Big Saturday Read: Conversation with Advocate Fadzayi Mahere
This week we have the second in our series of conversations with key voices in Zimbabwe. We opened the series last November when we had a conversation with Professor Jonathan Moyo. We plan to have these conversations with selected individuals over the course of the year.
On this occasion, we are delighted to host one of the freshest and prominent voices on the political landscape. She burst into public life and politics in 2016 when the citizens’ movement gained prominence as it challenged the introduction of bond notes. Her name is Fadzayi Mahere.
A practising lawyer, Advocate Fadzayi Mahere was quietly pursuing her professional career before she occupied an important role beyond her chambers and the courtroom. Instead of confining herself to the court of law, she became a key voice and advocate in the court of public opinion.
Last year, she ran a brave and bright campaign which won many admirers for its sheer audacity and creativity. She did not win the seat but she won respect and inspired others to believe that it was good to give it a go if you believe in a cause. But her rise has not been without detractors and criticism.
How did she manage to hold it together? Are there things that she could have done differently? What motivated her to get into politics? How did friends and family react when she took the plunge? Does she have any advice for aspiring politicians, especially other young women? What advice would she give to the current government? What more can we expect from her before the next election?
These and more questions came up during our conversation.
Thank you, Fadzayi for agreeing to have this exclusive conversation with us, the first of the New Year. We have just completed an eventful year for many Zimbabweans and no doubt for you personally given the public role you played during the election. I must say although you didn’t win the race, you ran an eye-catching and admirable campaign and won many hearts at home and abroad. The sheer audacity to get out of what seemed to be the comfort zone and run for office was admirable because many of us have never tried. You gave a voice to young people and you persevered against several odds. You were accused of many things but you fought on. Let’s begin there and, of course, I have many questions. First, what motivated you to take the plunge into politics? How did your family and friends react to your announcement? I know how some tried to drag your family into it – how did you and your family deal with that?
Alex, thank you for this opportunity to share my story and thoughts on this amazing platform that continues to enrich the national discourse. Well done for your efforts. Please don’t stop.
Firstly, if you had asked me whether I would venture into politics at the start of 2016, I might have given you a straight “no”. At the time, I had settled into practice at the Bar and I was teaching at the university. I am deeply in love with the courtroom. Adv Chris Andersen was my model for legal practice (May he rest in peace).
All I wanted was to perfect my craft, serve my clients to the best of my ability and live a very quiet but happy life. I aspired to become a High Court judge at some point. I enjoyed being a conservative professional who aspired to rise up the corporate ladder. I remember walking to and from court with my colleagues at Chambers. We would see Itai Dzamara who sat in the park opposite our rooms holding up a placard that said “Mugabe Must Go.” We pitied him because we believed that political activism could not achieve its desired aims. How could it with a political system as toxic as ours?
A lot of that changed in 2016, when the #ThisFlag movement started. For the first time, I was able to find my own voice in the quagmire that was the Zimbabwean political system. Being a young, professional woman, I did not quite fit the stereotype. However, when I wrote a blog that I intended to use as a discussion point for my Administrative Law class on the legality of bond notes, I found my voice on an issue of national concern. I felt so strongly about the issue and the potential adverse impact on our economy that I did not stop writing about it and speaking about it. My activism over the issue became louder and more public. The experience taught me never to remain silent over an issue about which I held deep conviction.
This culminated in my decision to run for Parliament in 2017. My parents hated the idea. I had been jailed once before. They hated the publicity and potential danger. My dad was particularly upset and wished I would wait till I was a bit older. My mother feared for my personal security. They tried to talk me out of it to no avail. Some tried to drag my dad into it, suggesting I was his decoy in the context of some grand Zanu PF ploy to confuse the opposition.
As for my friends, most did not understand my approach at first. It was unconventional and risky. Some were extremely happy that I had found a purpose that was larger than myself. I accrued some new and deep friendships along the way.
It is often said that women have a harder time than their male counterparts in politics not just in Zimbabwe but across the world. What was your experience like when you ran for parliament? Is there anything that particularly surprised you in the way that you were treated during the race? How did you deal with any of the challenges that you faced? What would you say to other women with political aspirations?
One thing I was careful not to do was to make my gender define my politics. However, given our cultural context, the issue came up. I trained myself to ignore the misogyny and to pay no attention to the abuse. The main thing had to remain the main thing.
