On Friday, the BBC reported that Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister and head of the opposition MDC, had declared support for Robert Mugabe’s refusal to protect gay rights in Zimbabwe’s new constitution. If his comments are accurate, they represent yet another step backwards in the long walk towards tolerance and respect for human rights in Zimbabwe.
According to The Zambia Post, Tsvangirai said: “The President has spoken about gay rights, about some men who want to breathe into other men’s ears. I don’t agree with that. Why would you look for men when our women make up 52% of our population? Men are much fewer than women.” The two leaders were sharing the platform at an International Women’s Day celebration. Mugabe had declared that protecting gay rights in the constitution “is not debatable, it’s not up for discussion”.
As in many African countries, homosexual activity is still illegal in Zimbabwe and gay and lesbian Zimbabweans have faced decades of repression, persecution, blackmail and assault. Mugabe has had a long history of homophobia, describing gays as “worse than pigs and dogs” in 1995. His recent pronouncements on the constitution, while inexcusable, are therefore unsurprising.
Tsvangirai’s endorsement of Mugabe’s view, however, is bitterly disappointing. He is, after all, the leader of an organisation supposedly fighting for constitutional democracy and a respect for human rights. Showing contempt for sexual minorities and the suffering they face in Zimbabwe on a daily basis, his comments undermine the credibility of his stated commitment to human rights, and reinforce an already bleak climate of discrimination and intolerance.
Tsvangirai’s remarks also contradict his very own party’s stance on sexual-orientation rights. According to the Post:
Under the Bill of Rights section, the MDC position paper states that: “In addition, the right to freedom from discrimination, given our history of discrimination and intolerance, must be broad to include the protection of personal preferences, that is gays and lesbians should be protected by the constitution.”
I’m curious about the man’s motives. Did he think a spot of gay-bashing was an easy way to reach common ground with his (not so) erstwhile foe? Or does he really believe that gays are fair game, and that depriving them of their rights is the best way to ensure they conform to prevailing cultural “norms”. Perhaps he believes by letting persecution flourish — a good beating, the occasional raid and some punitive fines — they will be “cured” of what he apparently sees as an “abnormality”.
One would have expected more empathy from a man in charge of a movement whose members face ongoing harassment — including arbitrary torture, kidnappings and arrests.
Tsvangirai has let the Zimbabwean people, and not merely its gays and lesbians, down. This is because, a country cannot be truly free unless the rights of all those who live in it are respected and protected. The first step towards that, albeit by no means the only one, is to have those rights enshrined in a constitution. He should be ashamed.