THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

A Zimbabwean feminist speaks
Shereen Essof, Extracted from Pambazuka News 300
April 20, 2007

Shereen Essof is a Zimbabwean feminist and revolutionary activist currently based in Cape Town. She is known for her role in the women-s movement in Zimbabwe. Ronald Wesso spoke to her on 18 March following a week of unashamed and escalating brutality visited on the opposition by the Mugabe regime, a month before Zimbabwe's 27th year of independence.

RW: Shereen, where do we begin if we are talking about Zimbabwe today?

SE: I think that today I would begin with a woman by the name of Grace Kwinjeh, the deputy secretary for international relations in the Tsvangirai MDC, but also a women who is part of the broader women-s movement in Zimbabwe. A women who was beaten, tortured and denied medical assistance. That is what freedom has translated into in Zimbabwe, and that is where I would begin.

RW: Does her experience mean women have been specifically targeted in the spate of state violence we have seen?

SE: Women are always targeted. They are targeted differently depending on what the political economic and social context is. Our society is deeply patriarchal and misogynistic. During the liberation war, women's bodies were used as part of the struggle. That struggle was by no means equitable.

In the 1980s when the state went into moral panic about the freedoms women had gained after independence they targeted 'women as prostitutes' in something known as Operation Clean Up where any women out after 6pm was arrested. Now 27 years later, women are being targeted for being women and political activists. The violence is sexualised, that is why they can be called 'Tsvangirai's whores'.

Gender-based violence against women is more acute where, as in Zimbabwe, traditionalist patriarchal values persist. This is not only due to a value system which treats women as being in some way lesser people than men, and thus not worthy of the protection of the law. It also arises directly from a certain proprietal attitude.

As male 'property' women are not treated as actors in their own right. Hence the epithet 'Tsvangirai-s whores' directed at female members of the opposition by state agents and Zanu PF supporters, implying that they are merely acting on behalf of a man, motivated by considerations other than their own desire for change or political activism.

Furthermore, sexual violence perpetrated upon women is perceived not so much as an assault on the woman herself, but an attack on the 'property' of the 'owning' male. Combined with traditionalist attitudes towards sexuality and virginity, there is a perception that sexual violence perpetrated upon women members of the opposition is viewed by the perpetrator as a particularly effective way of attacking and humiliating male members of the opposition. The resultant social disruption is extensive.

RW: I take from what you are saying that the clampdown is on the opposition but that it-s also important to understand it as a clampdown on women specifically. Let's talk about Gukurahundi, which can also be understood as a clampdown on opposition with an ethnic dimension - the targeting of the Ndebele people. Would you argue that it was also a violent attack on women?

SE: Gukurahundi was an early example of the extent Zanu PF would go to in order to stifle dissent and opposition. Gukurahundi means 'the early rain which washes away the chaff'.

And yes, gukurahundi is the euphemism used for the actions of Mugabe's fifth brigade in the Zapu areas, the Ndebele provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands during the 1980s. An estimated 20,000 civilians, mostly Ndebele, were killed or disappeared and have not been accounted for to this date. It was vicious and violent.

As Yvonne Vera-s Stone Virgins testifies, it was played out across women-s bodies in very particular ways: rape, brutality, the ripping apart of women, of people and families and communities. Gukurahundi is part of the same continuum that leads us to the events of the last month.

RW: Speaking about Murambatsvina. You spoke about how today and in the past violence was deployed to demobilise and repress women. In the public discourse on today-s events and on Gukurahundi this aspect is played down or left out. It is seen respectively as an attack on Ndebeles and the MDC. Murambatsvina is understood as an attack on the urban poor. Was there a dimension of targeting women?

SE: Look. Murambatsvina was specifically aimed at 'cleaning up the filth- and in this instance the filth was people staying in structures for which there had been no legal permission to build. The way this thing played itself out was that the majority of people in the front-line of feeling and dealing with the effects of Murambatsvina were women and it saw the displacement of an estimated 700 000 people.

Women and children are the most common victims in situations where organised violence and torture become prevalent and are frequently the first victims in civil conflict. They are also the most greatly affected in cases of internal displacement. Mrambatsvian was no different.

RW: What is the purpose of all this violence from the state-s side?

SE: The purpose of this violence is about clinging to state power at all costs.

RW: Okay, so given all that, can you see a positive purpose and role for state power?

