By Tinashe Mawere
The 2018 Zimbabwean elections have come and gone. They brought back memories of the 2008 debacle of rigged elections and the consequent catastrophic plummet in the value of the Zimbabwean dollar. The 2018 elections were similarly interrogated for their legitimacy and fairness, especially following the bloodbath on 1 August. The recent elections once again evoked a gendered script and a highly masculinised socio-political and economic terrain, both of which should persuade us to look more closely at the operation of gender and sexuality in the Zimbabwean electoral process. The language used during the 2018 Zimbabwean elections and, in particular, the use of metaphor reflect constructions and performances of Zimbabwean nationhood. Examining the personification and self-characterisation of the main presidential contestants, Nelson Chamisa and Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, and their imagining of the nation provide a crucial understanding of the construction of Zimbabwean nationhood.
Zimbabwe’s 2018 election narrative mirrors prevailing gendered discourses in Zimbabwe and globally. Leadership is constructed as the natural domain of men and women as the fields on which manliness and leadership manifest. The old discourse where each gender is seen as having allocated social roles continues. Chamisa and Mnangagwa are described as exhibiting masculine qualities of leadership and heroism in various ways. This is a continuation of the amadoda sibili / varume chaivo (real men) narrative that characterised the rule of former President Robert Mugabe. In the 2018 elections the manhood narrative that characterises Zimbabwean nationhood continued through the naming of Chamisa and Mnangagwa.
Strong masculine words were used to describe the main presidential candidates. Words such as Nero, Wamba dia Wamba and the bullet were associated with Chamisa and made up a core component of his constructed image. These terms idealise Chamisa as youthful, virile, modern and powerful, and as an alternative national leader to Mnangagwa who is, in contrast, characterised as elderly. Nero constructs Chamisa as youthful and open, while Wamba dia Wamba associates him with a respected Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) political figure who was previously a Harvard academic and later a militant in the DRC civil war. The bullet metaphor suggests that Chamisa is young, modern, fast, intelligent and intelligible, but also associates him with being able to discharge fast, healthy and powerful bullets that (re)produce Zimbabwe. This notion constructs Chamisa as a phallic and masculine figure, and in contrast feminises the older Mnangagwa, who, it is implied, suffers from a loss of sexual virility owing to age, and hence is the opposite of Chamisa.
Mnangagwa is hence associated with a return to the past and, by implication, as unable to continue reproducing the nation. However, Mnangagwa is associated with the name Ngwena (Lacoste / Crocodile), which construes him as powerful and calculating, given the crocodile’s association with power, cunning and precision of attack. It also links him to the famous Crocodile Gang of the Zimbabwean liberation war. Although Mnangagwa was not a member of the Crocodile Gang which carried out acts of sabotage and set the tone for the liberation struggle, he was reputed to have been inspired by it. He participated in blowing up a Rhodesian steam locomotive in 1964 at Masvingo railway station, was arrested and tried in court, and only escaped a death sentence for this act because of his youth. The historical association with sabotage links Mnangagwa with the Crocodile Gang and with the name Lacoste. Such associations de-emphasise the potential weaknesses associated with his age. However, in some circles the name Ngwena implies shrewdness since it associates him with the Gukurahundi massacres. Mnangagwa was furthermore perceived to be a strong supporter of Mugabe during his rule.
Given their competing versions of masculinities, the 2018 elections served as a forum in which Chamisa and Mnangagwa could demonstrate who had power and authority to ‘father’ Zimbabwe. In doing so, both employed narratives of gender and sexuality. Both also treated the bodies of women as playing fields in the contest for national leadership. For example, in some of his campaign narratives, Chamisa imagines Zimbabwe as a female body and locates himself as still sexually active, while situating Mnangagwa as tired and impotent.
One of the factors that made Chamisa popular was his mastery of public speaking, which has a foundation in his use of pastoral language, and his knowledge of deep Shona idioms, proverbs and modern street language. Although sometimes his adversaries de-contextualised his messages, it was nevertheless observed that his language was inflated with gendered and sexist undertones. Chamisa positioned himself as able to impregnate women while satirising Mnangagwa as being too old to do so. He depicted the absence of national direction and progress in terms of Mnangagwa’s lack of sexual virility and an incapacity to reproduce: hence Mnangagwa was referred to as unable to impregnate a woman while Chamisa’s capacity to impregnate attested to his ability to transform the nation and to make it (re)produce. In some of his speeches, Chamisa questioned how a man who has failed to impregnate his wife or produce children could ask for an additional night to fulfil these duties, when the wife’s father comes to reclaim the daughter who has been denied the joys of motherhood. Chamisa used such a caricature to characterise how he saw Zanu-PF wanting to continue to govern the country, despite its failure to perform in a manner that (re)produced or gave life to the nation.
When Chamisa undertook to hand over his young sister to Mnangagwa if Mnangagwa won the elections, he alluded to Mnangagwa’s alleged inability to perform. Chamisa’s sister was positioned as a symbol of the nation, young and capable of a healthy (re)production if given to the right and capable man. Winning the nation, therefore, resembled winning his sister. The rhetoric involved gaining control of women, of the nation and of feminised men. Chamisa’s rhetoric reflects how in the everyday, sexual dysfunction emasculates men and robs them of masculine values. The rhetoric also reveals how women are used and their futures decided by men, and how they are seen as objects in masculine transactions. Chamisa used the notion of the female body as an arena for masculinity to be tested, and women were referred to as if they were men’s trophies. Mnangagwa’s campaign also uses the bodies of women to perform politics. The ED Pfee slogan which was used for Mnangagwa campaigns is gendered and sexually suggestive, and generated sexual images.
