Women demand movement on talks

HARARE, (IPS) – Over 300 women gathered outside the Rainbow Towers Hotel in Harare on the morning of Oct. 27, dressed mostly in black and white. They were there to protest the prolonged impasse over the allocation of Cabinet ministries among Zimbabwe’s rival parties.\r\n

As members of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) and the Feminist Political Education Project (FePEP) were trying to organise the demonstration, armed riot police pounced, and the women fled in different directions.

When calm was restored, 47 women had been arrested, while 11 had been injured.

"I do not see any reason why women who wanted to come into the venue should be stopped," said Theresa Mugadza, one of the FePEP coordinators. Mugadza said the attack was confirmation of "what we have always been saying, that these talks are being shrouded in secrecy."

The women had come seeking information about what was happening in the talks. They wanted an audience with the three signatories to the power-sharing deal signed on Sep. 15 — President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister designate Morgan Tsvangirai and his designated deputy, Arthur Mutambara, and their negotiating teams.

"Hundreds of women were coming into town to stage a peaceful demonstration because as wives and mothers we want an end to the hard times," said Emilia Muchawa, the chairperson of WCoZ.

They also hoped they would draw the current suffering of ordinary Zimbabweans to the attention of members of the SADC organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, SADC chairman Kgalema Motlanthe and his delegation, and former SA president Thabo Mbeki and his facilitation team.

"For me having women try to come into a venue and being stopped in such a harsh manner is indicative of the problems that we have always had as Zimbabweans in this process. When people are talking about a country, when people are talking about our problems, but we are shut out from what is going on," added Mugadza.

The police charged the women with contravening a section of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which criminalizes any acts likely to cause public disorder. The law has been of late been used to crush many civil society activities, silencing dissenting voices.

Zimbabwe Republic Police national spokesperson, Wayne Bvudzijena was not reachable. But a police officer in Harare said the police "had evidence that there were some hooligans who had infiltrated the women and wanted to disturb proceedings" at the Rainbow Towers.

"They were MDC thugs trying to disguise themselves as women. They did the same thing at the signing of the agreement last month. These are the people who do not want to see the conclusion of the talks, as there would be no more donor funds for their activities," said Musa Ndiraya, who was attending a meeting of former war collaborators at the Zanu PF headquarters, adjacent to the Rainbow Towers.

However Mugadza asserts the women were not up to any mischief, they just wanted information.

"There was going to be a little meeting, maybe some prayers… the idea was that we come into the venue and we are seen maybe SADC or some heads of states, or one of the principals would address the women to highlight where they are, and highlight the challenges.

"It was not a mission meant to antagonise anybody; it was really an information-seeking mission. The truth is nobody knows what is happening in this process."

The women were released late the same evening after interventions from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

Secretary General of the MDC formation led by Morgan Tsvangirai, Tendai Biti condemned the assaults.

He said his party has over the last few weeks embarked on a campaign to visit all parts of the country to provide information on the deal, and explain the MDC-Tsvangirai view of the current impasse.

"On our part, we are fully alive to the historical obligations on our shoulders and the expectations of Zimbabweans. However, the one instruction that those suffering and abused people have been telling us at our massive rallies all over Zimbabwe is a bold but simple one, a bad deal is no deal at all," said Biti.

As the women were being arrested and beaten in Harare, a judge in Zimbabwe’s second largest city of Bulawayo denied bail to Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, leaders of the militant Women of Zimbabwe Arise. The two were arrested on Oct. 16 for leading members of their organisation on a demonstration to challenge the parties to end the impasse as a matter of urgency.

Solidarity actions were also scheduled to take place Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, on Oct. 27 where the crisis in Zimbabwe has a direct impact.

Muchawa said while the talks continued to drag, "it is the women of this country who have to carry the burden of the suffering", adding that "the major concern by women is manifest hunger, amongst other emergencies and the dire concern that failure to resolve the impasse will further exacerbate the situation."

While the women of WCoZ and FePEP — along with most Zimbabweans — grow increasingly impatient over the deadlock, the three parties once again failed to resolve the allocation of the contentious ministry of Home Affairs. After more than 15 hours of talks, the SADC troika failed to resolve the impasse, and referred the matter to a full SADC extra-ordinary summit soon to be announced.

Political commentators believe the continued deadlock could ultimately sink the power-sharing deal.

"The agreement has a good promise for the ordinary person, but with the way this thing has been dragging, it would make it difficult to manage the deal.

"These are people who hope to work together in the long term, but this kind of behaviour is daunting any prospects of a smooth implementation of the agreement," said John Makumbe, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Zimbabwe.