its essential challenge to the oppressive dominance of the country’s political elites. In a nation suffering the world’s highest inflation rate and among the world’s lowest life expectancy, the author asks what these statistics mean in practical day-to-day terms for Zimbabwe’s women. With Mugabe, Tsvangirai, and Mutambara continuing to fail to settle their differences and articulate a worthwhile path for their country’s immediate future, those at the apex of political power effectively hold their entire population hostage to their decisions, a state maintained in no small part by the behind-closed-doors nature of negotiations and ultimate absence of democratic accountability.

What is life like for women in a country where inflation is 300 million percent and counting? What is life like for women in a country where their life expectancy is 34 years? What is life like for women in a country where three men hold a nation hostage?

It is difficult to answer these questions. In fact there are no easy answers. It is only once you visit a country that has been torn apart that you can fully understand the implications of this dismembering and subsequently what constitutes life. But the media has become very good at reporting the pulse of Zimbabwe via palatable sound bites and this reporting has been such a recurring blip on the so-called media electro-cardiogram that we no longer notice it, we no longer notice that it has flat-lined.

But despite this women are fighting to stay alive. They are fighting to survive. And in Zimbabwe right now the contradictions of this struggle run deep. I listen to stories of women who have nothing to eat, who forage for roots, wild fruit and rats. Stories of desperation, displacement and despair. But the magic of capital plays interesting games in a context of dire need and so the development of a highly sophisticated informal economy means the deprivation coexists with plenty. And everything and anything can be conjured up if you have the money, just not in the places you would expect to find it: petrol is available not at a garage, but under a tree on a quiet side road in Harare’s avenues, at an office on the ninth floor of an office block, or after a quick phone call to arrange a pick-up (if you can get through given the ever breaking down mobile networks and stolen fixed line cables). Sugar and rice can be purchased from a car boot, and chickens from the hardware store near the train station. Some fresh produce can be bought from women selling on the side of the road, a victory given that roadside vendors were ‘cleaned up and out’ after operation murambatsvina removed the filth, but then given that the country has ‘dollarised’ you have to have ‘maUSA’ – as its known locally – or US dollars to make your purchases even of a few tomatoes, sweet potatoes or greens.

So if you don’t have access to ‘forex’, you don’t have anything right now and basic commodities will remain an illusion. Depending on the formal sector for jobs or access to services means you just don’t survive. More so because there is no cash and the endless queues outside the banks are evidence of the difficulty that women have getting their, and you can take your pick of ‘re-valued’, ‘de-valued’, ‘under-valued’, but certainly hard-earned cash out of the banks. This means that everyone is trying to make a quick a buck, to wheel or deal to generate maUSA’s and remittances from diaspora workers abroad go a long way.

And while this may read like a comedy of errors, women, whether in the leafy suburbs or in the remote rural areas, are tired of the struggle for survival, of the inconveniences, of deprivation, of trying to figure out where to get the next meal to put on the table. Women are tired of the collapsed healthcare system, characterised by a lack of drugs, the shortage of personnel and the breakdown of equipment. They are tired of an ailing education system characterised by continued strikes by teachers due to poor remuneration, lack of supplies such as textbooks and stationery, delays in the writing of exams and in 2008, owing to elections and political instability, schools operating for only 65 days in the year. Women have had enough of the electricity and water cuts that sometimes last days and weeks, tired of the violence, the grave politically motivated and sexualised violence that women and women activists of all ages have suffered during the post-election period and which has continued to prevail due to impunity. Women are fatigued with having their roles dictated by the private sphere even when entering the public and are fed up of the months and of the retrospective years of waiting, waiting while the quality of women’s lives continues to decline.


The election on 29 March 2008 was one in a series – eight in the last eight years – meant to break the stranglehold of the increasingly authoritarian Mugabe-led Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) regime. With the birth in 1999 of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), elections as an expression of democratic practise were meant to do just that: to reinstate a new and democratic dispensation. But as history records, the extreme politically motivated violence and accompanying post-election machinations have meant that elections have lost their integrity in Zimbabwe and the voting public are both traumatised and fatigued by the process.

