Upcoming Zimbabwe Elections, Wiztech, and Feminist Politricks

7 am TALKCITY cyber cafe, Joina City Mall, Harare

A long, winding queue has formed from the Julius Nyerere entrance, past the Edgars shop, across Jason Moyo, stopping right at the corner of the main post office in Nelson Mandela Street. It’s mostly young people of both sexes and middle-aged women. They await the opening of the MultiChoice shop. MultiChoice is sub-Saharan Africa’s main satellite television service.

South Africa’s broadcasting signal distributor Sentech recently scrambled the three South African television channels available in Zimbabwe via free-to-air decoders, cutting off millions of viewers from an alternative source of information, news and entertainment. Before the cut-off, approximately three million Zimbabweans could access alternative channels using Wiztech, Philibao, Fortec Star and Vivid decoders for free. The alternatives? The more expensive MultiChoice-powered Digital Satellite Television (DSTV) or Zimbabwe Television (ZTV), which means relying on the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) as the only source of news and information.

In a repressive state the media is the major foot-soldier of a form of patriarchy called militarism. ZBC’s record of partisan broadcasting has left many in Zimbabwe with little confidence in its credibility as a news source. This scrambling of the free channels available to Zimbabwe ahead of elections due July 31st, deprives the majority of voters who don’t have DSTV of alternate sources of information. It also gives ZBC a broadcasting monopoly given that so many cannot afford the alternative.

"In conversation with my 11-year old son..."

I stand there stupefied at the volume of people, not knowing whether to join the queue or not. My son, Vus, has boycotted dinner for three days now because he wants to watch the alternative channels. He’s a big fan of basketball and calls himself “the sicker version of Kobe Bryant”, the American basketball star. He has also always been the kind of child that questions, questions, questions. Just a few days ago, we had this conversation:

Vus: Mummy, how can you help me register to vote?

Me: Son, people of your age do not vote in national elections.

Vus: I know mummy but isn’t there a way I can cast my vote? It will count.

Me: How will your vote count?

I want to laugh, but when I take a second look at him, I realise the gravity of the moment—he is almost in tears. I know that I need to take the time to tell him about our beloved country. So I draw his slim body close and hug him, and ask, “Why do you want your vote to count, Vus?” He looks at me earnestly and says, “Things must change, Mummy. We can’t get the cheaper SABC channels on Wiztech, and I know you cannot afford DSTV. I want to watch TV.” He tells me that the issue is political because with South Africa withdrawing support from Zimbabwe, the President is only making things worse. “We need to be connected to other countries mummy. We even get electricity and fuel from other countries. I can watch ZTV when I want but I also want to have a choice to watch other channels. SABC educates and entertains. But ZTV is all about a certain political party. I need good information. I want to shine in the quiz club, Mummy, and I can’t miss world sport and football and, after all, ZTV is boring!”

This morning, before I dropped him off for school he said something that touched me on a raw spot: “Mummy, Tinashe’s dad has subscribed for DSTV. I told Tinashe that my mum will too.”

He knows just the right words to say to his self-defined feminist mother. After all, last time Vus got me into trouble when he wrote “FEMINIST” on a school survey asking children to name their parent’s occupation. The headmaster urgently summoned me to explain why I was teaching my son “wrong” words, and lies too because there was no profession called FEMINIST!

The verdict has been passed, and I have been effectively blackmailed and that is how I find myself at the entrance of the MultiChoice shop. “Dads are better?” The fact that the queue is filled with women of all ages refutes that. I see the long, winding line and before I know it, I am interviewing the women, pen and journal in-hand.

The story is the same – “Our children cannot watch ZTV oh! We want alternative voices, we want soap operas, we want world sport, we are tired of jingles and lies, we want so many things that we cannot get – but alternative voices we will get oh! We will send our money to South Africa for Sentech to chop because we don't care as long as we get alternative information!”

