Politics, Hate Speech and Violence against Women: Mugabe's lasting legacy for Zimbabwean politics


By Sarah Bosha
August 31, 2018

After another declared ZANU-PF victory in the polls, Zimbabweans woke up to realize that the leader of the main ruling party may have changed but the political landscape maintained the status quo. Among the most pernicious aspects of this status quo are discrimination against, subjugation of, and violence towards women, which have been a part of the Zimbabwean political sphere since former President Mugabe rose to prominence during the war of liberation. Every time another wave of violence emerges, it is met by stony silence from government and political leaders. Perpetrators rest easy knowing that they can act with impunity.

Why does impunity, especially for sexual violence, continue to prevail? Under Mugabe’s too-long leadership over Zimbabwean politics, a patriarchy steeped in misogyny has taken hold, one that regards women's issues as unimportant and views female participation as anathema. Rape is used as part of a sick political strategy to dominate women and induce fear in the communities they come from, forcing them to withdraw from participation in political processes. When women are brave enough to participate in governance issues, they are repeatedly abused and harassed by some community members and prominent men who subscribe to an extreme form of patriarchy that punishes women for not adhering to strictly traditional roles in society. 

The 2008 election is one of many horrific episodes in Zimbabwe’s history in which  hundreds  of women - female supporters, sympathizers and relatives of MDC members were subjected to rape,  for “voting wrongly.” It was the natural extension of similar, though smaller, campaigns of violence in 2000, 2002, and 2005, when rape was “used more conspicuously to 'correct' and 'discipline' female political activists” and those perceived to be opposition supporters. Politically motivated acts of sexual violence presided over by Robert Mugabe and his top aides go back even farther in Zimbabwean history. There are  reports of rape during Gukurahundi in the 1980’s.

In the just ended polls of July 2018, reports of crimes of sexual violence have begun to emerge. Female MDC Alliance polling agents were reportedly sexually abused and raped in Mutoko and Buhera. These acts of violence were allegedly intended to force the polling agents to confirm false election results in support of the incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa. While opposition leader Tendai Biti raised the alarm about these crimes, the president of the MDC Alliance, Nelson Chamisa, has not publicly condemned the crimes, nor has President Mnangagwa addressed the allegations or the call to investigate the rapes. So far, no one has been arrested.

This is not to say that all Zimbabwean society is made up of misogynists bent on brutalizing every woman that participates in politics. Rather, it is that after decades of this type of behavior being condoned and promoted under the Mugabe regime, a political culture has hardened with an ingrained and broad acceptance of violence against women as a means to any end, including political gain. In Zimbabwe, the mantra - all’s fair in love, war, and in politics – has been the mainstay for Mugabe, top officials in his government, ZANU PF militia, and most recently the opposition MDC.

The case of Thokozani Khupe is one stark example of how this one aberrant characteristic of Zimbabwean politics has under Mugabe become ascendant. Khupe, one of the four female presidential candidates and a senior female politician in MDC-T who was besieged by a crowd of MDC Alliance supporters in Harare hurling abuses at her and shouting, “hure, hure, hure!” which means prostitute in Shona. Her crime was standing as a candidate against Nelson Chamisa, which was enough to provoke some to verbal abuse and hate speech extreme enough to threaten her personal safety. One protestor shouted, “You should thank the police otherwise we could have dealt with you thoroughly.” As expected, the abuse Khupe suffered was met with silence from Chamisa, and there was no rebuke from the government or other political parties.

These sexualized attacks against women are driven by a kind of patriarchy created by the Mugabe regime, seeped into and eventually pervaded Zimbabwean political discourse that views “respectable women” as belonging to or subject to an identifiable male figure. The “respectable woman” must be married or, if she is part of a political party, submit to the male leadership of that party. The unmarried woman or the “rebellious” woman, which appears to be Khupe’s transgression, doesn’t belong to and is not subject to any man. She is a “misfit,” a social deviant who must be put back in her place or disciplined by men, who exclusively hold society’s mandate to judge all women. 

But even women who are married, fit the patriarchal model of respectability, and avoid politics are not exempt from sexualized violence and sexual harassment. Women are viewed as chattel of their husbands or male benefactors and become the target of attacks intended to inflict harm on male political opponents. In 2000, 2002 and 2008, ZANU PF supporters targeted the spouses, daughters, sisters, and female relatives of MDC-T affiliates in a systematic campaign of rape

Research has shown that globally 45 percent of female parliamentarians receive social media threats of rape, beatings, and even death during their terms. Zimbabwean female politicians have not been exempt from online attacks. In Zimbabwe, between January 2013 to April 2018,  60 percent of violent discourse and related content in the political space was directed at women.

The Mugabe era’s perverse narrative that violence against women is collateral damage in the ascendancy to leadership should never be allowed to become the new normal in Zimbabwean politics. It is incumbent on all Zimbabweans, and the international community to which they belong, to publicly denounce the use of violence against women in politics. The Zimbabwean government publicly urged political parties to desist from politically motivated violence against women in the 2018 elections and must follow this up with action. The government must arrest and prosecute past and recent perpetrators of sexualized political violence against women. Any groups that have engaged in or plan to resort to sexual harassment and rape for political gain must be put on warning. Failing such action, we will continue to see campaigns of rape and sexual harassment as a regular strategy in the politics of Zimbabwe.