The polarisation of Zimbabwean politics means that women only have two options (now three in truth, with the split in the MDC producing MDC Tsvangirai (T) and MDC Mutambara (M), along with the ruling ZANU-PF). If you take the time to examine the parties’ constitutions, election manifestos, and programmes, none adequately addresses or expresses a commitment to the priorities and needs as identified by women, thus none provides a really viable alternative for a new dispensation that seeks alternatives that allow for the freedom of all. For this freedom is not something to be decreed and protected by laws or states, it is something that we shape for ourselves and share.

So there are thoughts that knot my stomach in the wee hours of the morning: can we really say that a ‘new’ dispensation has arrived if over half of the population’s structurally subjugated position at best remains the same or at worst has regressed? If we call this a victory for a democratic movement, what does it say about our definitions? If we are serious about the so-called change that Zimbabwe needs, it is important to ask what is the kind of change we are hoping for. Should we not be concerned about the quality as well as the quantity of the change? What exactly is the prescription or framework that will resuscitate Zimbabwe? Are we going to be ushered into an age that is even more intolerable and dehumanising? We live in a pitiless era of neoliberal market dependence whose end is even more poverty and misery. It will require much more radical thinking of what is possible and much more imagination of what is desirable for a so-called ‘new’ Zimbabwe. And once the current impasse has been overcome and the ink has dried on the agreements and deals, what then? Will we, as we did in 1980, breathe a sigh of relief and put our feet up, basking in the glow of ‘victory’ for this ‘democratic movement’? Will women be co-opted in order to once again serve male agendas? How do feminist activists conceptualise the work ahead?

But let me not get carried away by critical questions for some uncertain future.

As I write in November 2008 it has been eight months since the harmonised elections, and subsequent South African Development Community (SADC) endorsed, Mbeki-facilitated negotiations that put in place the Global Political Agreement (GPA), a hybrid document that provides a framework for the formation of a new government and a plan for the subsequent reconstruction of Zimbabwe. But as I write the talks between the leaders of the political parties have deadlocked and are awaiting the deliberations of a full SADC heads of state meeting. The media tells us that they have deadlocked on the allocation of ‘key’ ministries and apparently even with this so called ‘new’ dispensation on the horizon the key ministries have been identified as: home affairs, finance, foreign affairs, information, and defence. Surely if this new Zimbabwe in the making was committed to rule not by manipulation and coercion, and was serious in putting the needs of the Zimbabwean people first, the key ministries would be identified as that of public works, health, education, women’s affairs and the how of the reconstruction programme would be uppermost in their minds.

But right now that is perhaps too much to hope for.

So while the talks deadlock and the weeks roll into months women are sacrificed, a country is sacrificed, a sacrifice made on the altar of power of male ego, political survival, posturing and self interest. The deliberation of three men is holding the country hostage, and right now it is not clear how the current round of talks are going to bring food back into the shops, teachers back into the schools and medicines back into the clinics. This seems to have fallen off the agenda.

As long as the male leaders maintain ‘ZANU’ political cultures and party specific agendas they are paying lip service to the principles of freedom and justice outlined in the GPA and a new Zimbabwe will be in a state of constant deadlock. As long as the talks continue to happen behind closed doors, holding our ‘new’ leaders accountable will always remain intangible.


But while the men talk in the golden glow of the rainbow towers in Harare, women are saying enough! Kwete! On 16 October at the very same venue, Zimbabwean women met, deliberated, and had the militant foresight to engage in direct action by occupying public space in an extremely hostile and policed environment, not only to call attention to injustices in Zimbabwe but to catalyse action and demand that the talks end immediately. We are on the frontline of this war and for too long we have suffered. We want change now! We are worn down but not broken! We are here! Look at us, starving. All we want is a ‘normal’ country with ‘normal’ systems that work. And we want that to come now. We will continue to create community where the social fabric has been ripped apart, we will continue to share scarce resources in a context of extreme deprivation, and we will continue to fight and act, to make our voices heard in order to sustain and make ourselves strong so we can challenge sexism and realise the dreams and possibilities of a new Zimbabwe as full and equally participating citizens in all spheres. But right now we demand:
i. Availability of affordable and accessible food
ii. Provision of accessible clean water and electricity
iii. Provision of affordable and accessible health services including antiretrovirals (ARVs)
iv. Restoration of a functional education system
v. Easy access to our cash in the banks.


