Bye, Robert: The complexities of chipping away our oppression

Friday 24th November is the day Zimbabwe saw the swearing in of a new president, after what has been called a ‘bloodless coup’. It also marks the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the ruling party – one without Robert Mugabe. While the mood in Zimbabwe and amongst Zimbabwean communities the world over has been jubilant, what I have felt this week is a mixture of euphoria and anxiety, as I think deeply about the future of a people that have lost so much. This is my personal reflection on a system we desperately need to do away with to truly free ourselves of different forms of oppression.

Bye, Robert

My father had the kind of singing voice that could only be classified as atrocious. It was deep and lacked any sort of real tone or direction, and the only song I ever remember him sing from beginning to end, in three different languages, was our national anthem – a memory that still makes me cry with laughter whenever it crosses my mind. “Tone deaf and proud,” I would often call him.

In many ways, his tone deafness and pride in mediocrity extended beyond his attempts at singing, into his political life. He was a Zanu official for as long as I knew him, in different capacities. And it was his tone deafness – a characteristic shared by his former colleagues and our former president (that feels really good to say) that inevitably resulted in decades of state and police brutality, plundering of government resources, corruption, negligence and mismanagement at eye-watering levels. And so in essence, the same guttural voice that made me cry with laughter, made me seethe with anger at the horrid sate of affairs Zimbabweans were subjected to. Herein lies the complexity of where we find ourselves.

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Robert Mugabe, the former President of Zimbabwe, will not be missed. Photo cred: http://bit.ly/2i3vyYO

For years, Zimbabweans have been speaking and writing about the shocking state of the country’s decline. We were ruled by a government that had no interest in listening to anything other than the voices that were powerful enough to silence others. Mugabe was an awful leader. So when he was forced to resign (please stop saying it was by choice; it wasn’t), I danced and cried for the end of his political power that had been used to bully, oppress and marginalise his own people. For many, his demise symbolised the beginnings of a long road to recovery. Zimbabweans, I believe, should celebrate each victory we win as deeply as we have mourned our losses over the years.

Hello, Emmerson – we need to talk

But as I write this today, Emmerson Mnangagwa has taken over as the head of state. He was a close ally of the president who was part of government throughout some of its most violent periods and actions: Gukurahundi, Operation Murambatsvina, the political violence in various election years and so on. He was and is part of a system that none of us can say has ever truly served all Zimbabweans. Our country is in a mess, and it will take more than just a change in leadership to fix it, which most people are very aware of.

Now, this is the situation we find ourselves in. But this is not the situation we have to stay in forever. As a young Zimbabwean, I was swimming in apathy and despair for longer than I’d like to admit, and that is a sentiment that is shared across socio-economic statuses and geographical locations. The removal of Robert was one small step in a series of many large steps that need to be taken for us to truly be free. And it seems naïve to celebrate his removal, considering who has replaced him. But it is possible to be anti-Mugabe without being pro-Mnangagwa. It is possible, that after years of oppression, silencing and being mocked by Robert’s leadership, his removal is the push that some young people need to start thinking about how to build our country. Anything that chips away at the feelings of apathy about my country, I welcome with open arms.

It may be too early to tell where everything is going, but what is clear is that the entrenched system of violence and intolerance for opposing poitical views needs to be dismantled. We as citizens need to think and act in ways that emphasise our desire for a country where everyone is afforded the same opportunities. We need to keep fighting for a country that we can be proud of, and where political leaders are not deified, but recognise that they are to serve our interests alone.

My father lost his life because of the very system and people whose power he helped to consolidate, and so violence begets violence. The system and the people in it are not going to willingly change for us. I think we need to keep speaking and collectively cure the ‘tone deafness’ of our political leadership as we move forward. And I think we need to give each other the space to celebrate small victories, while we work out how to achieve bigger ones.

 

‘Voting against my father’ – Tearing the fabric of violence.

Two days ago, the MDC-T youth held a demonstration in Harare to demand that ZEC put in place electoral reforms ahead of next year’s elections. The demonstration, as I read, began peacefully, but as usual the police violently cracked down on protesters. Those unfortunate enough to be in bank queues nearby were hit by the canon spray as well, while they experienced another violence of not being able to access the very money they have earned.

I remember thinking of how common this all is – police brutality in the face of a fight for basic rights and freedoms and answers that citizens deserve. Our country has been smothered by a fabric of violence that permeates every aspect of our lives, and it is in our best interests to tear that fabric and start building the country we all really want. This piece is deeply personal, and speaks to my encounters with this state violence and how it’s shaped my view of politics. It’s been particularly difficult to write because of my proximity to perpetrators of this violence. I want nothing more than a fresh start for this country and for our people, and I believe it’s possible. But we have to take a hard look at the ways this fabric of violence was woven and how we’re continuing that violence, if we’re ever going to tear it.

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2005 was the last time I listened intently and uncritically to my father’s take on politics. I  had just begun the teenage phase where I was perpetually annoyed with my parents. But what I felt that day was deeper than mild annoyance, and I knew that. His convictions had stopped moving me; if anything, they began to cause confusion and discomfort, which eventually, years later, turned to something close to disappointment. He’s dead now, and I’m older; and thankfully I ask more questions than I did back then.