What surprised me most was the simplistic idea that my father was responsible for my entrance into politics. The notion that I could not have agency, convictions and political opinions of my own was frustrating at first. I took comfort in the knowledge that time would confirm my authenticity. I found it funny how nobody asked what my mother’s political inclinations were and how nobody ascribed those to me. I won’t say I was bullied – I hate that language as it gives too much power to my detractors. I prefer to say, they taught me how to stay focused on my goals and not to get sucked into side shows.
I sincerely hope that my choosing to focus on competency-based politics contributed to broadening the narrative on the role of women in politics, not as a quota that needs to be filled but as equally competent stakeholders in the national discourse. My advice to women with political aspirations would be to show, rather than tell when it comes to competence. It's about what you do, not merely what you say. When people believe you to have substance, they will soon get over the fact that you so happen to be a woman.
Additionally, the campaign showed me that it is a myth that women do not support other women. I received tremendous support from many women from all walks of life. I am extremely grateful to them all.
I noticed that during your campaign, there was one specific line of attack which detractors aimed at you. It was the issue of marriage; specifically, the fact that you are not married. I thought that was insipid and totally out of order. You were not only brave but dignified in your response. What did this experience tell you about our culture and politics and attitudes towards gender and marital status? I fear that it might have put some young women off politics – what would your advice be to them on how to handle and respond to such attacks? And I think it’s important to address those who pushed that agenda – what would you like to say to them on this issue?
I took this as an attempt to get at me because there was no juice or scandal in my personal life that they could hold on to. While the vast majority of Zimbabweans are decent and respectful, there are sadly a few who choose not to engage on the issues but use a woman’s personal life as the first line of attack. I believe that a person can be a decent human being within or outside marriage.
Some view marriage as a rite of passage for a woman, as if without this milestone all her other efforts are nullified; however, they fail to utilise this same lens when assessing male candidates outlining the underlying hypocrisy of such an argument. Many stigmatize an unmarried woman. I, however, believe in becoming a wholesome human being who lives a full life and fulfils her purpose. Marriage, in my world, cannot substitute a life well-lived. It can only enhance it. I make no apologies for these views. I come from an amazing home and I don’t rule marriage out. I just don’t view my delay in getting married as a handicap. I’m happy.
Young women must expect adversity and opposition in their political journey. A lot of it will be below the belt. You have to train your mind to be stronger than your emotions. Having self-control will get you farther than constantly reacting to everything that tests your patience. Remain calm in challenging situations. Wear your composure like a coat of armour, for better or worse.
As for those who chose to push this agenda, women - married and unmarried, will continue to demand their space within the political landscape. If we continue to limit our analysis of the role they seek to play to their marital status and not their competency for the job, we will fail to identify women who have a lot to offer Zimbabwe through their skills and expertise. I would also remind them that if marriage was an indicator of competency, Zimbabwe would not find itself in its current political and economic predicament, as most of our legislators are married.
You ran as an independent and as I said it, was a remarkable campaign in many ways and there are a lot of goodwill, even among opposition supporters who admired your team’s efforts. But it was always going to be hard running against the established political parties. Why did you choose to run as an independent? If a promising candidate approached you for advice whether to run as an independent, what would be your advice?
We (my team and I) chose to run an independent campaign because what we seek to achieve is so much bigger than a political position. We want to introduce a new way of doing politics in Zimbabwe. If it were merely about attaining a political post, we would have just joined one of the parties, lobbied for a primary seat or to be added to the quota list and ended there. It would have been cheaper and easier.
However, our aspiration was to show that there is another way in which politics can be done in Zimbabwe. It can inspire hope and a thirst for change. It can be community-driven. Issues matter. The people come first. Despite poor government, the grassroots can come together to drive local change. Leaders can be accountable and transparent. They can knock on doors, lead by example, understand the technical aspects of their role and it can be beautiful. It does not have to be a tale of vote-buying and partisanship.
I would say to any person whose heart is in the right place and wants to run for office – go for it! Follow your convictions. Ideals matter. Change may be slow but eventually, it does come.
Overall, having participated for the first-time as a candidate, please share at least three lessons you drew from the race?
Run for the right reasons. There will be days you will not feel like waking up to meet and greet the people due to fatigue. There are days the media will annoy you. There will be voices that doubt you. You will need to be internally driven.
