Zimbabwe Anti-Gay Witchhunt: 1996

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REPORT AUGUST 11, 1996 FROM HARARE, Report nr 8
by Mai Palmberg,
co-author of the report "Human Rights and Homosexuality in Southern Africa"


The Zimbabwe International Book Fair is over,having closed its gates as planned on Saturday August 3, but the book fair drama 1996 is not yet over and what was generally known in Harare as "the GALZ issue" is far from over.

First, let me clarify the report on the last day of the book fair. In fact, nobody from GALZ was in fact beaten up or phsyically attacked. The GALZ withdrew on their own accord when they heard in the early afternoon that Sangona Munhumutupa, a so called cultural group led by an expelled student Chakeredza, was on their way. Before they withdrew a number of fairly aggressive young men and a number of just curious people had been surrounding the stand for a few hours. The aggressive ones hurled abuse on GALZ and some men made very obscene remarks to the black women on the stand, so that she was taken away from the stand itself and was behind the stand. The men were saying things like offering in no kind terms to fuck her to prove what a woman was etc.

After GALZ had withdrawn there were some who tried to put the empty stand on fire. Some newspaper articles had been stapled on the stand's walls, which angered those bent on violence. Ironically one of the articles was one written by Terrence Ranger, one of the trustees, who wrote against violence and for the abidement by the law.

Three immediate questions are still on the agenda:

1) The Supreme Court has yet to adjudicate on the appeal of the government to reinstate their order of prohibition on GALZ' right to put up a stand and exhibit material at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair 1996. Since the decision no longer has any practical effect, the Supreme Court is not rushing the case. It will be decided after a public hearing where both parties (the lawyers defending the government, and GALZ) will be heard. The government has a very weak legal case here, since they referred to the censorship act without seeing any of the material that GALZ wanted to exhibit.

But if, for some curious reason, the Supreme Court would approve of the government prohibition order it would probably be used against both GALZ and the Book Fair, with the (false) argument that they have acted illegally and defied the highest authority. If the Supreme Court goes against the government the president, who is getting more and more authoritarian with some paranoid traits, will probably want to weaken the fairly independent judiciary in Zimbabwe.

2) The threat of intimidation and violence against those of the GALZ who went public during the book fair is still there.

A pattern seems to have emerged: it is the black women who are the first object of contempt and threat by groups that have fed their own frustrations and urge to violence on president Mugabe's homophobia. One of the women who appeared in the stand during the book fair had her picture taken by somebody in the crowd, who sent the pictures down to her home community. When she went home, the ZANU-PF Youth league, who can be a mob of violent young men, forced her into some house and abused her and threatened her. The incident was so frightening that she had to be escorted back to Harare and arrangement were made for her to see a psychologist specialising in post-traumatic reactions. Another woman, also appearing publicly, who had been raped twice before (on the explicit arrangement by her parents!) to get pregnant, and had made abortion twice, was too afraid to go out from the house she stayed in in Harare (her eralier story is told in my booklet "Human Rights and Homosexuality in southern Africa", p. 15). The acting administrator of GALZ, Keith Goddard, who was responsible for the GALZ stand at the book fair itself, shaved his beard immediately after the book fair to become a bit more anonymous.

On the brighter side, GALZ is much more prepared and capable now than before to handle the adverse effects of increased visibility. The second book fair drama has propelled the organisation from being a social club to a gay rights lobby.

Another positive aspect is the fact that all three major human rights NGOs in Zimbabwe - Legals Resources Foundation, The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) now came out in support of GALZ' rights. Sadly, however, other parts of civil society kept quiet. The press, radio and TV were appalling, with the single exception of the weekly paper Zimbabwe Independent, whose August 2-8 issue had a picture of three GALZ members at their otherwise empty stand, with the caption "Under Siege", and a number of supportive and reflective articles.

At the same time, however, it should be pointed out that this homophobia is NOT the general feeling of the people of Zimbabwe. The Galz issue have opened the eyes of many Zimbabweans to the absurdity of making a small defenseless minority like the GALZ the scapegoat of people's frustrations. But whereas people in Harare, the capital, are more open-minded (except for small groups of homophobic men), the people in the countryside are, as one Zimbabwean put it, "completely brainwashed" and ignorant. Another factor is that the authroitarian character of the ZANU-PF rule has made people have very little civil courage.

3) The future of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair itself is still under question; if the book fair's days are counted it is a loss to the civil society.

This is the only really representative and functioning international book fair in Africa, and it has been built up during 12 years of hard work. It works both as a meeting place between traders and publishers, and as a truly popular place for all people in Harare (and Zimbabwe) who can read. The book hunger is real, and the popularity of the book fair was truly moving. But both ordinary people and book traders and publishers might shun off, as some already did this year, if there is a threat of conflict and violence. And more significantly, president Mugabe might want to punish the book fair management for his loss of prestige in the GALZ issue. GALZ is one of the first organisations in Zimbabwean civil society who has dared to defy the president. The director of the book fair has been called to the president this past week, a meeting which might have repercussions for the next book fair.

The book fair is in the interest of civil society and democratic forces in Zimbabwe, it is not in the interest of the authoritarian segments of the political leadership. My view on demands of a total boycott of Zimbabwe from donors and NGOs because of the GALZ issue is that this is taking things too far, or rather in the wrong direction. The lessons we learnt from cultural boycott of South Africa was that its was misconceived as a strategy to support liberation. Cultural contacts are important for people struggling against repression and for the entrenchment of a human rights culture.

In the longer view, the book fair drama of 1996 has put gay rights squarely on the agenda in Zimbabwe and southern Africa. Despite the homophobia of certain leaders and certain, mainly male segments of the political machine and civil society, there has been a leap of awareness of the issues involved. People are generally ignorant, but kindly curious and willing to learn. And my impression is that tolerance not homophobia is closer to the people's culture in Zimbabwe.

The biggest problem is the incitement to hatred and violence that the homophobic leadership is guilty of. It takes only a few to commit violence and intimidation.

Mai Palmberg

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