The recent Zanu-PF Women’s League congress sadly proved, once again, that it continues to be a vehicle through which male power in the ruling party is exerted and perpetuated.
It was demonstrably clear at the congress that the political discourse in the ruling party is inherently influenced and shaped by dominant patriarchal notions of power, which remain a preserve of the powerful boys’ club, with very little space for women to shake free, manoeuvre and influence things for the advancement of their cause.
The fractured league’s leadership, which is mostly made up of former combatants with authentic war credentials, has failed to produce a formidable force motivated by the sacrifices the women made during the liberation struggle.
They, like the men, have horrific and equally heroic tales to tell about their participation in the war, for which most sacrificed part of their lives from tender ages.
But they now have their hands around each other’s throats, signifying a rivalry that is captured by the long-standing competing aspirations of Vice-President Joice Mujuru and the former women’s league boss, Oppah Muchinguri, for dominance in the party’s ranks.
This, in turn, has been skilfully manipulated by those busy with the party’s presidential succession agenda.
For two successive congresses, the league has failed to build a powerful constituency in order to flex its muscles and push for issues within the party and at the national level that would benefit Zimbabwean women.
It has also failed implicitly to usher in a new dispensation of democratic governance and accountability that would rescue the economy from the downward spiral.
Zimbabwean women, in different capacities, have made inroads in previously male-dominated areas, in both the private and public sectors, but the country still has a long way to go before women in politics can, in their own right and based on their own capabilities, take over influential positions and exercise their own power.
Although women who are in Zanu-PF leadership positions have become wealth accumulators in their own right, they are part of Zimbabwe’s powerful elite, running enterprises throughout the country and beyond. But the patronage in which the nationalist movement is rooted hinders them from lifting their heads and challenging the hand that feeds them.
Women’s passive role in the party
Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Chris Mutsvangwa, in a recent and rather rambling interview on the role that Mujuru has played in Zanu-PF’s politics, unwittingly illustrated the extent of the passive role that women play in the party’s politics.
He suggested that Mujuru is just a tool being manipulated by the party’s secretary for administration, Didymus Mutasa.
In other words, Mutsvangwa believes that Mujuru has no solid political ambitions of her own.
This constitutes reason enough to explain why there is always an inclination to take anything that comes out of the allegedly “powerful” Zanu-PF’s Women’s League, as projected by some media outlets, with a pinch of salt. After all, the league is just an extension of contesting male interests, offering nothing radically new for Zimbabweans.
Furthermore, to prove that the women in the league continue to be pawns in a bigger power game played by the men, one should rewind back to the last Zanu-PF congress.
Women used as pawns
In 2009, in order to avoid an open contest between then defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and Mujuru, President Robert Mugabe decreed that only a woman would be allowed to stand for the position of the vice-president.
Perhaps Mujuru would have won an open contest but we will never know, because once again women were used as pawns – the outcome manipulated by Mugabe’s decree in a battle to block Mnangagwa’s ascent.
The principle of promoting women to positions of power so as to hold on to power held the day for Mugabe.
Now again he has done the same, but this time cannily using his wife, Grace, while consolidating his own position.
Both the youth league and the women’s league have endorsed the 90-year-old leader as their candidate for the 2018 elections.
Mugabe will be 94 in 2018 and another five year-term would mean he could, at age 99, enter the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest leader.
After the 2009 congress, Mujuru must have thought it was signed, sealed and delivered that there would be a natural progression of political events in her favour to go a step higher and take over the Zanu-PF’s leadership.
But the emergence of Grace, who entered the political scene by openly threatening those whom she deemed to be standing in her way (read Mujuru), showed how the league and Grace herself are either so blind to the agenda of their male counterparts or are willing pawns out of personal greed for a taste of a little power for a limited period.
There was no talk at the congress on how to better the lives of millions of women who are bearing the brunt of economic policies engineered by their male counterparts.
Nothing on why women remain so under-represented, even in senior government appointments that Zanu-PF itself has a direct hand in.
Nothing on the girl child, or why so many are not in school.
Nothing to advance women.
It was just a talk shop to endorse patriarchy.
The elevation of Grace by brazenly ignoring the league’s own rules that its executives must have served the party for at least 15 consecutive years once again brings under scrutiny Zanu-PF’s inclination towards lawlessness within its own ranks and how the league allows itself to be used in battles that have nothing to do with its agenda.
In fact, the league or its agenda is never heard of until it’s time for a congress to endorse a leader.
There has to be more to the league if it is to break the patriarchy that holds it from becoming anything more meaningful than an “endorser”.
It is tragic that the women’s league has failed once again to unite, to rise to the occasion, to challenge male chauvinism in the party and to push for a truly women’s agenda that would benefit all Zimbabwean women.
Grace Kwinjeh is a journalist and founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change, and is based in Brussels.