Big Saturday Read: An intersectional approach to the democratic struggle in Zimbabwe
20 March 2021
Alex T. Magaisa
An Eclectic Mix
When the MDC was formed in 1999, one of its most conspicuous features was that it was an eclectic mix of groups with different backgrounds and holding diverse and sometimes not altogether harmonious interests. Nevertheless, whatever differences they had in interests and expectations, they were united in their dislike of and opposition to ZANU PF rule under Robert Mugabe. They were determined to end it. Indeed for years its formation, this sentiment was encapsulated by the cliche, “Mugabe Must Go”.
Labour unions formed the stem of the movement. It was from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) that the principal leaders of the party were drawn at its founding. The women’s movement was also a critical pillar, as was the student’s movement and other civil society groups. These different groups made important contributions to the growth of the movement. They used their spheres of influence to spread the message of change and to garner support for the movement. As the political juggernaut roared to life, other groups began to identify with the MDC and among them were white farmers and members of the dwindling middle class.
Each of these groups had its grievances that led them to support the MDC or to use the more common language, to support "the struggle". The labour unions were concerned with the impact of bad governance and neo-liberal economic policies on their members’ rights and livelihoods. In addition to the economic and governance issues, women’s groups were concerned with rights and gender-based violence and discrimination which were systemic both in public and private spaces. The fight for women's emancipation was a political struggle.
College students decried the loss of financial support and academic freedom on campuses. The middle class saw its status diminishing ever so rapidly as economic challenges mounted. The basic things they had taken for granted like water, electricity, street lighting, suburban roads, and security were under threat. Human rights and civil society groups were concerned with human rights violations and an increasingly authoritarian rule, hence the demands of constitutional reform. For the white commercial farmers, ZANU PF posed an existential threat to their way of life which was inextricably tied to the land. At the other end of the spectrum, the socialists were vocal in their support of land seizures, a factor which cost International Socialist Organization leader Munyaradzi Gwisai his seat in Parliament.
It was never a single story
I have listed a non-exhaustive sample of these groups and the apparent contradictions to draw attention to an important observation in the life of the struggle: that from the beginning, the story of the struggle consisted of multiple threads, not a single one. Indeed, there were apparent contradictions that caused occasional discomforts such as the events that led to the expulsion of Gwisai from the MDC and Parliament in those early years.
To the extent that there is an impression of a single struggle against ZANU PF's authoritarian rule, it is an account that is both useful and harmful at the same time. It is useful because a belief in its existence brings otherwise diverse groups together, despite their differences. As Harari says in Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, fictions matter because they are the bedrock upon which large networks of cooperation are constructed. But the blanket account becomes harmful when it conceals or marginalizes the struggles of the different groups within the network of co-operation.
Although I have introduced the BSR with a brief mapping of the MDC, this is not a critique of the organization. Rather, it is a critique of attitudes and approaches held by individuals and collectives in the pursuit of the struggle against despotic rule. I make the case for an intersectional approach to the struggle against authoritarian rule. I do so because I observe apparent conflicts that stem from a failure to understand and appreciate the multiplicity of struggles that make up the general struggle. In doing so, I employ a tool that has helped champion the rights of Black women who have been subjects of subordination and marginalization for long periods. This is apposite considering March is Women’s History Month. But before I get to that, I should begin with a cautionary tale on the danger of a single story, drawing from a celebrated African writer.
The danger of the single story
The world-renowned Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made a memorable speech just over a decade ago which is universally quoted as “The danger of the single story”. At the core of Adichie’s speech was a warning to avoid falling for a one-sided version of anything, which she called the single story. The message for a largely Western audience was that the African continent and its people could not be defined by a single narrative. There were more stories besides the narrative of poverty, war, and suffering. Taking a cue from this, the struggle should also not be reduced to a single story. There are multiple struggles within the broader struggle and they each deserve to be understood and taken seriously.
I now turn to intersectionality, a theoretical prism that originated in the field of law but has since expanded to other disciplines and activism. It is my firm opinion that everyone should make an effort to understand intersectionality. When you are fighting for social justice and equality, it is a useful tool to get a better appreciation of the struggles that fellow citizens are fighting, especially the struggles that we are least familiar with on account of our backgrounds and characteristics. All too often the trivialization and dismissal of other people’s problems are a result of entrapment in the single-story and a failure to appreciate the intersectional experiences of others.