Get a strong team that has all the ability to run a strong campaign. They are your first and most important constituency and the biggest test of your leadership ability. Lead them well. Be loyal to them. Keep them motivated!
Integrity is everything.
Many people I speak to think Parliament would have been richer with a new generation of young professionals like you and others but they also think your chances would have been enhanced if you were in either MDC Alliance or ZANU PF, the two dominant parties. Would you consider joining one of these parties in the future? Some people, including myself actually, think established parties have missed opportunities to recruit new talent into their structures. As an outsider, what do you think are the challenges faced by people who were not always in the structures of established political parties but are keen to be involved?
I don’t rule out collaborating and joining a political party but it would have to be because I believe I can help my supporters and the party to move forward. I would not do so only for expediency. Principle matters. Sometimes parties value loyalty over competence so new faces may not make the cut. I hope this changes in the future. Both qualities matter and are not mutually exclusive.
You had an excellent position, both as a candidate and a lawyer, to not only experience but observe the electoral system in Zimbabwe as a participant. I know you could write an entire thesis on this but what were your impressions of the electoral system and when I say electoral system I mean from the registration right up to the day the Constitutional Court presented its abridged judgment (We are still waiting for the final judgment by the way and the actual result!). Western observers refused to endorse the elections as free and fair. What do you think Zimbabwe should do to make the electoral outcomes less contentious and more acceptable?
I think the most important observation I can make on the electoral system in hindsight is that the narrative and push for electoral reforms has to start happening now. One of the greatest frustrations is that we wait until elections are a few months away to begin seriously debating the electoral landscape. I think it is absolutely critical for legislatures to begin having the debate around reforms now and to ensure that those changes take place when there is still time to act. The constitution, which I live and breathe, has made so many useful provisions as relates to the electoral system but our laws need to be aligned.
As a candidate, what struck me most was that the law alone is not enough to bring the electoral system to life. Citizens have such an important role to play in being creative and forcing the system to work for them. One example, that comes to mind is registration. As a campaign we were very aware that we had to be proactive about registration, making forms, commissioners of oaths and other resources available to registrants. Observing the election in Mt. Pleasant constituency was a volunteer based exercise, providing training for ordinary citizens to feel empowered to observe and defend their vote. The system is not perfect, and we have a huge role to play if we are ever to level the political playing field.
We can’t have this conversation and not talk about the economic mess. I know that things are terrible right now. But this was not unforeseeable. You were one of the most prominent and vocal critics of the bond note regime back in 2016. You even attended meetings with the central bank governor. What did you tell him and what would you say to him now if you had a chance to meet him again?
At the time the decision to introduce bond notes was being discussed publicly, I seized the opportunity to participate in the discourse and offered advice to the Governor. I told the Governor that bond notes would not work. I explained that the 1:1 parity with the US Dollar was not tenable. The Governor introduced bond notes anyway. I wish he had made a different choice.
If I were to see him now, I would remind him that the very people they are asking to ‘take the pain’ asked them not to inflict it in the first place. When will their voices be heard?
It is never too late to do the sensible thing. As happened in 2008, people and businesses are coming up with their own ways of resolving the currency distortions and more recently, the fuel crisis. The Government is constantly playing catch up.
I would suggest the Government considers seriously either joining the Rand Union, dollarizing the economy or introducing a domestic currency backed by solid reserves. Whatever option they choose must be accompanied by discipline and respect for free market economics. They must do away with wanting to run the economy by command. Without this, none of these solutions can work.
Public confidence in the monetary and fiscal authorities is at an all-time low. Only genuine signs of reform and clear communication of the short, medium and long terms plan will shift this. It would also help if our government stuck to creating a conducive environment for business to thrive instead of government wanting to be the businessman, the government and the politician all in one. The latter approach has bred a culture of patronage, which as we have seen is not conducive for genuine economic growth and innovation.
President Mnangagwa brought in new faces into his Cabinet after the controversial elections last year. The two most prominent were Professor Mthuli Ncube and Kirsty Coventry. Do you not think that was a sign of a man who is desirous of change? What is your impression of their performance so far, especially Prof Ncube at the important finance ministry?
