In a few months, Zimbabweans will go to the polls to cast their vote in the first presidential election of the post-Mugabe era. One of the presidential candidates is Advocate Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T). Recently, while addressing a rally as part of his campaign, he pledged to give his sister to the incumbent president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, should he win at least 5% of the votes. 

Several Zimbabweans found the statement very unsettling at best and sexist at worst. The MDC leader clearly dehumanised another human being by reducing her to an object or token to be given away as the owner pleased. He stripped a human being of her agency for his personal political expediency. When, during his recent visit to the UK, he was asked about his tasteless remark, he responded:

The MDC leader’s response to the outrage over his sexist remark is no different from Mnangagwa’s response to his involvement in the 1983 Gukurahundi genocide. Both leaders arrogantly fail or refuse to fully appreciate the impact of and take genuine accountability for their unjust actions or utterances. Both leaders fail to see how their responses do not align with the ongoing discourse on building a democratic nation, a process they both believe they can champion as the president of Zimbabwe. 

Nelson Chamisa MDC-T President.

Chamisa illustrates how age or youthfulness is no indication of whether someone is capable of being a leader who will drive political and socio-economic transformation that benefits all. Several Zimbabweans are in a frenzy of excitement over the prospect of having a young leader because “the young get it”. Well, this youthful advocate does not get that his statement reeks of misogyny, a problem that has been plaguing society and persistently results in the degradation of women in various forms. The young Nelson does not get that his joke, his political banter, reflects long-held beliefs that insinuate that women exist solely for the gratification of men; that a woman is the property of a man – or their parent – who has the power to give that property away when it is convenient to them. The MDC leader does not get that being born of a woman is not synonymous to respecting women. Mr Chamisa seems to be more concerned about how his joke – a trivial matter – is being weaponised by political opponents when there are more important issues to be dealt with. And that is a huge problem.

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File picture: Women participate in the “16 days of Activism” campaign, launched by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) to strengthen the rights of women and stop gender-based violence. Image: Oxford Human Rights Hub

Many people – including women, which does not come as a surprise – have been quick to defend the advocate’s remarks, with some saying that the practice of giving away a woman to a man has always been part of our culture as Black people. These people fail to realise that just because a certain practice has long been regarded as part of our culture does not mean that the practice is without fault or should be respectfully preserved. So many of our cultural practices or beliefs, if we are willing to critique our heterogenous African cultures, have been built on and thrive on suppression and the dehumanisation of certain groups of individuals for the benefit of another group. Those practices or beliefs were taught to us and have been constantly reinforced as being “our way of life”, one that is to be safeguarded and upheld as sacred. Those cultural beliefs that debase other humans are the very same beliefs that go on to inform how those affected humans are (mis)treated in various spheres of our lives. Conceiving of others as subhuman and not worthy of the respect afforded to other groups of individuals is not a trivial matter.

His joke, which he condescendingly claims was taken out of context, is our harsh reality.

Many children – especially girls – have been given away to a man and forced into early marriage. One of such girls is the 19-year-old Sudanese teen bride Noura Hussein, who has been sentenced to death for killing her husband after he tried to rape her. In Sudan, the legal age at which a girl can be married is 10. Noura is just one of the girls to be given away like property to a man. It is a huge disservice to our collective progress – and, mostly, to the future of girls being raised in this society – when we fail to see how Nelson Chamisa’s joke is insensitive, inappropriate and downright misogynist. His joke, which he condescendingly claims was taken out of context, is our harsh reality. Women and the girl child continue to be stripped of their agency as human beings and are continually used or abused only to be disposed of when society feels it can no longer benefit from stripping them of all their value.

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It is unfortunate that any awareness of how oppressive some of our ways of living are or of the need to be liberated from certain cultural constraints is dismissed by cultural apologists as being “sensitive” or “losing touch with our African roots due to acculturation to White people’s way of life”. It is unfortunate that some people believe there are more important issues to fret over than the vile and sexist statement made by a leader who also aspires and promises to (democratically) rule a nation. It is unfortunate how we fail to see the interconnectedness of all the (equally important) issues society is grappling with right now; how we fail to see that the personal is also very political. It is also unfortunate that fighting injustice often means fighting those subjected to the oppression because they have become passive recipients of their own unjust treatment, thus perpetuating systems that are meant to be subverted. 

Unless we Africans stop treating our various cultures as if they are above criticism and that no one has the right to reform them; unless we accept that the lives of all humans matter more than our cultures; unless we let go of beliefs that hinder our collective progress; unless we start being willing to listen to the criticism of those who are affected by our actions and utterances, the future many of us imagine may never be fully actualised.