The manner in which Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa came to the helm in Zimbabwe can be summed up in the idiophone Pfee, which is associated with his election campaign. Pfee also denotes penetration. Munashe Chipadza, a National University of Science and Technology (NUST) student, claims that he is behind the ED Pfee slogan. He posits that the slogan has its origins in the Zanu Pfee slogan where double e was added to Pf to depict Zanu-PF entrance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2yft5ltTQM). For him, the revision to ED Pfee reflects Mnangagwa’s easy move into the national presidency. However, the popularity of the slogan rests on Admire Sanyanga aka Chief Shumba, the man behind the ED Pfee hit song, which became an anthem at Mnangagwa rallies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYvVcdj-gLQ). Commenting on the song, Matotoba says, “This slogan does not only mean Emmerson Dambudzo pfee, but it also means Economic Development pfee” and goes on to say that pfee denotes kupinda pakamanikana (a challenging manoeuvre) (https://bulawayo24.com>index-id-opinion-sc-columnist-byo-141030.html).
In Zimbabwe, mimesis and jokes are used as a form of political expression. Pfee has gained multiple meanings, some of them with defiant messaging. Of particular interest is how the hit song ED Pfee was drawn into political discourse, but also gained sexual undertones (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPTaheYdXEc). Pfee is an idiophone of a manner characterising force, sharpness, the unexpected, the uninvited and piercing entry that almost equates to violent rape. The idiophone describes the manner of phallic objects like penises, bullets, knives, arrows and spears which are sufficiently sharp or forceful to get through objects or bodies with the potential to resist them. Mnangagwa’s acquisition of power in November after the coup, despite his unpopularity and age, and despite the evidence of ZEC’s bias is acted out and summed up by pfee. Attaining national power during the Mnangagwa dispensation is shown as an act of force, just like the characteristics of Robert Mugabe’s time, when the use of the ‘balls’ determined national leadership.
The ED Pfee slogan and jingle is a performance of virility, especially in the context in which Mnangagwa was chided by Chamisa as old and incapacitated. ED Pfee is similar to some of the sexualised jingles used in the construction of Mugabe during earlier elections. For example, the jingle Bhora Mugedhe (strike the ball into the net), which produces visual images of penetrating the vaginas of women, has the same sexual connotations as those that propel violent masculinities as in the case of ED Pfee. This shows how the Mugabe election culture is continued in the post-Mugabe era, which brings up questions about what exactly about the new dispensation is really new or different.
In Zimbabwe, it is absurd to talk of the 2018 elections separate from the language of male erections and penetration: firstly, because in the pronunciation of ‘elections’ by the Zimbabwean vice-president, Constantino Guveya Chiwenga, Zimbabwe’s military face and king-maker, they are indeed ‘erections’ (as shown in the joke above), and secondly, since the Zimbabwean context conflates penetration and victory, the elections have been a strong performative act of erections, as shown by Chamisa and Mnangagwa’s electoral rhetoric. In the Zimbabwean context, the penis manifests as violent, firm and forceful, just like the bullet or the spear. However, the conflation of erections and power is not confined to Zimbabwe.
In the South African context the close relationship between the penis and power is demonstrated in the image of the former South African president, Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s favourite song, Umshini Wami (‘My machine gun’) was featured during his trial in 2005 and 2006 on rape charges brought by Fezekile Ntukela Kuzwayo aka Khwezi. Although in its original sense, the machine refers to the powerful gun, it also reflects Zuma’s militancy. In the context of the rape case, Zuma’s militancy can also be matched to his sexual belligerence. The context also suggested disruptive messaging that extended the meaning to include Zuma’s other powerful weapon, his penis or masculinity, which he used to shatter the life of the alleged rape survivor. During Zuma’s period in office, it is interesting that the song featured particularly during times of adversity for him, and when he wanted to assert his power and authority.
Using the figure of women, Zimbabwe is projected as feminine and as a trophy to be taken by the most masculine figure. The one who is more virile and more erect manages to penetrate the nation and therefore obtains the right to control and own the nation. Chamisa uses the narrative of sexuality and bodies of women to feminise and to eliminate Mnangagwa from the corps of men and to position himself as the only available capable man. However, Zanu-PF is convinced that Mnangagwa is one of the most experienced, tried and tested amadoda sibili, and hence that he should be able to win the election and to control the nation, as shown by the figure of the woman in the Pfee video jingle, as well as by the Pfee slogan. The language and imagi(nations) of the election are, in many ways, sexualised and gendered, and mirror a grotesquely masculinist and militarist state whose future is imagined in terms of erections. This shows how gender and sexuality are performed and how their subtle performances help to normalise and authenticate gendered and sexualised realities.
Taking a cue from Zimbabwe, it will be interesting to observe how gender and sexuality manifest in the electoral rhetoric of the upcoming South African elections and other elections in Southern Africa. This might help scholars, researchers, activists and policy-makers around gender, sexuality and nation to think more deeply and broadly about issues of gender, sexuality and nationhood.
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