When Nelson Chamisa became president of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 2018, he electrified Zimbabwean politics. He was young. He was energetic. He had the right credentials. He was a man of God. His speeches were fiery and his demeanour that of a confident, self-assured man who was striding into his destiny.
He did push-ups at rallies and didn’t mince his words in talking about Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s president and leader of the ruling Zanu-PF. Finally young Zimbabweans had a politician who they could relate to — and who could relate to them. Chamisa’s leadership promised to shake up and revitalise Zimbabwe’s official opposition party.
But his public behaviour towards women uncomfortably echoes the same system he claims to stand against. At an address during the 2018 presidential campaign, he said that if Mnangagwa won against him fair and square, Chamisa would give the president his younger sister to marry. Chamisa doesn’t have a younger sister but the remarks still raised eyebrows. In a country with a history of forced marriages, it was strange that he would make such a promise; stranger still that he saw nothing wrong with it.
In another speech, he referred to Kirsty Coventry — Zimbabwe and Africa’s most successful Olympic athlete — as a “child” when she was appointed minister of youth, sports, arts and recreation.
On both occasions, Chamisa supporters came out in full force to defend their leader. After all, Coventry is younger than Chamisa, so there was nothing wrong with him calling her a child. In fact, he was praising her, some said.
The latest incident involves him interrupting his wife, Sithokozile Chamisa, mid-speech during the MDC’s 20th anniversary celebrations. Although a full clip shows Chamisa trying to address hecklers, some still thought his behaviour was demeaning. And, once again, MDC officials and supporters said people were overreacting and had an agenda against him.
Whenever Chamisa has said or done something sexist, there have been people swift to come to his defence. They dismiss those who complain as agents of the state, hysterical feminists or people who want to be outraged about anything and everything. They argue that other politicians in Zimbabwe who have said and done worse towards women have gotten away with it. Anyone who finds fault with Chamisa should complain about those people first before they point their fingers at the MDC leader.
These supporters are right about one thing: Chamisa is not the only man guilty of sexist behaviour in politics. Sexism is sprinkled like poison across Zimbabwe’s political spectrum. Politics is dominated by men, and in such a patriarchal space there’s little room for fair treatment of, and respect for, women.
It began before independence, when women were sidelined from important positions in the liberation movement. It continued into the 1990s, when then president Robert Mugabe dismissed the demands for women’s ownership of land. When former vice-president Joice Mujuru fell out of favour and was eventually expelled from Zanu-PF in 2015, she was labelled with all sorts of sexual innuendo.
In 2018 during the president’s state of the nation address, when police were called to remove protesting members of parliament, a female MP was allegedly groped by a police officer. The incident was dismissed as being blown out of proportion. Political pundits have attacked independent opposition leader Fadzayi Mahere for being unmarried.
These are only a few examples. There’s a history of sexism in Zimbabwean politics; a pattern of male politicians sidelining, delegitimising and mocking women. And for a man who’s meant to symbolise a new wave in Zimbabwean politics, Chamisa stills falls squarely into this bracket.
One of the biggest criticisms of governance in Zimbabwe is a stubborn refusal to admit fault, apologise and atone. When it comes to Chamisa’s public statements and subsequent defence, aren’t his supporters guilty of doing the same? Any criticism of his behaviour is immediately shot down.
People who do complain are told to focus on the bigger picture; that their concerns aren’t important when compared to hyperinflation and political violence. But there is no room for self-reflection or accountability in that stance. Why should the fair treatment of and respect for women always be viewed as a secondary, superficial concern? And why is it so much to ask that the leader of the country’s biggest opposition party be more respectful and considerate towards women?
Chamisa is meant to be different. The MDC is meant to be a strong, democratic viable alternative to a party that’s held onto power for more than 30 years. If he is to be different, he should be different on all counts. And that includes breaking from a patriarchal political system that gives men a free pass in how they treat and talk about women.
But then again, this is Zimbabwe. In a country where patriarchy reigns supreme, there’s no onus on men in power to change their ways, especially if they won’t lose support or popularity because of their behaviour.