HARARE – President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his main rival, Nelson Chamisa, have both shut the door on gay rights, saying same-sex marriage remains banned in Zimbabwe.
This comes after Zimbabwe’s gays and lesbians said they have pleasantly welcomed a potential sharp turn by Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu PF to embrace gay rights.
Gays and Lesbians Association (Galz) director, Chester Samba, told a news conference in Harare on Monday that his organisation had approached top Zanu PF officials whom he claimed understood them better than autocrat, Robert Mugabe, who was toppled in a de-facto coup last November.
Mugabe characterised homosexuality as “un-African”, a practice he believed was unnatural and “degrades human dignity”, asserting “there is no question ever of allowing these people to behave worse than dogs and pigs.”
The Galz director told reporters: “We met Zanu PF officials and we had a fruitful meeting after writing a letter to them but we did not even get a response from other political parties that have a chance of forming the next government.”
Samba said the homosexual community in Zimbabwe was not surprised by what he claimed was an apparent change of attitude by the Mnangagwa administration, which has pledged to lead a government free of bias and has said the country was “open for business” after almost four decades of oppressive rule by Mugabe.
“We started talking to Mnangagwa when he was Justice minister and he is a reasonable man and is not new to LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender/trans-sexual, intersex) issues compared to the hostile reception of the former president Mugabe,” Samba said.
“We have also seen a decline in abuse in campaigning by Zanu PF of our members and harassment just in the recent past and this may see our members voting.”
But presidential spokesperson George Charamba told the Daily News yesterday that same-sex marriage remains banned in Zimbabwe, and that this will not be changing any time soon under Mnangagwa’s leadership.
“Go to the president’s interview in Davos, then you have an answer,” Charamba said, referring to an interview Mnangagwa had with Richard Quest, an English journalist and a CNN international reporter who anchors Quest Means Business on the side-lines of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland in January.
In the interview, Mnangagwa told Quest — who has openly spoke about his past experience as a closeted gay man on his CNN television programme — that: “Those people who want it (gay rights) are the people who should canvass for it, but it’s not my duty to campaign for this. In our Constitution, it is banned — and it is my duty to obey my Constitution.”
Charamba took great exception to the public posturing by Galz that there was a potential shift in Mnangagwa’s position on gays.
“Don’t try to unnecessarily invent attack lines. He (Mnangagwa) has not shifted an inch. He goes by the constitutional provisions,” Charamba said.
Further prodded that the Constitution prohibits same-sex marriage but is silent on gay relations, Charamba retorted: “That is a journalistic distinction, it’s not executive. Yes, the president is guided by the Constitution, he has to.”
Zanu PF secretary for administration, Obert Mpofu — who is also the Home Affairs minister had earlier told the Daily News that he will only be able to comment fully “after the outcome of the engagements they are referring to.”
“Otherwise for now, nothing has really changed regarding our perception of that group both as Zanu PF and government. The position we have held in the past remains, as far as we are concerned,” Mpofu said.
Galz, launched 29 years ago with some 70 members, has seen its membership balloon to over 8 000, according to Samba.
During the 37-year reign of Mugabe, gays were regularly subjected to physical abuse and arbitrary arrests, torture and victimisation by law enforcement agents.
Under Mnangagwa, 75, Galz had seen an opportunity to push for a policy shift.
Mnangagwa faces the opposition MDC Alliance candidate, Nelson Chamisa, 40, in a tight race that is now being roiled by gay rights, with Galz saying Chamisa was hostile to their cause.
The election stance of the rival parties could expose deep divisions in the mineral-rich southern African country known for its laid-back culture and whose rural communities remain socially conservative.
Samba accuses Chamisa — who took over as MDC leader after Morgan Tsvangirai died on February 14 at the aged of 65 — of snubbing them when they asked to meet him.
Chamisa’s spokesperson, Nkululeko Sibanda, had promised to text their response to the Daily News but had not done so by the time of going to print yesterday.
At least two senior MDC Alliance officials said Chamisa — a conservative and evangelical lawmaker — fiercely opposes same-sex marriage or gay rights.
Chamisa, who believes religion has a very strong role in this election with his “God is in it mantra”, reportedly believes God’s Word says that homosexuality is “unnatural, a perversion, an abomination, fornication, vile affections, and a great sin against the Lord.”
“His position is that this is not Sodom and Gomorrah, this is Zimbabwe. Advocate does not countenance anything that goes against God’s word,” the senior official said, referring to the infamous cities mentioned in the Book of Genesis, which were destroyed by God with brimstone and fire over homosexuality.
Another senior official close to Chamisa told the Daily News that while the former Kuwadzana East Member of Parliament was a stickler for the rule of law and an avowed human rights activist, he has no appetite to advance gay rights outside the provisions of the country’s Constitution.
“He is a devoted and devout Christian who is a senior cleric with the Apostolic Faith Mission, so he cannot be seen to be promoting that although he will not necessarily advocate for their bashing, arrest or any other form of discrimination.
“He will stick to the Constitution which does not promote same-sex marriage but at the same time advocating for the advancement of minority groups’ rights,” the official, who declined to be named, said.
Given the controversy over the issue, the stances of political actors over gays could overshadow other issues in the presidential race.
Zimbabwe’s first post-independence president, Canaan Banana, was accused of being a closet homosexual, and was actually jailed for sodomy.
Banana, a former Methodist minister who died in November 2003, was found guilty in 1999 of 11 counts of sodomy and abusing his power to sexually assault and carry out “unnatural acts” with men, most of whom were on his presidential staff.
Banana’s trial, which included testimony of sex with gardeners, cooks and bodyguards, overshadowed his positive role in ending the ethnic violence in Matabeleland.
Banana insisted that he was not a homosexual and said the accusations against him were part of a “malicious vendetta”.