Zimbabwean feminist speaks
by Shereen Essof
Editorís note: Shereen Essof is a Zimbabwean feminist and revolutionary activist currently based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is known for her role in the womenís movement in Zimbabwe. The following interview with her was conducted by Ronald Wesso.
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If one looks at the experience of women in Zimbabwe and one looks at the role of the state in relation to womenís lives, the state has never had the interests of women at heart. Women have actually never been considered full citizens of Zimbabwe. They are only considered citizens when the state has something to gain. For example, in March 2007 the state held a celebration for International Womenís Day under the theme of "stop violence against women," on the grounds that they had passed a domestic violence bill. This is interesting and intriguing, given that at the exact same time you had women being detained and tortured by the very same state.
RW: Letís talk about the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) that has been placed so centrally in these events. What do you think of the MDC?
SE: The MDC was born out of a dynamic process of social justice activism. Many of the people who are in the MDC came out of the trade unions and civic structures, when people realized that the prevailing energy could be turned into some kind of power, some kind of counterforce to the ZANU regime. That is how the MDC was born. The MDC came to prominence on a wave of popular support in that they provided an alternative.
But I think things did not continue in that spirit, with a commitment to true democracy, to a struggle that is guided by principles of freedom and alternatives. There is no sound articulated strategy to fight for change. True change. In very real ways the MDC has adopted the political culture of ZANU.
So it would seem that we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Does the MDC offer a viable alternative? We should be clear about what the MDC is and what its policies are. While the word "democratic" in the oppositionís Movement for Democratic Change evokes pleasant feelings, some of the partyís policies are rooted in neo-liberal ideology.
In fact, what needs to be happening now is the building of a mass movement, linking the struggles by women, workers, residents, traders, AIDS activists, students, disability rights activists, debt cancellation activists, the rural poor to start defining the content of the change we want. That means a movement that fights for a new political, economic and social order.
RW: Let us talk a little bit about what some call the normalcy of everyday life in Zimbabwe. Life expectancy for men in Zimbabwe is now 37 and for women 34. What does it say about normality and everyday life?
SE: I read something about Zimbabwe the other day: "Yes there is tension in some places, but for the majority life goes on normally. And unfortunately within that Ďnormalityí is a gross amount of struggle." What is normal? And what is abnormal?
I think that in Zimbabwe right now the lines are incredibly blurred. People find ways to continue and to survive, brutally. Perhaps surviving is resistance.
Inflation is at 1,700%. If you go into the shop today and pay 40,000 Zimbabwean dollars for something, the next day it could cost 65,000 dollars. Not many people are earning salaries that keep up with inflation. The strikes by teachers and doctors are indicative of that. Everyday life in Zimbabwe is for many a life of struggle, hardship and deprivation. A life of brutality, without the basic things that you need to be human.
But there is something else that is very interesting about everyday life in Zimbabwe. You can arrive at Harare international airport and drive into town and you will see luxury cars everywhere. You will see BMWs. You will Mercedes Benzís. You can go to restaurants and have the best seafood. In the face of all this deprivation you have the consolidation of a very small elite. There are flows of money outside of the formal economy that means that people are making money from the current situation. And for such people it is not in their best interests that anything should change.
RW: What do you think South Africaís role is? What do you think of the many calls on it to intervene?
SE: It is imperative for the South African government and South African Defense Force (SADC) to take action to hasten an end to the oppression of the Zimbabwean people. The existing softly-softly policy of quiet diplomacy to encourage internal dialogue has failed. One needs to listen to the call by Desmond Tutu and civil society organizations in southern Africa for intervention. The Mugabe regime needs to know that it can no longer rely on the unconditional support of the South African government.
RW: What would an intervention from SADC and South Africa look like?
SE: Mugabe must be called to task. He must be called to account. If he is not, all African leaders are as guilty as Mugabe. For a start they need to explicitly condemn the violent actions being undertaken in the name of ZANU-PF and the Zimbabwean government. End all defense force, security and intelligence collaboration. Cease supplies of all military hardware. Cease to roll over all loans. Respond sympathetically to asylum requests. The argument that it is wrong to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign country is no longer sustainable. Without international intervention against apartheid, the struggle for liberation in South Africa would undoubtedly have taken longer and been even more bloody.
RW: So Shereen, how do we get from beastliness and brutality to humanity and tenderness?
SE: Chirukure Chirukure in his poem "Smoke, dust, tear gas" hints at this: "In the heavy, belching clouds of dry dust there in your tired, barren patch of rocky land you could still tender the grey, shrivelled crops, weeding the way to the starving familyís future...in the crude, suffocating thunder of enemy tear gas, there in your tense neighbourhood turned into battlefields, you could still see the damp, blood-soaked secret paths, tenderly shuttling to give direction and inspiration to the cause...in the perfume, tobacco, alcohol and laughter fumes, there in the extensive, excited victory celebration parties, your eyes could stretch beyond the beaming rainbow knowing that out of the brutality, there is the humanity, that this is only but a seed germinating..."
RW: Are there such spaces for the creation of this humanness in Zimbabwe, or at least in the process of creation?
SE: I think the spaces have to be created. They are not just delivered to you on a platter. People are creating the spaces. Women are creating the spaces. There have been a number of women who have been very involved in the 1980s and the 1990s who because of political and social and economic reasons are now scattered around the region. Who have reached out to each other in order to create those spaces to see what possibilities can spring from that. So spaces have to be created, and they will be.
RW: Tell us about the Feminist Political Education Project.
SE: The Feminist Political Education Project (FEP) in some ways was born out of shared experience and friendships. Shared experience within the womenís movement and within the National Constitutional Assembly across the MDC, in that the women who came together to form the project were friends.
They understood the urgent need for something. In 2003 we didnít know what that was, but we agreed that as an alternative to the way that the mainstream works we would come together as a very loose network. We would not consolidate as an organization. We would pool our skills and resources and come up with interventions based on what was happening at a particular time in the country and create spaces for women to come together both to share and reflect but also to think through ways of doing even in the limited room that exists in Zimbabwe right now to organize and to do. We have been working since 2003. The FEP is a space of hope.
RW: Are there any other projects or groups or movements that you would urge people to join and build?
SE: I think the Zimbabwe Social Forum is an important space in the struggle against globalization and in building mass based resistance on the ground. You know, thatís important. I think Zvakwana is important. SW Radio is important. Many formations that are contributing to the dreaming of a new dispensation.
RW: What are the prospects for Zimbabwe?
SE: Things may get worse before they get better but things are going to come to a head either way. People outside and inside the country are preparing for that. They are consolidating networks to come with strategies. The pressure is now on. Itís a different game.
RW: What would true freedom and democracy look like?
SE: A Zimbabwe that confronts its various pasts and names the violations its peoples have suffered; freedom would look like a space to look at the militia in the eye and say, "you violated me." It would be a chance to talk back to the commercial farmer, for all those years of exploitation and abuse. To be able to point a finger at the minister and the war vet and ask: why? It would allow for a woman to define the Zimbabwe she wants to live in. Is that not what democracy is about? A chance to be listened to. And be heard. An acknowledgement of the pain endured? A piece of land to call oneís own would go a long way. Space to be a citizen. Speaking on our own behalf. Defining our own futures. Ukuba ngumuntu--muntu. To become people. Our personhood restored.
Published by News and Letters Committees