||Everjoice Win (EJ), comes from a land of stolen elections, repressive media laws, truncheon welding ‘green bombers’, spiralling inflation and petrol shortages. A land where a very dubiously ‘elected’ government makes war on the majority of its population. A blinding darkness has descended on a nation once bright with hope. Many would argue that specific “women’s struggles” should take a back seat whilst the broader fight for democracy becomes the overarching rallying point for Zimbabwean civil society? Not so, said EJ when she presented a speech at the Harold Wolpe Memorial lecture series on the 26th of August. It’s not a surprising view to hear from Zimbabwe’s leading feminist, a seasoned activist and columnist.
I first came across her name in the early 90’s when she was a columnist for The Parade, an independent Zimbabwean monthly magazine. I was then attending a Catholic boys boarding school. We were starved both of girls and dissenting views and living under a tyrannical prefect system that, in the age old tradition of divide and rule, encouraged a few learners to oppress the rest. Win’s articles attacking our traditional patriarchal social order were an inspiration. I could see, in my immature way, the inseparable bond between a political system that simultaneously discouraged political opposition while encouraging conservative “a-woman-should-know-her-place” kind of preaching.
EJ began her lecture, “Building and Sustaining… A Women’s movement in the Zimbabwean Crisis”, by posing questionsabout unity and diversity in women’s organisations as they endeavour to grapple with the challenges of operating under a dictatorship in a highly polarised nation. She asked if coalitions are possible, and, if so, if sustainable cohesions could be maintained in a highly polarised political environment. If coalitions of women’s organisations across opposing camps were possible, would this not mean a sacrifice of cherished values on the altar of a narrow feminist agenda, she questioned. These questions, she seemed to imply, are at the heart of the women’s movement’s dilemma as it tries to anchor its hard-worn victories in the murky waters of a turbulent political environment. It’s about what stance they should take toward an opposition that understandably wants to monopolise anti-government discourse for unity’s sake or how to deal with a vicious and paranoid government, which dismisses all criticism as part of a British conspiracy.
These difficult questions were familiar for the many exiles in the audience any but they also had some resonance for many in the audience battling a determined neo-liberal onslaught on the home front. To bridge the gap EJ chose to give a brief, but telling, history of Zimbabwe’s post-independence political developments, which she divided into three stages. She showed how women’s battles, their setbacks and achievements, strategies and tactics, also unfolded within these stages.
The first stage, she said, was from 1981-1988. This was a period when the euphoria of independence pervaded all facets of society. I would think that even the most die-hard Rhodie was relieved at that time, at least to see the end of call-ups that came with the war’s conclusion. It was a time of dancing masses, needing no spur, ready to trudge down independence’s road which they knew was not paved with gold, but believed was leading to some not so distant egalitarian horizon. She said that it was a time when government socialist rhetoric and action dominated the ideological discourse. Many “progressive” (I quote her) laws were legislated e.g. the Legal Age of Majority Act that allowed women for the first time to vote, enter into contractual agreements, open a bank account and have an ID document. She gave an example of her grandmother who was so happy that she now had an ID, and said she felt officially recognised as an individual person for the first time in her life. Parliament changed inheritance laws so daughters would have equal claims on deceased estates as sons. Feminist civil society was in its infancy then. In the early 80s, groups of women got together and formed many organisations including The Women’s Action Group (WAG) and the Women in Law Development Coalition. However, government confined their role to assisting it in developmental initiatives. EJ said that there was a kind of tacit agreement that deviations from the main line would not be tolerated.
EJ almost falls into that familiar trap that ensnares many commentators who claim that 80s Zimbabwe was a land of unprecedented growth, a liberal society under an articulate, brilliant leader. Some have even ventured to call it a “once Switzerland of Africa” (Meldrum, Third Degree). This stinks of a strategically revised histories which seek to reinforce the depravity of the current situation by romanticising the early years. These commentators forget that it was also a place of bread shortages and petrol queues, rampaging Zanu PF Youth Brigade gangs, and front-page pictures of the destroyed houses of opposition sympathisers (Herald, during 1985 elections). My parents always kept party cards in the house - just in case.
However, much to my relief, EJ did balances her initially over rosy picture by reminding us that this was the period of the Gukurahundi, when some 20 000 people were massacred under the guise of suppressing a rebellion in the South of the country. Then there was “Operation Clean Up” which resulted in thousands of females being arrested for walking in Harare’s streets after dark during the Non-Aligned Movement Summit of 1986. The assumption by the authorities was that a ‘decent woman’ should be home by that time. Hundreds of nurses, who naturally work at odd times, while walking home after knocking off at night were caught in the net. But of course even if the women were of the world’s oldest profession the operation was still morally unjustified. EJ described it as a flagrant attack on human rights and an outrageous disregard of guaranteed freedom of movement and association that it is the duty of the state to protect. On hindsight, these events show the early genesis of the regime’s disregard for the rule of law and its willingness to make a mockery of it own constitution when it suits its own purposes.