Intersectionality, which has recently become mainstream, draws its humble beginnings from a 1989 journal article by a law professor, Kimberle Crenshaw. In that article Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics," Crenshaw demonstrated how anti-discrimination laws in the US failed to protect Black women whose unique experiences of discrimination were not fully accounted for in the categories of race or sex discrimination. Crenshaw argued that to fully appreciate the predicament of Black women as victims of discrimination, it was important to look at their situation through an intersectional prism. Because you must be wondering what intersectionality is, it is time to explain it. As to why it matters for the Zimbabwean struggle, it will soon become apparent.
For Crenshaw, the intersection was a metaphor that was necessary to illustrate the double discrimination that Black women faced, which was different from the discrimination that was suffered by white women and Black men despite the commonality of gender and race, respectively. I can do no better than quote her description of the metaphor:
“Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.”
Crenshaw uses this metaphor to demonstrate how Black women’s experience of discrimination did not just fall into either race or gender categories separately but both, at the same time. She illustrated that to understand the oppression of Black women, it was important to look at the intersection of blackness and womanhood.
In this regard, she argued that while Black women’s experiences may be similar to the experiences of white women (sex) or Black men (race), they often experienced “double discrimination - the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basis of sex. And sometimes, they experience discrimination as Black women - not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as Black women (Page 149).”
How the law failed Black women
In her view, both the law and the courts which she was examining were failing to deal with the circumstance of Black women because they were designed to classify their experiences separately in terms of either their race or gender, but not both. Yet this separation of gender and race failed to capture the totality of the experience of blackness and womanhood which collided at the intersection. The law and judges needed to see her as a Black woman and to appreciate her unique experience at that intersection of gender and race, not just as either a woman or a Black person. For Crenshaw “the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism”.
It was therefore necessary to develop a lens that brought the intersectional experience to the fore. If you wanted to understand the specific ways in which Black women were subordinated, you had to use the intersectional experience. The traditional way of looking at Black women’s problems in terms of either race or gender meant that their protection was limited to the extent that their experiences were similar to those of white women (sex) or Black men (race). To overcome these handicaps, she argued, it was necessary to expand the boundaries of sex and race discrimination doctrine beyond the experiences of white women and Black men.
A Tool to Understand Society’s Multiple Narratives
I find intersectionality to be a helpful device in searching for a deeper and better understanding of the nature of different groups and individuals’ struggles for social justice, equality, and emancipation. Every group or individual has overlapping identities which shape their intersectional experiences. Crenshaw used intersectionality to challenge existing feminist and anti-discrimination approaches which were inadequate because they did not cater to the experiences of Black women.
If traditional feminism was too focused on the experiences of white women, it had to expand its boundaries to embrace the experiences of Black women. The two groups may share similar challenges in a systemically sexist society, but Black women suffer additional prejudice on account of their race. Likewise, if anti-discrimination discourse were too focused on the experiences of Black men, it would also have to expand its boundaries to embrace the experiences of Black women. Both groups may share similar experiences in a systemically racist society, but Black women suffer additional prejudice on account of their gender.
Crenshaw was successful in demonstrating how courts failed to “understand or recognize Black women’s claims” regarding sex and race discrimination. Likewise, I believe it is possible to use intersectionality to challenge and expand the dominant ways of framing the struggle against ZANU PF repression which sometimes dismiss the intersectional experiences of other groups.
Why Does an Intersectional Lens Mean for Us?
I hope by now you have a good picture of intersectionality and why it matters. If we apply intersectionality, we will be able to appreciate that there is no single story of our encounters with the ZANU PF’s despotic rule. It can help us appreciate why when some might be heard saying Zimbabwe was better in the 1980s, other citizens dispute that narrative because they cannot recognize it. When some trace the Zimbabwean Diaspora to the early 2000s, those narrative overlooks the thousands who left in the 1980s and 1990s, as refugees from their newly independent country. Some have never returned. Their intersectional experience based on political orientation and ethnicity does not include a time when Zimbabwe was ever better. It's important to unlearn and revise these generalized accounts that are informed by privilege because they exclude the intersectional experiences of others.
In the context of our struggle, one might use the intersectional lens to examine the stories of citizens who find themselves at intersections such as gender and ethnicity; gender and class; class and ethnicity, and even gender and political orientation. A typical opposition supporter might suffer repression on the grounds of political orientation, but a female opposition supporter’s experience will be different from her male counterpart’s experience because invariably her gender will come into play. Often, the woman will be subjected to sexual assault. Likewise, while female opposition supporters are vulnerable to political violence, some opposition supporters are at the intersection of political orientation, gender, and ethnicity which results in unique experiences of repression. Indeed, the sources of violence might also be from within her party.