2005 was the year of Murambatsvina, the government’s operation to demolish informal housing and business structures in urban areas across the country. It had a profound impact on my relationship with politics and my understanding of state violence, even at that age. Zimbabwe was going through a painful economic slump which was only to worsen over the years, reaching the tipping point in 2008. The currency was weak and jobs were scarce. The informal economy served as a source of much-needed income for urban residents who couldn’t access the formal sector or who simply couldn’t survive on salaries paid in a currency that was worth less and less every day. It was also the first time I had ever even considered my father to be a perpetrator of violence.

That’s important. A perpetrator of violence.

It wouldn’t be the last time, and it began a complex period of both loving him dearly and making wonderful memories, but gradually despising what he represented politically.

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Murambatsvina’s destructive effects that plague our country to this day. Source: http://www.herzimbabwe.co.zw

Operation Murambatsvina was swift and brutal; carried out in the height of the winter cold, rendering hundreds of thousands homeless and desperate. You see, my father was pictured in one of our newspapers in a white dust-coat, holding a broom and sweeping away the remains of people’s make-shift structures. “We’re cleaning up the city,” he said, after I asked if this didn’t seem harsh to him. “I mean, we’ve issued warning after warning…we’ve been clear about this from the start.” He tried to make some comparison with an example I might understand, but by now I had stopped hearing him. I remember staring at the picture of him sweeping away the livelihoods of the people him and his colleagues implied were “filth”.

I try not to think of my father very often anymore. But when I do, it’s with a feeling of both deep fondness and deep disappointment. Some days the latter outweighs the former. To me, he symbolised a party that rose on the backs of passionate black people’s painful sacrifices, steadfast resolve and a leadership that could see the Zimbabwe that many couldn’t even dream of. But there was an underlying violence in their actions that I saw and understood to an extent, but couldn’t fully articulate, and that I desperately want us to rid ourselves of now.

Tearing the fabric

I grew up thinking the state had everyone’s best interests at heart. More often than not I’d hear the words “sovereignty”, “freedom”, and “independence”, as did everyone else really. Except I listened to them twice – both from the mouthpieces of the party and one specific mouthpiece, my dad. I was taught to associate Zanu-PF with freedom and black empowerment, but more importantly as the only source of political and economic freedom and empowerment. It was this portrayal of a single ‘saviour’ – the ‘pasi nemhandu-ness’ that labelled anything outside of the ruling party as enemy and ‘other’ – that threaded together the fabric of violence we’ve wrapped ourselves in.

For years we’ve been taught to see difference in political opinion as being an inherent threat or something to be shunned and destroyed immediately and without question. It’s infused in the slogans we chant at rallies, the Facebook comments on political party pages, the high school history books, the newspapers and news sites, the arguments during dinner and the WhatsApp groups we rant to. The violence is everywhere. It’s in the way MDC supporters feel entitled to our votes, and the way Zanu supporters are willing to do anything to win. It’s the reason why, when independent candidates or new parties come about, we’re quick to tear them down. We’ve done things the same way, over and over. We’ve covered ourselves completely with the fabric, tearing it occasionally, but never enough.

This is where we are. But it doesn’t have to be where we stay.

2016 was the first time I felt my heart awaken with the possibility of taking back what our leaders had stripped from us. It was a long, hard stare at the fabric and how long and thick it had become. It was an attempt to tear the fabric of violence and sew a different kind of fabric – one woven together with democracy and tolerance and the ability to oppose one another without feeling threatened and insecure. We’ve already started weaving a new fabric. We may have to undo a few knots or close a few gaps, but we should never stop trying. Our efforts are in every refusal to accept poor governance, every protest, every counter argument on vote-splitting, and every demand to have our dignity recognised by our leaders. It’s in every bit of encouragement we give to those who speak truth to power and fight for our rights, that the fabric starts to tear.

2017 was the first time my grief didn’t fully consume me. And it was the first time I felt a deep sense of longing for a better country, and that I actually thought a better country was within our reach. And I realised that even more than I loved my father, I love myself. I love myself and my country enough to help work towards a future I can be proud of, and enough to be part of tearing the fabric of violence alongside everyone who’s fighting for a new country too.

For African women whose silence hasn’t protected them.

Before the weight of adulthood came crushing down on me, I was one of the best 9 year-olds at maflau (dodge ball) in my cousin’s street. (This isn’t up for discussion. It’s a fact.) I was fast and I could catch well, much to the delight of my teammates. I took our games very seriously – we would play for hours on end, only breaking if we heard our names being called from inside the gate. The December holiday sun wouldn’t bother us; we’d tease each other, scrape our knees, form alliances and make bets, then scurry into our gates after being threatened with a beating if we didn’t get bathed before dinner time.