EJ identified the second period as 1988-1994. In this time the state sought to define itself independently of any outside influence, contrary to the Lancaster House Agreement where Britain oversaw the whole process. So a unified parliament voted for constitutional amendments that gave Mugabe overwhelming executive power after the Unity Accord the previous year. Nkomo and Mugabe had decided to bury the hatchet so all could ‘concentrate on Zimbabwe’s development’, or so we all believed. However, EJ did not mention the implications of the loss of oppositional politics when the only two parties in parliament merged. In retrospect its clear that this elite pact marked the initial stages of the undemocratic tradition of co-opting the elite representatives of dissent in an enlarged and increasingly predatory ruling elite.
At this period, an interesting development in the women’s movement was its maturing stance, evidenced by the growing belligerence towards government attitudes that still oppressed women. It opposed soft-gloved treatment of gender violence and the marginalisation of women with regards to land allocations (yes, there was a land redistribution programme then, half-hearted though it was, prior to 2000).
A major development at this period was the implementation of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) under pressure from the Breton Wood institutions. Government at that time abandoned its socialist rhetoric for the more fashionable neo-liberal clichés. An analysis of the ESAP’ s impact on the gains of women’s struggle in the earlier era would have been interesting, particularly I think, for many in the audience battling evictions, water cut-offs, and HIV/AIDS which has resulted in single parent households all of which are linked to South Africa’s structural adjustment programme..
Some in the audience wanted to know how the structural adjustment programme had effected on women. EJ was questioned by an activist from the Socialist Students’ Movement about how class affects the leadership, vision, and goals of women’s organisations in a highly class-stratified country like Zimbabwe, where the majority of women live in rural areas. A similar question was posed about the links between socialist struggles and feminism. EJ’s answers were inadequate, I think, partly because for some odd reason she saw the questions as an attack on her work. You could almost hear a slight quiver in her voice as she as attacked the poor man for dragging class into a basically sexist world. All women are in constant fear of rape whether rich or poor, she said. But it is a fact that a poor woman lives in a more violent neighbourhood, EJ; a rich woman, insulated by high-razor-wired-electric-fenced suburban walls, is at less risk of attack. It was a pity that the issue of class made her so defensive. This is a key issue for all social movements and it is simply not the case that the interests of rich and poor women are always the same.
The last stage in Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history identified by EJ, 1994-2004, touches the present-day crisis. After giving a perhaps a little too long although very interesting historical analysis of the previous period the sometimes raggedy and unclear jigsaw pieces of the origins of the Crisis fall perfectly into place. We see first the beginnings of a militant labour movement shown by the unsuccessful 1995 general strike, the stayaways of 1998, and finally the culmination of all this trade union led opposition in the birth of the labour-based MDC in 1999.
However EJ was clearly ill at ease with the period of the formation of the MDC and initially decided to leave this crucial episode till the very last. It seemed that she was taking great care to not be mistaken as an MDC supporter. It seemed that she does not have a high regard for many in the MDC. Indeed she went out of her way to attack the opposition whilst not being as severe with the ruling party. She later told me that the one hope out of the current crisis was to go back to the “Zanu PF of the old”. But she forget that even in her own telling of Zimbabwean history the ‘old ZANU PF’ is the same party that endorsed the massacres in the 80s.
In the last point of her speech, she said that the women’s movement in Zimbabwe also battles internal racism. I had no idea that they were white women’s organisations in Zimbabwe. I would not even think that the white population is still significant enough to even warrant expending energy battling domestic racism. But, we were told that white racism does exist within the Zimbabwean women’s movement.
The time given to the last stage was inadequate and a lot of useful information was omitted. For example, EJ didn’t address the real beginning of the current crisis - the closure of the independent newspapers - or how society has responded to laws that seek to protect women from all forms of oppression. She did not touch on the how ‘tradition’ remains at the core of much lived experience of discrimination of women in Zimbabwean society.
EJ was asked about how ordinary woman are coping in the Zimbabwe crisis. Her answer was brilliant. She said that the suffering is in many layers, and the battle in many fronts. She then gave an example of a young woman she had recently spoken to who was raped by seven “green bombers”, then found out that she was HIV positive, her husband decided to leave her because of the rape (he said he could not continue to live with a wife who had had sex with seven people). The crisis bears down on women on many fronts she said.
It was a disappointment to hear that they are no theoretical foundation for the struggle she has waged all this years. She said so when she was asked about the theoretical discourse on how to be a feminist and an African at the same time. I know its in vogue for activists to claim that no ideology drives their movement, it’s from the “heart”, they would rather say. But she could have at least given us the current theories from other thinkers in this field. Maybe she does not know them.
It was a good lecture though, apart from a few omissions. In fact, it’s one of the most exciting Harold Wolpe Memorial Lectures I have attended this year. EJ’s casual attitude and the simplicity of her speech was a welcome change from the academic waffle that we are sometimes forced to swallow. Her speech was easy to follow and her confidence was remarkable. A gem, I would say.