SAR, Vol 11, No 4, July 1996
GAY BASHING IN ZIMBABWE:
I - MUGABE'S UNHOLY WAR
BY IDEN WETHERELL
Iden Wetherell is assistant editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent
Zimbabwe may soon find itself once again embroiled in a row over gay rights as the World Council of Churches prepares to host its 1998 assembly in Harare. The small Southern African country made headlines last year when President Robert Mugabe vilified homosexuals in a speech at the opening of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair whose theme was human rights. "If we accept homosexuality as a right, as is being argued by the association of sodomists and sexual perverts, what moral fibre shall our society ever have to deny organised drug addicts, or even those given to bestiality, the rights they might claim under the rubrics of individual freedom and human rights?" Mugabe told a shocked audience that included Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka.
With the bit between his teeth, and basking in the approbation of Zimbabwe's churches, Mugabe thereafter expanded upon this theme at every opportunity, calling upon his ruling Zanu PF's Women's League - an organisation with a record of political thuggery - to arrest individuals they suspected of being gay.
There has been considerable speculation as to what exactly possessed Zimbabwe's president in adopting this extreme position. In the past he has spoken in vitriolic terms about white farmers, Jews, and political critics. But nothing quite matched the malevolence of his gay-bashing campaign. One explanation could be found in the unlikely coalition that emerged around the issue, comprising conservative whites and black traditionalists, many attached to evangelical churches. Here was a chance for Mugabe to mobilize that constituency while showing that Zimbabwe's oppositional civic movement had gone too far: "Look what happens when society is no longer led by the party and government," appeared to be Mugabe's pitch to voters ahead of national elections held earlier this year.
The president was also undoubtedly seeking to deflect attention from press reports surrounding his own marital record, revealing a highly selective approach to moral indignation. More seriously, he probably hoped his gay-bashing would camouflage misdirection of public resources that has resulted in a 20% reduction in per capita gross domestic product since independence in 1980 and led to very real hardship among the urban poor. Whatever the case, the campaign came to a grinding halt in early September 1995 when Mugabe attended a summit of regional heads of state in Johannesburg. Confronted by a well-orchestrated gay lobby which kept him locked in at Johannesburg airport for several hours on arrival and an unrelentingly hostile press, the Zimbabwean leader came to appreciate at last that his campaign did not enjoy the universal support Zimbabwe's supine state media had suggested. Expecting to be received as the conquering hero who had delivered to South Africa its freedom, he was characterised as an intolerant African dictator.
Thereafter he avoided the issue, except when provoked by hostile demonstrators in Auckland and Maastricht. But it will be interesting to see if he can resist the temptation to become involved in the unfolding row over the World Council of Churches' proposal to host its eighth assembly, scheduled for 1998, in Harare.
The WCC has insisted that a dialogue be opened with gay advocates in Zimbabwe ahead of the assembly and that gay delegates be allowed to express their views at the meeting. The head of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, Anglican Bishop of Harare Jonathan Siyachitema, was one of the first to congratulate the president on his anti-gay stance and has since repeated his view that homosexuality is a sin. The law would take its course against gay protesters at the assembly who were not bona fide delegates, he recently said in a clear warning to local gays.
But he is facing mounting opposition. The Zimbabwean Ecumenical Support Service, one of several groups preparing for the assembly, has condemned "political appeasement" and accused Siyachitema of compromising his pastoral responsibilities. The gay movement itself is considerably more resilient after last year's baptism of fire and is now fortified by donor funding and a network of international supporters.
While Mugabe may have burnt his fingers on the gay issue last year he is still searching for an issue to express his championship of "African values" while at the same time reflecting his growing resentment of Nelson Mandela's inclusivist "Rainbow Nation" to the south - representing as it does a standing rebuke to Mugabe's own narrow definition of African nationhood. The struggle of Zimbabwe's tiny gay community - increasingly black in composition - for the right to be heard is only a small part of a much wider struggle for human rights observance and political reform in the southern African nation of 10 million. Mugabe sees reform of any sort as a threat to his power base and may therefore feel compelled to weigh in again. In which case Zimbabwe's churches will be expected this time around to do more than merely sanctify presidential bigotry.
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