There was one particular day I channeled the confidence of a mediocre white man and strutted into the street. I knew I was ready to win that day. We played a long, hard game of maflau and as usual, I was the last one standing. I dodged the last few throws and caught the ball made of plastic bags and old rags, meaning all my teammates who had been knocked out, got to come back in. This upset one of the little boys for some reason, who suddenly said he wanted to go home. I immediately called him a sore loser and we got into a verbal altercation. “Alright fine! Let’s see how you’ll play then.” He said as he grabbed his ball (he made it, so it was his) from my hands and walked home. “Ona zvawaita Vimbai!” [You see what you’ve done now?] was the response I got from my teammates, most of them male. I couldn’t believe it. In my attempt to stand up for myself and them, I had alienated myself, and I should have simply kept quiet so we could at least have kept the games going. So we could ‘keep the peace’. Everyone walked away mumbling and throwing their hands, and my heart sank.

 

“Your silence will not save you.” – Audre Lorde

The first time I heard that quote, I squinted a little in the way you squint at a lecturer so they assume you’re thinking very deeply about what they said. In reality, it went in one ear and slipped out the other. I must have nodded as well, this being before I learned how to question my questions and wake up my ‘woke’. Once I got to thinking though, I remembered that hot day in December when my speaking ruined the day for all my friends. Silence is golden, my lily white primary school teacher would say when the black girls got too rowdy. Back then, I truly believed her. Back then, I chose silence because society had chosen it for me first, and I had lost a few friends temporarily because I had spoken up.

Silencing on social media

My Twitter Timeline is an interesting place to be. I learn and unlearn on it, and I encounter both wonderful, critical thinkers and horrid individuals, stuck in their horrid ways. Being feminist on Twitter often feels like you have a bull’s-eye pinned on your back, dodging misogynist bullets everywhere. Misogyny isn’t the same as sexism – inside of the soul of a misogynist is a cesspool of murky water bubbling over with a real hatred for women. Misogynists delight in the power of patriarchy in its ability to crush women’s self-esteem, dreams, opportunities and voices. They revel in discrediting any kind of attempt women make at empowering themselves, and then it manifests largely through seemingly harmless sexist tweets. The patriarchy tower stands tall on social media, and the misogynists renovate and repaint it daily a bright red, drawing even more attention to themselves. Misogynoir however, combines the misogynist’s hatred for women and black people, to make black women the target – bearers of the burden of race and gender discrimination.

Silencing is a common tactic – it’s been around for centuries, plaguing various vulnerable groups of people in the world, amplifying the voices of oppressors everywhere. I speak about social media because as a young adult, it is the one space that offers a multitude of opportunities to network, learn and be entertained, but also serves as a space of violence. As a young black African feminist, living in my feminist truth offline can be just as taxing as it is online. There are two things I have struggled and sometimes continue to struggle with online, that have resulted in my choosing silence from time to time: ‘Likeability’, and the violence of ‘teaching’ feminism online.

A big part of patriarchy is its ability to ascribe particular gender identities and traits to women and men. Black women in particular are often portrayed as unnecessarily angry, bitter, and in need of a man to ‘tame’ them or domesticate them. Black women feminists are seen as troublemakers that hate men, seek to divide men and women in the fight against racism/oppression, and are therefore undesirable as romantic partners for men. (Note how all of this is steeped in heterosexual language as well). I and many women I know, were raised to be ‘likeable’. We were expected to be friendly always, even in situations where we were subject to violence. That time your creepy uncle demanded a hug and kiss and you were expected to oblige them and smile, cringing inwardly at the feel of their hand a little too close to your bum? Yeah. This spilled over into my teens and young adult years, until I realised that being ‘likeable’ often means being silent in the face of my own erasure. It meant fiercely denying that you were angry, bitter or headstrong in any way, lest you be undesirable to men. It meant shrinking myself to a size palatable for male tastes. It meant dying a little on the inside.

The second issue is something I still struggle with. From time to time another egg-avi individual will tweet “What is Feminism anyway? Is it not meant to oppress men?” or something equally as nauseating. And then the debate begins, the misogynists stretch their fingers and fire away, chipping away at some of the work black feminists have done to teach feminism online for years now. They are rarely ever robust, nuanced discussions – they are a chance for those who refuse to unlearn patriarchal ways of thinking to crawl out of their holes and gain a few retweets. I love speaking about what feminism can do, what it stands for and how it’s helped me. What I hate doing is having never-ending ‘debates’ about my humanity and inherent equality as a woman. It is violent to expect women to constantly ‘teach’ feminism to people who refuse to see beyond the myths created around it, and it sometimes pushes me into silence. But my silence hasn’t saved me.

The beauty of the feminist cohort that forms your posse on Twitter is unmatched. It’s a group of women who are tired of the oppression from white supremacy, black male misogyny and societies drenched in patriarchal norms. Speaking/tweeting about black African feminisms and their meaning for my life is what’s saved me. Speaking out against the daily exclusions and the erasure that black women face both off and online has made me more aware of the things in this world that need to change. I worry less about my likeability because that likeability has never guaranteed my safety, and I’m not interested in promoting things that endanger me and other black women. Silence is golden, they’ve told me. Well, me speaking is damn near priceless in my life.