Tsvangirai in a fix over gay rights
Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is cutting a lone figure after comments he made last week in Europe over his support for gay rights, which have placed him at odds with the country’s largely conservative views on homosexuality.
The views of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) strongman were aired in a BBC interview and contradicted “gay-bashing” utterances made by him last year.
The comments have made him vulnerable to criticism, mainly from political rivals in Zanu-PF, the Welshman Ncube-led MDC faction and members of his own party, who are said to be “very worried” about their leader’s latest about-turn and the perception that Tsvangirai is a weak, inconsistent political leader.
He said on the BBC’s Newsnight programme: “I hope the [new] constitution will come out with freedom of sexual orientation ... Of course, there is a very strong cultural feeling towards gays in my part of the world, but to me it’s a human right. It’s something that individuals must be allowed to make a choice.”
Tsvangirai later attempted to save face by saying his comments were “only the opinions of an individual and not a collective party position”. This has done little to calm Zimbabweans, who view homosexuality as taboo and rejected same-sex marriage proposals during last year’s constitution-writing outreach process.
An analyst from the International Crisis Group, who was not authorised to comment officially, said: “Tsvangirai’s comments on gays are likely to cause some dissonance with a lot of Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe is a very conservative society driven by religious values and morals. The issue of gays has therefore been very topical and controversial.
“An anti-gay stance is seen as a pro-African culture standpoint, whereas a pro-gay stance is seen as a Western-influenced stand.” The analyst said Tsvangirai’s detractors were going to use his remarks to cement the notion that he is an ally of the West.
Mugabe and Zanu-PF have skilfully exploited Tsvangirai’s stance on homosexuality and tapped support from Christian churches and traditionalists that are against gays, who Mugabe at one time labelled “worse than pigs and dogs”.
Jabulani Sibanda, a fierce Mugabe ally and the self-styled militant leader of the Zanu-PF war veterans group, said this week: “Such reckless utterances are a true sign of arrogance. He [Tsvangirai] should be stoned to death because it [homosexuality] is ungodly and we would not tolerate being led by someone who has the audacity to say such things.”
But Tabitha Khumalo, an MDC legislator, dismissed Zanu-PF’s latest effort to use gay rights to gain political mileage ahead of elections expected next year. “Zanu-PF has nothing new to offer voters and they are certain to use anything as fodder for political gain. It’s out of desperation that they are now making gay rights an issue.”
In Zimbabwe gay rights are not recognised in the Constitution, although homosexuals are represented by the Gays and Lesbian Association of Zimbabwe, which has an office in Harare and operates without hindrance. It has been the lone voice in support of Tsvangirai: “We urge him to have courage to stand by his laudable respect for human rights in the face of the propaganda and unpopularity that will be generated by the Zimbabwean media around his position.” Gender activist Delta Milayo-Ndou said: “The homophobic sentiment swirling so fiercely in Zimbabwe at the moment only serves to make Tsvangirai seem like a progressive leader who is possibly ahead of his time in advancing the cause of human rights, but that is just appearance and sometimes appearance is enough, especially at a time when Britain has declared that it will cut aid to countries that persecute gay people.”