I somewhat thought Coventry and Ncube were good appointments but I knew they were unlikely to succeed. Many old, uninspiring faces were retained, perhaps to reward loyalty or as some have observed, to strengthen his ethnic base. The difficulty with an outfit like Zanu PF is that it is overwhelmed by bad practices and bad behaviour. Culture is eating strategy for lunch. Ncube should be competent given his credentials but he continues to flounder over the Zimbabwean economic crisis because he is at the mercy of Zanu PF politicians. We need to detoxify the entire political ecosystem for it to work.
President Mnangagwa also appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the August 1 violence in which 6 people were killed by the military. He duly published the report as promised. His allies say this is yet another sign of a man who is different from the previous regime. What are your thoughts on the commission and its output? Do you think the way Mnangagwa has handled the commission is a sign of a different and more progressive leadership style?
No. His refusal to apologise following a finding that he deployed the army confirms he is more of the same. His feigned ignorance of the deployment at the time is worrisome. One gets an uncomfortable sense of his dishonesty. All in all, it felt like a window-dressing exercise. It did little to build public confidence domestically. The episode made the international community very wary and frightened off investors. I still wish it had not happened.
Many people have been underwhelmed by the conduct of MPs and in particular, the recent saga over benefits. If you had got into Parliament, what would you have done differently? Do you think parliament is in need of reform and if so, in what ways? In what ways do you think citizens could engage parliament in order to make it more accountable and effective?
What would I do differently? I would set up a constituency office and use the MP salary to pay a 2-member secretariat. I would request an ambulance instead of a car. I would use my technical legal competence to raise the level of the discourse in Parliament especially regarding non-partisan legislation like the Labour Act, Companies Act and Matrimonial Causes Act. I would have regular town halls and meet the people in my constituency to come up with a development plan. I would introduce coding for 10 year olds. I would create a Mount Pleasant Business Club to hear the concerns of the businesses in the community and work with them to find solutions. I would do what I can to foster a cleaner, greener and safer Mt Pleasant and continue to implement all our manifesto promises.
All these things are still possible but I believe citizens need to play a far greater oversight role. The problem we have is that we keep rewarding legislators who fail to perform. Until citizens force their MPs to work first and benefit later, this quagmire will continue. Citizens need to camp outside their MPs doors, demand to know their legislative agenda and hold them to account. We have to organise ourselves better and ensure that our MPs don’t spend five years in parliament without ever saying a word or engaging the people they represent.
Parliament needs to reform by acquainting itself with all the powers of oversight given to it in the Constitution and taking advantage of these to hold the executive to account. Parliamentarians need to stop being partisan and unite for the common good as they did for their personal benefits. Their unity over their perks showed that the excuse often given of the whipping system is largely a myth. They do have the power to unite. They must use that power for good.
Needless to say, with the elections done and dusted, the campaign season done. But you are still one of the most active voices on Twitter. You have a significant following on social media that seems to trust you. I have often said that leadership does not always lie in the elected spaces and much depends on the roles people assume in public life. However, as with the elected, such power also comes with responsibility. Do you feel you have a sense of responsibility and accountability towards the community that follows you? Do you have any plans to carry out some of the pledges that you made during your campaign? Do you still interact with your campaign team and the community that supported you? Separately, before you joined politics, you had some interesting high-profile interviews with political leaders – is this something that you would consider doing again in future?
I do feel immense responsibility. I feel I represent all those people who believed in our vision and supported it, I remain responsible to them to promote the kind of politics we desired. I find it important to be an exemplar of the ideals I strongly believe in. Honour, strength, truth, competence, a sense of humour and buckets of hope lie at the core of most things I say. I may not always get it right but I do carry those ideals with me daily. We are definitely going to carry out our campaign pledges. The single most common question we were asked on the trail was whether we would remember our people. We said yes so we will. We continue to work with women in the constituency on our ‘Mukando’ programme and have a few initiatives lined up for 2019. I remain in close contact with the team. We shall be best friends for life. We are already plotting 2023. We will shift as the ground shifts and do whatever we can to promote active citizenry, fighting in the best way we can poverty, injustice and corruption.
In November 2017, many people were hopeful after the departure of long-serving leader, Robert Mugabe. But the tables seem to have turned, with some saying things have got worse than during his time in power, which is incredibly ironic. What were your thoughts at that time and what are your views now, with the benefit of hindsight? Why in your view has the self-proclaimed New Dispensation failed to live up to the promise of November 2017?