These demands are bolstered by a range of interventions being carried out around the country by strategically placed formations that are prepared to engage in direct action, political lobbying and pressure. It is difficult to talk of a movement right now and I will not hazard to do that in the space afforded me. How organisation manifests itself in a time of crisis needs deeper, longer reflection and theorisation, but writing while doing and reflecting while talking, women’s organising in Zimbabwe has suffered the same fate as that of broader civil society.

In the last 20 years the civic landscape was taken over by donor-funded NGOs and Community Based Organisations (CBOs) who as the regime got increasingly more repressive attempted to speak out, only to soon lose their voice and power and thus become subsumed in the status quo or at the very least continue to engage in activities that did not overtly disturb the balances of power. Similarly there are civic groupings that have aligned with political parties and have thus lost their objectivity as they jostle to align with the balance of forces. There are many women’s organisations in Zimbabwe operating to meet the practical and strategic needs of women. This work is important work.

But interestingly there are also autonomous formations comprised of energetic, Zimbabwean feminists who are committed to breaking down boundaries and transforming social relations, to reduce economic and political inequality, in short, to turn the world upside down. These women are committed to mobilising women nationally, they work to create the spaces for women to come together to access information, to share, reflect and strategise in the formation of agendas, in order to more boldly act, demand and claim what is rightly theirs. This is the painstaking work, to use the language of the day, of movement building. It is this political education work, this very long-term work, that seeks to unpick centuries of socialisation, that deconstructs the forces of patriarchy and capital, which aims to build community and create alternatives that can be claimed now. This is the work that ensures whatever government Zimbabwe has, women will hold it accountable. These formations are also committed to engaging political leaders, creating spaces for them to ‘meet the women’ so they know that women are a constituency, that women are watching their every move, and that women are prepared to act.


This is difficult and dangerous work in a context where the levels of repression and violence are high, where surveillance is everywhere, where the space for organising has shrunk, and the infrastructure eroded. Zimbabwe’s polarised landscape means partisan politics further complicates. Countless, countless women have been arrested, detained, tortured, displaced and on their bodies carry the literal and figurative scars to show for it. We know that no matter what the outcome it will take several generations to undo the damage on the national psyche.

It is important to turn our anger into action.

Women continue to envisage a ‘new’ Zimbabwe and are clear about what they want. In small and sometimes big ways women work to make the dream of feminist futures possible, even in the harshest of environments. We know that no matter what the outcome of this chapter of Zimbabwe’s history, the struggle against sexism requires us to be vigilant. We have to guard our gains and in doing this we have to continue to engage in feminist political education. We have to continue to build and strengthen the constituency. Women’s lives will not change overnight and the effects of patriarchy will continue to manifest through the range of violences that women live with and through and against which women will continue to organise and struggle.

This is what we must be prepared for.


And to the men who are holding the people of Zimbabwe hostage, you are inaccessible to women, as you are to the 12 million who constitute the last census in Zimbabwe, some who have remained to face the daily grind, some who are in the diaspora, and who know that making the choice to leave is similar to having a baby and committing to have your heart walk outside of your body for the rest of your life, and the countless who in the intervening years have died. So to the men who are holding the people of Zimbabwe hostage: show the political leadership that the people of Zimbabwe need right now or ship out.

‘The eternal’, according to Spinoza, ‘is now’, and women in Zimbabwe are living history and taking it very personally. The worst cruelties of life are its killing injustices. Zimbabwean women’s acceptance of adversity is neither passive nor resigned. It’s an acceptance that peers behind the adversity and discovers there something nameless. Not a promise, for women know that (almost) all promises are broken; rather something like a hiatus, or parentheses, in the otherwise remorseless flow of history. And the sum total of these parentheses is eternity and in that the knowledge that ‘on this earth there is no happiness without justice’.

* Shereen Essof is a Zimbabwean feminist and revolutionary activist currently based in Cape Town, South Africa.
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