SE: As long as a minority make decisions on our behalf then we cannot be free. The decision making and enforcing apparatus this minority uses is the state. The state apparatus and way it is conceptualised needs to change radically.

I-m going to go back to women. If one looks at the experience of women in Zimbabwe and one looks at the role of the state in relation to women-s 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 women-s 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: Let-s talk a bit about the 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 realised 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 have 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 opposition-s Movement for Democratic Change evokes pleasant feelings, some of the party-s 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: Shereen, let us move the discussion away from the dramatic events of the last few days, as well as the drama of Murambatsvina and Gukurahundi. 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 "normality" 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. Is that normal or abnormal? What does everyday life look like given life expectancies of 37 and 34?

Inflation is at 1700 per cent at the moment. If you go into the shop today and pay 40000 Zimbabwean dollars for something, the next day it could cost 65000 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 Benz-. 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: All of this happens against a backdrop of a Zimbabwe that-s actually at war in the DRC. What is the importance of that?

SE: It-s interesting that you pick up on the DRC because I think that Zimbabwe-s involvement in the DRC was yet another watershed in the spiral downwards. In 1998, the war veterans under the leadership of Chejerai Hilter Hunzvi basically held Mugabe hostage and demanded a pay out for war veterans, which the budget of the country could not sustain. In the same year Zimbabwe sent troops into the DRC even though financially it was not viable. But it is common knowledge that the elite network of Congolese and Zimbabwean political, military and commercial interests seek to maintain their grip on the main mineral resources, diamonds, cobalt, copper, germanium.

RW: Which of course raises the question of Zimbabwe-s place in the continent and the world, its political and economic relations with other countries. Let-s approach this through South Africa-s role. What do you think South Africa's role is? And what do you think of the many calls on SA to intervene?

SE: It is imperative for the South African government and 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 organisations 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 defence 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: I want us to talk about art and culture. Zimbabwe still has the highest literacy rate in the SADC region. The Harare International Arts Festival (HIFA) is in the world-s top ten. And the recurring theme of Zimbabwean art through the ages is the transformation of a human being into a beast. I just want you to reflect a little on that side of Zimbabwe.

SE: Interesting. Zimbabwe is rich in cultural production, pottery, textiles, jewellery, carvings, baskets, sculpture, music, theatre, writing. There-s some really amazing work that is being done. I think that the transformation of human being into beast in something that in some ways Zimbabweans know about intimately. If cultural production is about a critique of what is happening at a socio-economic and political level, then that is what is going to be woven into cloth or chiselled out of stone. Human to beast.

HIFA is an annual international arts festival that encompasses five main disciplines: music, theatre, fine arts, dance and the spoken word. HIFA began in 1999 and since then has taken the Zimbabwean and Southern African arts scene by storm. The Festival showcases the best of Zimbabwean performances and fine arts while at the same time staging and exhibiting the most exciting and creative international and regional performances.

HIFA 2007 is dedicated to artistic expression that has meaning and purpose for a community that is facing challenging balancing acts every day. It is a time to show that in Zimbabwe in 2007, the arts express our desire to make life better for ourselves as individuals and as a diverse community; a time to show that HIFA and artists recognise the paradoxes faced by Zimbabweans each day as we step out on to our own personal tight rope.

Most of all, it is a time to show that creativity surrounds us and makes us smile each day- HIFA 2007 is a celebration of all the small-scale acts of creative heroism that give magic, enchantment, existentialist ideals to ordinary things.

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 family-s the crude, suffocating thunder of 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: Is this the Feminist Political Education Project?

SE: Yes

RW: So tell us a bit more about it.

SE: The Feminist Political Education Project in some ways was born out of shared experience and friendships. Shared experience within the women-s movement and within the National Constitutional Assembly [NCA] across the MDC and friendship, in that the women who came together to form the project were friends.

They understood the urgent need for something. In 2003 we didn-t know what that something was, but we agreed that as an alternative to the way that the mainstream malestream works we would come together as a very loose network. We would not consolidate as an organisation. 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 organise and to do. And so we have been working since 2003. The Feminist Political Education Project is a space of hope.

RW: Apart from the Feminist Political Education Project 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 globalisation and in building mass based resistance on the ground. You know, that-s 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 Shereen?

SE: This last week has been a watershed. 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 and I think that the pressure is now on. It-s 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 one-s 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.

* "Shereen Essof is a Zimbabwean feminist and activist. Please send comments to

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.