Intersectionality helps to show that a woman from an ethnic minority encounters and experiences repression differently from a woman who is a member of the ethnic majority. The ethnic minority woman also fares worse than a man from her ethnic minority group. She may have much in common with the woman from an ethnic majority because they are both women, but she has a different experience because of her ethnicity. Likewise, a woman from an ethnic minority might have a lot in common with a man from her background, but there is also much that is different because of her gender.
If you apply the intersectional prism, you will have a better picture of the nature of grievances that are held by traditionally marginalized groups. Apart from women, the list includes ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, rural communities, workers, and so-called aliens. When you use intersectionality, you will observe that the extent of their grievances is not limited to ZANU PF’s conduct. Their grievances against ZANU PF are merely part of a package of grievances that stem from a patriarchal system that dominates both public and private spaces.
An intersectional lens will also show the multiple experiences of ZANU PF repression among youths, the elderly, people with disabilities, and other groups that are different and systemically disadvantaged. One of the things that will emerge from such analyses is that while the dominant discourse might be a binary between a majority and a minority, it is also possible to have sub-majorities and minorities within the minority group. For example, there might be smaller ethnic minorities that are routinely and uncritically subsumed and buried within a bigger ethnic minority. If you apply an intersectional approach, it will reveal and enhance the voice of those otherwise forgotten sub-minorities whose unique stories also need to be told and recognized in the national discourse.
Samukeliso and Vimbai
To get a better picture of the relevance of intersectionality, let us imagine the following scenario. Since it is Women’s History Month, and I am using a theoretical lens that sought to recognize the voice of Black women, I have placed women at the centre of the scenario:
Samukeliso lives in Makokoba in Bulawayo. She is from the Ndebele ethnic group. She lost her father in 1984 when she was young. He was killed during Gukurahundi when soldiers from the Fifth Brigade visited her village. She does not talk much about the incident, but it left her traumatized. Without a breadwinner, her education stalled, and she never had formal employment. She married young. Her husband is violent towards her. She is a strong supporter of the MDC and has been arrested several times by the police.
Vimbai lives in Mbare in the capital, Harare. She is from the Zezuru ethnic group. When she was young, her father was a branch chairman of ZANU PF in their local area in Mhondoro. She completed her O Levels and worked for a few years in the 1990s before her company closed due to economic challenges. Vimbai has participated in the labour unions and she joined the MDC when it was formed in 1999. Her first husband left for the Diaspora and never returned. Her current partner, who was severely tortured by state agents has become very violent in recent years. She has been arrested several times when she has demonstrated against the government.
These two women share several experiences based on their gender and their political orientation. They are victims of gender-based violence both in public and private spaces. An intersectional approach shows that they are at the intersection of repression based on their political orientation and gender. However, there is a third factor that distinguishes their experiences. This factor is ethnicity and of the two women, it is Samkeliso who is at this intersection. It is an intersection of repression based on political orientation, gender, and ethnicity. The point here is that Samukeliso’s story is incomplete without the dark chapter of Gukurahundi.
The point here is not that Vimbai’s experiences do not matter, no. It is that the intersectional experiences of Samukeliso must be given due recognition and weight. Both Vimbai and Samkeliso are women and opposition supporters, but Samukeliso is a woman and an opposition supporter and an ethnic minority. The intersection of these three factors informs her unique experience which is important in the discourse.
The advantage of looking at the situation of these women through an intersectional lens is that it gives a better and more nuanced understanding of the problems affecting each individual and group within the broader struggle. Their struggle against ZANU PF’s despotic rule might be the same in the general sense, but their individual struggles are different. One day, they might win their collective battle against ZANU PF’s misrule, but they both still have a battle against patriarchy and for Samukeliso, there is still a battle centered on ethnicity, especially the unresolved trauma of Gukurahundi.
Both Vimbai and Samukeliso need to recognize and respect these different strands of their personal struggles. This mutual respect is very important in their pursuit of the broader struggle. Without mutual respect, there is bound to be a conflict between them, which will derail the broader struggle.
What about the husbands?