I was cautiously optimistic in November 2017. I did not believe that Mugabe was the sole problem but I believed that removing him would decapitate the beast, or at the very least set us on a new trajectory. I did not imagine that things could get worse than they had already been. With the benefit of hindsight, I know that the entire system of Zanu PF needs to be dismantled before we can see real political and economic change in this nation.
I believe the new dispensation made the mistake of ignoring domestic policy and imbibing in a public relations campaign that tried to cast the President personally in a good light. Too little thought was given to what the plan for progress would be. I wish we had been a bit clearer about what our demands for those who were going to take over would be. I don’t ever regret hoping that life in Zimbabwe can be better. I hold that hope to this day.
One person that I would like to have a big conversation with is our former president, Robert Mugabe. I have any questions I would love to ask him in an intellectual conversation. If you had a chance to meet him what would you say to him? Are there any questions you would ask of him?
I would ask him whether he is proud of the Zimbabwe that he is bequeathing to us. I would tell him of my disappointment in his decision to sacrifice our jewel of a nation at the altar of political expediency. I would ask him what he would do differently if he had the chance. I would inquire whether he has any regrets.
You are one of the most eloquent voices challenging the current government. If you were approached for advice on how to revive the country’s fortunes, what would the top five issues that need fixing?
1. We must adhere strictly to the Constitution even where this is inconvenient.
2. We must protect private property rights. Freedom of property is essential to economic development. We must address all the uncomfortable aspects of the land question. The capacity of new farmers must be built sustainably. We must not forget that we are taking our begging bowl to the same investors whose farmers we took away without compensation. That has to be addressed. We must stop forcibly reconstructing companies. The money and value of bank deposits must be respected.
3. We must create a conducive atmosphere for local business. I am a strong believe in the mantra – none but ourselves. We must address the currency crisis at its root – i.e. stop all the behaviour that leads us to create dubious schemes to defraud people of their value like bond notes and treasury bills. The international community must come aboard an already functioning machine. We must not outsource the creation of a national plan to outsiders. National wealth must be distributed fairly and the “it’s our turn to eat” culture must end.
4. We must detoxify all state institutions of maladministration, corruption and incompetence. The RBZ must become independent of the politics. Zanu PF must stop conflating state and party. The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission must wake up from its slumber. ZEC must build public confidence. The Human Rights Commission must play an active role in dealing with human rights violations. Parliament must optimize our laws and foster a better relationship with the people.
5. We must heal the nation of hurt, exclusion, tribalism, past human rights calamities and genuinely find peace and reconciliation for those who have been excluded over the years. We must heal the national psyche.
You’re an accomplished lawyer and professional. How did you manage to balance your professional career and politics during the election year? What advice would you give to other young professionals who aspire for a similar role in public life?
It was not always easy. However, I had an amazing network in my team who created a set of rules for my personal and public life. We stuck to those religiously. I love my job so it was fairly easy to keep up with my targets and deliver for my clients. I was really tired at the end but I would not trade the journey for anything. That campaign remains the single most fulfilling thing I have done in my life.
Apart from law and politics, you also teach at the university and we see you pumping iron at the gym, all of which means you must have a hectic life. One way to get a glimpse into the spare time is through what they read, watch or listen to musically. I will therefore ask, Desert Island Disc style, if you were stranded on an island and had to pick only 3 of each: books, films/TV and music, what would they be?
12 Rules for Life – Jordan B Peterson
Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking
What Happened – Hillary R Clinton
Sex and the City
The Theory of Everything
Aretha Franklin (Bless her soul)
Yvonne Chaka Chaka
Thank you, Fadzayi for enduring this marathon of questions. You have been kind and generous with your time. You have created an important voice in our struggling democracy and we thought it would be useful to have you share your experiences and thoughts with us and our readers. I will tell you of my experience after the 2013 election campaign. It was like I had just got off a rollercoaster. I really missed the busy schedule. Normal life was boring. I realised that for a whole year, I was being driven by adrenalin. That’s what my body was used to. But now it was over and what I really wanted was for it to continue. I wonder if this resonates with you at all!If I were to suggest anything, it would be to find an opportunity to go out for a few months – get a fellowship that gives you a chance to reflect upon the journey you have travelled so far and to plot the future. I have observed that we learn a lot when we travel and live in other communities, even for a few weeks. As we travel and spend time in other communities, one constant is that there is nothing new under the sun. Best wishes.
WaMagaisa & Fadzayi Mahere