Mugabe and the minorities: Backlash update

"Flushing": by Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko

On Thursday Zimbabwe’s government newspaper, the Herald, published a call for the nation to pray that “those who campaign for the evil such as gay rights be condemned in the name of God.”

Zimbabwe needs our prayers more than ever before, given the unprecedented violence and the myopic call for support of gay and lesbian rights.

The column waxed predictably fulsome in its praise of God’s choice for Zimbabwe’s leadership.

If one is to make a mutual consideration of the level of integrity, loyalty, honesty and transparency vested in our current President, Robert Mugabe, it is appropriate that his leadership qualities are related to his Christian upbringing … Even his current international stance on denouncing homosexuality is a clear indication that he is a God-fearing leader whose character and personality is modelled on biblical principles.

Since Mugabe, however endowed with virtues, is unlikely to add immortality to their number, the piece also evinced a prudent concern for the future. It urged praying for a “God-fearing leader to suceed” [sic] him, and for a “continued stance anti- homosexuality”: “We should not have a leader in Parliament or any structures of Government who supports such an immoral act, which even our ancestors did support.” (I rather imagine there is a word missing there.)

The column was signed by “Never Gasho,” and here Google, the stalker’s friend, volunteers its aid. It seems that Gasho, a sometime jazz musician, is also a prosperous farmer in the Karoi area. He appears in a quite unrelated Herald article from a couple of months before, busily spilling dirt on farmers in the area who are undoing the intent of the government’s land redistribution program by leasing expropriated land back to its former white owners. The Herald says: 

Gasho always has information on his finger tips and is one guy who identifies with the truth. … Gasho will not keep quiet when he knows the truth. He searches for it too.

From this I would infer that Gasho is an ambitious ZANU-PF apparatchik, and a local informer.  His snitching in Karoi gave the excuse for a Presidential intervention and an investigation; the Herald seems now to be testing out his disputative talents on a national scale.

In this case the target is Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition Prime Minister who some weeks back told the BBC that he would support including sexual orientation protections in the new Constitution to be drafted over the coming months. The ruling party has attacked him steadily on the issue ever since, with particular intensity since David Cameron’s ill-timed noise about linking development aid to LGBT rights issues. Last Monday, the Herald accused Tsvangirai of a “bid to smuggle homosexuality into the new constitution under the guise of protecting minority rights.”

Sources who attended a Select Committee meeting last week accused MDC-T’s Copac co-chairperson Mr Douglas Mwonzora and spokesperson Ms Jessie Majome of seeking to have gay rights included under the guise of minority rights. [MDC-T, Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai, is the Prime Minster’s party; Copac is the Constitution Select Committee.] The sources said there was heated debate over the issue.

“When they raised the issue, we asked them to define who should be covered by minority rights and they started mumbling and they said the Ndebeles and the Venda,” said a source.

“We then told them that these were people whose interests were covered under individual rights. Some MDC-T members in Copac had already tipped us that the agenda was to incorporate gay rights, so when it was raised we rejected it right away.”

"They beat us": by Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko

But this gives the game away. Mugabe’s real interest is in eliminating minority rights language altogether from the Constitution, and leaving only “individual rights” protections. He’s simply using gays as a classic wedge issue to discredit the whole discourse. And of course, he has reasons to want the Ndebele disempowered. Matabeleland is a longtime center of opposition to the regime. In the early 1980s, faced with mounting unrest there, Mugabe sent in his army’s North-Korean trained Fifth Brigade to massacre an estimated 7,000 Ndebele civilians. The Gukurahundi, as the killings are known in Shona, remains the great and devastating blight on Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. Mugabe has never acknowledged it.

Tsvangirai’s allies were shocked, shocked at this cynicism on the ruling party’s part.  Douglas Mwonzora said “he brought up the question of minority rights” at the committee meeting, “but the issue of gay rights was never discussed.”

“I and Jessie Majome (select committee spokesperson) raised the issue of minority rights – and minority groups in this country mean cultural minorities, ethnic minorities and religious minorities, and we even have political minorities,” Mwonzora said. “That’s all we meant. We are surprised that the ZANU-PF propaganda machinery wants to belittle the rights of the minority by trying to say these are gay rights.”

But the opportunities for demagoguery that Cameron opened up are still gaping, and the loony free-for-all goes rolling on. In this atmosphere, it’s easy for Mugabe to bash the whole concept of minority rights as a colonial perversion. This morning the Herald published a new column; written by two Bindura University professors, it claims that

the push for gay rights is yet another renewed camouflaging tendency of the foreign aid regime used by the Western powers to create governance structures that are conducive for the exploitation and external control of weak African states.  In the name of human rights Britain and its allies want to restore and consolidate what was once achieved through the strong political administration of colonialism.

Setting the gay stuff aside, the article actually offers a scathingly tendentious analysis, but an analysis indeed, of Western development assistance strategies. But how does one make such a critique relevant to Zimbabwe’s public today? The headline says it all: “Keep your gay England, we keep our Godly Zimbabwe.”

Note: The images above are by Owen Maseko, a Zimbabwean artist. In early 2010 he opened an exhibition called “Sibathontisele” (“Let’s Drip On Them”) at Bulawayo’s National Gallery, with works focused on representations of the Gukurahundi. The next day he was arrested and charged with undermining President Mugabe’s authority under the Public Order and Security Act. He could face 20 years in prison. He is free on bail but the case is still pending. 

Change in Zimbabwe

Happily never after: Mugabe and Tsvangirai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s opposition leader and prime minister under a tense power-sharing agreement, tells the BBC he supports including protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation in a new Constitution:

“It’s a very controversial subject in my part of the world. My attitude is that I hope the constitution will come out with freedom of sexual orientation, for as long as it does not interfere with anybody, … To me, it’s a human right,” he said.

In March 2010, Mr Tsvangirai said gay rights was not up for discussion in Zimbabwe. “I totally agree with the president,” he said at the time.

A new constitution will be drafted over the coming year, and submitted to a referendum ahead of the 2012 elections, which most expect to be close and violent.

Tsvangirai once asked, “Women make up 52% of the population … there are more women than men, so why should men be proposing to men?” Today, his spokesman told the AFP that the prime minister

still believes that the issue of homosexuality is alien in Africa … However, he is a social democrat. What he was saying is that ordinary people’s rights must be respected as long as they do their things in private.

Tsvangirai’s change of heart, however qualified, sets up a test in next year’s vote: whether Mugabe’s tried and true exploitation of homophobia, which he’ll surely haul out yet again, still works in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai’s comments also mark a general shift in attitudes affecting many African countries. Zimbabwe’s Guardian newspaper notes,

Tsvangirai’s U-turn comes after Botswana’s former President Festus Mogae told the BBC last week that his country should decriminalise homosexuality and prostitution to prevent the spread of HIV. Mogae, who heads the Botswana government-backed Aids Council, said it was difficult to promote safe sex when the two practices were illegal.