Let us now include their husbands into the scenario. Both husbands are also opposition supporters. They have also been arrested on politically motivated charges. They have been beaten and harassed by state security agents. All four are, therefore, united in their desire to replace ZANU PF in government. However, if we apply the intersectional prism, we can see that the men’s struggles are different from the women’s struggles. For example, while the women are also waging a war against gender-based violence, the husbands are comfortable with their patriarchal privileges. They might even be dismissive of the women’s demands for equal representation in all public bodies. They might also accuse the women of derailing the struggle by raising these issues concerning gender. They are told to “wait until we get rid of ZANU PF”.
While this suggests common ground between the two men, let us introduce a new dimension that raises the issue of intersectionality and distinguishes their individual experiences. Let us imagine that Vimbai’s husband Dakarai is from the Ndau ethnic group while Samkeliso’s husband Mainza is Tonga. Both husbands share a common revulsion to having been forced to learn Shona and Ndebele respectively in school. This meant their languages were marginalized by the dominant ones. Both belong to sub-minorities that are buried under the dominant majorities in their region.
If you apply an intersectional lens, you will realize that their struggles are not just against ZANU PF’s misrule, but also the hegemonic character of Shona and Ndebele languages and cultures. Intersectionality recognizes and amplifies the voices that are not otherwise heard in the struggle discourse. But here is the intriguing part: It also helps to show that while these men need liberation from oppressive majorities, their wives also need liberation from their patriarchal order. In this way, an intersectional approach tells us that the struggle is a very complex affair. It is multi-directional rather than unidirectional.
A Story of Many Struggles
I have used this example and intersectionality to reiterate the point that I made earlier: that there is no single story that defines the struggle. The struggle is against ZANU PF rule but also against so much more that has gone wrong over the years. Even the grievances against ZANU PF differ depending on the background and characteristics of the individual or group. Some of the grievances may have been pacified, while others have not.
For example, some white farmers who were aggrieved by the land seizures have been partially pacified by the compensation deal which was agreed to last year. However, survivors and descendants of victims of Gukurahundi are still aggrieved because there is no serious effort to resolve the grievances. Likewise, many MDC supporters are also aggrieved by the egregious political violence suffered at the hands of the state over the years.
These are just a few examples of the many stories that make up the narrative of the struggle. Intersectional analyses help us to see and appreciate these struggles that are not immediately apparent. When people use intersectionality, they can see that they are together, but also that they are also different because their struggles are shaped by their unique intersectional experiences. This should not lead to conflict; it ought to help the struggle when everyone knows that they are there for each other.
An intersectional approach can help to minimize conflicts. With an intersectional approach, individuals and groups can have a better appreciation of the unique experiences of repression that shape other individuals and groups’ responses to repression. Ignoring those intersectional experiences and burying heads in the sand will only leave unresolved questions.
Let me conclude with a rough toolkit of how an intersectional approach might be framed in prosecuting the struggle against authoritarian rule:
Adopt an intersectional approach to the experiences of other people before you dismiss them. Who are they? What have they gone through either directly or indirectly through their family? Have they suffered repression at the intersection of Gender and Race? Gender and Ethnicity? Gender and Political Orientation? Gender, Ethnicity, and Political Orientation? Gender and Class? Class and Political Orientation?
Recognize and respect the validity of each individual’s or group’s unique intersectional experience.
Avoid making assumptions that there is a common experience for everyone. Beware the danger of the single story. We do not have common experiences.
Avoid imposing your personal beliefs on other groups or individuals when they have beliefs that are informed by their intersectional experiences which you are unfamiliar with. Your lack of familiarity with those intersectional experiences does not mean that they do not exist. They do. You just have to learn them.
Unlearn your deeply held assumptions and stereotypes and listen to the intersectional experiences of others. Many times, even in a conversation we hear things to respond to them, instead of listening to learn what others have to say. No matter how small they are, their stories matter too.
When you earn the intersectional stories of others and their struggles, join, and support their cause for social justice, and even if you disagree with them, at least defend their rights when they are violated by the state. If the state can violate their rights, it can also violate yours. If you want them to support you in your cause, learn to support them against the violation of their rights.
Use temperate and inclusive language. Differences should not mean conflict. All too often conflict is over style, not substance. If you disagree, do so respectfully, recognizing that their views are informed by their intersectional experiences which you may not be familiar with.
Finally, to use one of the favourite lessons from Harari: Discover ignorance. It is important to know that when it comes to the intersectional experiences of other people you do not know as much as they do. Therefore, instead of being judgmental, it is important to listen and gain more knowledge.