“Women, casualties of history”

A feminist’s mind is a wonderful thing – it talks. I hear Marx and Engels, “It is not the consciousness of man that determines their being, but their being determines their consciousness.” I also hear foundational feminist epistemology, “The personal is political!” I think of these determined women in the line with me and my son too. At his age I never wished to vote, and I had no idea of how best to hypnotise my parents. At age 12, my country was slowly evolving out of colonialism, and I remember the queues as our parents, brothers and sisters put pen to paper to overthrow the Smith regime. I was content with my parents voting – I trusted their vote. Our politics was common and shared. The white rulers had to go; we wanted our ‘sovereignty back.’ I was tired of the bloody war, of seeing my elderly sisters giving birth to ‘fatherless’ children nine monthly back in the village. They were so-called children of war, vana vana mukoma (our fighting brother’s children). No one understood it as rape then, ‘it’s just war stories’, they would say or dzaive nyaya dzemuhondo. I hear the poem:

Women, casualties of history,

Their bodies, war battlefields

We gave away our integrity

We donated our sweetness

To secure their freedom.

Those children of war were given telling names – Gift, Chipo, Talent, Hondo, Bazooka, Rusununguko, Nyikayedu.

When I was a child, we were all hopeful; we felt we shared a common vision, that we were politicized enough. I remember being hopeful that I would see my family move from Njube township to go and occupy one of the posh houses in Morningside.  This was my politics as a young girl; this is how I had been politicised. I was contented with my parents voting, and trusted their vote would bring change home. Were things better then than now? Obviously not, things were bad, bad, bad then as they are now.

I had so much hope in what Independence would bring, but did not realise that the Freedom train would be too small to accommodate all of us, especially women. Independence came and gave my son free international television channels on Wiztech with the right hand, and with the left it slowly dispossessed him. Independence has allowed my son to transcend border barriers and identify with basketball stars like Kobe Bryant, but Independence has snatched that privilege away overnight. And so, my son can’t trust the elders’ votes anymore and dreams of a world where the young are allowed to peacefully cast their vote and “make things change.”

I rarely discuss politics with my minor children at home because Zimbabwean politics has long betrayed its populace and made me both disappointed and apathetic about current political leaders. As a feminist, I know the value of constant reflexivity and resisting the urge to force my opinions on others. So I try to avoid imposing my gloomy perspective on the current context and Zimbabwe’s future on my children. Yet my son’s politics is very clear – he knows the truth from lies. No one can teach anyone consciousness because one’s being or material conditions will determine it.  When Sembene Ousmane’s women took to the railway line and staged a demonstration that changed the politics of the whole country overnight, their husbands had not given them any lectures on capitalism – their material conditions, what they were suffering day-to-day determined their transformative politics. Tahrir Square! No one taught people to revolt, their experiences, their being informed their consciousness.

“Silence is not always about fear”

And so, when Zimbabwean women reach the lowest point but continue to remain quiet while peacefully engaging in different modes of survival for their families, they are not silent and stupid. They are busy speaking, and sometimes their silences can be deafening too in certain spaces. They are using their silences and peaceful engagements to navigate a political system that can overnight, turn violent against women, rape and impregnate grandmother, mother and daughter – three generations of women in a single minute, and on the same floor. Quietly, women are occupying the queue to get birth certificates for themselves and for their children; some are completing affidavits for their relatives, all silently in the long and slow queues. Yes, they know these people were born here, but their particulars were burnt during elections. Or their parents were killed, and their information got lost when they were forcibly removed from the farms in which they grew up. This year they must vote, the women will help them register.

Is silence all about fear? Is silence also not a way of communicating, a coping strategy, a mode of resistance? When I asked Mbuya Diedricks1 why she looked so determined standing in the long line awaiting her turn to be attended to at one district office last week, she sadly and slowly formed words in her mouth, “Chakachenjedza ndochakatanga mwanangu, gore rino tinodawo kuvhota. Iyo size yangu ino kunyengiwa novarume vatanhatu nguva imweyo? Vana vadiki vezera remuzukuru wangu chaiye. Hupenyu hwemukadzi hwakaoma zimhandara. Ndakarwadziwa, ndichiri kurwadziwa. Dai tavhotawo tese tese zvapfuura!”2

1Not her real name. 

2Translated from Shona: We have learnt from our past mistakes my dear. We must definitely vote in our numbers this year and put an end to this. Can you imagine an old woman my age getting raped by 6 young men at once? It’s hard to be a woman. I was pained, and I am still in pain. I wish we could all vote and put an end to all this.

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