Young Zimbabwean women lead the way with new methods of electioneering
he rise and fall of Zimbabwe’s former first lady, Grace Mugabe, has undoubtedly intensified the toxicity of Zimbabwe’s anti-female politics. As both victim and villain, Mugabe challenged Zimbabwe’s phallocracy and played a significant role in catalysing the events that led to Zimbabwe’s coup.
On election day – in just under two weeks’ time - Zimbabweans will choose from 23 presidential candidates, of whom only four are women. The campaign season that began before Mugabe’s ouster last November has been long and anxiety-racking: citizens are fatigued by the worsening cash shortages, rising costs of basic commodities and government's hints at reintroducing the Zimbabwean currency.
Zimbabwean politics remains a gentlemen’s league: women make up only 14% (235) of the 1642 legislative candidates and the few who have entered the political race are constant targets and victims of physical and online violence.
Thokozani Khupe, leader of one of the opposition party factions, the Movement for Democratic Change - T (MDC-T), has been targeted and harassed by supporters of presidential aspirant Nelson Chamisa who have repeatedly called her hure. Hure is the choice insult for women who defy traditional expectations; a direct translation of the word is whore or prostitute, but in Shona the word means much more. It suggests a woman of no social standing, someone despicable and unworthy of respect.
Narratives of female abuse in male dominated fields are important, but they are not new and do not tell the full story of female participation in Zimbabwean politics. Rarely discussed is the resilience of hundreds of women who continue to participate in an environment that does not want them. In the face of constant attack, Zimbabwean women have risen in powerful ways and they are claiming their space in civil society organisations, politics and academia.
A new wave of young female independent candidates
And even amid the misogyny that has become a feature of this electoral campaign, there has been a quiet shaking up by an unlikely group of young middle-class professional women, many of whom are first-time voters with no past activist links, experience or traditional party ties.
What changed since the last election?
In 2013, many young, urban, middle-class voters largely stayed away from voting. While a lot of working-class youth have always been engaged, many of them having joined the MDC youth wings early on, their well-to-do peers stayed away from politics. Voter turnout, especially among youth in the privileged northern suburbs, was very low in 2013 in contrast to higher turnout in high density areas for the same election. In 2016, the #ThisFlag movement led by the charismatic youthful Pastor Evan Mawarire from the leafy suburbs ignited cross-cutting social engagement. But spurred by the realisation that online activism alone would not bring about substantial change, and frustrated by traditional party politics, some young women have decided to run as independent candidates for this election.
Candidate for Harare City council, 36-year old Financial Empowerment Officer Kudzai Mubaiwa, turned 18 in 2000, the year Zimbabwe’s hopeful future turned grim. For the past 18 years, she has grappled with the pressures of surviving in an economy that refuses to follow the basic rules that she was taught; go to school, work hard, get an education, do good and live well. In December 2017, now a mother of two and finally broken by the unending struggle to survive, she decided to run for office.
Legislative candidate for the affluent Mount Pleasant constituency, 32-year-old Fadzayi Mahere, an advocate of Zimbabwe’s high court, had no intentions of running either. Mahere, who educated at Zimbabwe’s most elite schools and is the daughter of a former top civil servant, is an unlikely activist and independent candidate. She entered the public limelight in May 2016, when she waded into the national debate on the then proposal by the central bank governor to introduce a new local currency. Mahere had previously seen herself as a professional and a citizen whose responsibility was to hold politicians accountable, not as a politician herself.
Linda K. Sibanyoni, a 30-year-old qualified accountant and business owner, is running for the Harare East legislative seat against seasoned politicians who include embattled Deputy Finance Minister Terence Mukupe and former finance minister Tendai Biti. Sibanyoni. Like many young Zimbabweans, she describes herself as a “serial entrepreneur” in a constant rush to find the next opportunity to make extra income. A newly minted politician, she joined the African Democratic Party in 2016 where she quickly rose through the party ranks to become the youngest Chief of Staff. In 2017, she quit traditional politics and decided to run as an independent in a difficult to win constituency, but one that she feels loyal to.
The surge of young independent women candidates has brought new excitement in a traditionally dull and bipartisan season featuring mostly male candidates’ faces. They have revolutionised campaign strategy by combining traditional methods – rallies and giveaways – with innovate digital voter engagement strategies.
Sibanyoni has capitalised on her connection with local small business communities to reach out to often ignored voters in the once booming industrial sectors. Mubaiwa has combined traditional meet and greet events with development seminars on entrepreneurship, personal development and crypto currencies. They have also digitised campaigning and fundraising; almost all their campaigns were announced on live Facebook “rallies” and they use automated Facebook messaging to keep their followers up to date with the campaign.
Elections cost money and as independent candidates are not eligible for public funding, these young women have found innovative ways, such as crowdsourcing, to raise money in a very poor environment. Mahere, for instance, has moved from the political tradition of handing out T-shirts and instead sells them at $20 apiece. Her campaign regalia is modern and her campaign and buyers, many who live outside her constituency, feel that they are getting good value for their money. Boosted by support from her middle-class followers, her campaign is running multiple community development programs to also woo low income voters.
But will they win?
Just a year ago, a female independent candidate would have stood a very slim chance of winning. But the combined exit of Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai from Zimbabwean politics has increased engagement among the youth, with the post-coup environment creating new opportunities. An independent candidate is unlikely to win the presidency, but local elections are often won on community connections and ties. Many of the young candidates have capitalised on the release of the voters' roll to reach out to registered voters in their constituencies. For example, both Mubaiwa and Sibanyoni have hand-delivered personalised letters to every registered voter in their respective voter areas where their opponents have hardly campaigned.
If voter results were based on merit, then Mahere would win easily. But her constituency is one of many gerrymandered areas in Harare. At least 5 000 members of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces will vote via postal ballot following a recent decree by the army chiefs. Although Mahere’s opponents are yet to be seen on the campaign trail with under two weeks to the election, she still faces an uphill battle against a system that favours established parties.
However, whatever the outcome of these elections, these young women have established a new way of doing business in politics.
(Main image: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)