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The Achilles Heel in the women’s movement

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Tuesday, September 11th, 2012 by Natasha Msonza

Last week I attended yet another ‘constitution meeting’ – this time organized by the Women in Politics Support Unit (WIPSU) to discuss the place and voice of women in the ongoing constitutional debate. I say yet another because this is easily the fifth or sixth I have attended of such nature in the past month. The meetings always fascinate me one way or the other, but the WIPSU one took the cup for two reasons.

First, a large group of women suddenly and disrespectfully stood up and marched out of the venue right smack in the middle of one of the esteemed panelists’ opening remarks. Their marching out process was so fluid, so mechanical and in your face that there was a hush momentarily as people tried and failed to comprehend what was going on. We were soon to find out that the people who had marched out had done so in protest of failure – apparently – on the part of the organizers to officially acknowledge Beitbridge Senator, Tambudzani Mohadi. Aptly dubbed by some in the meeting as ‘Mohadi’s people’, the Zanu PF supporters made it clear that they had been extremely slighted by the botched protocol to the point of actually ditching a meeting that was critical for them to participate in not as party minions, but as women in solidarity with others.

But if you really think about it, how many ordinary people in Zimbabwe actually know the names and faces of ten public officials? Not necessarily suggesting that the WIPSU representatives probably just did not recognize Senator Mohadi, but it is a possibility. However for her to actually storm out even after the usual ‘all protocol observed’ announcement was a tad childish and an unwarranted display of self-importance. I remember back in 2005 when I was as a cub reporter attending an event where security detail at the then Sheraton Hotel failed to recognize Minister Sekai Holland and demanded that she register her name like all other mortals. Of course, Holland was offended but simply informed them that her minions would do that for her, and the message was received loud and clear. I recall that even I didn’t know what she looked like till that day.

Secondly, I found it very interesting that one of the panelists, Hon. Priscilla Misihairambwi-Mushonga chose to deliberately mislead all the women in the room into believing that the current squabbles and draft disagreements between political parties were “at least not touching or affecting women’s issues”. Really? It really got me thinking of the one previous meeting I also attended where the Copac comedians clashed in a heated discussion to a point where Hon. Paul Mangwana lied through his many teeth to an audience of over 300 people, that he did not in actual fact sign the Copac draft, but only appended his initials. Signing and initialing: big difference. Fortunately, I had had the privilege of seeing the Copac draft and could not believe that the man could lie about something so easily verifiable. But then again, I know someone who believes and maintains that Zimbabwe is a nation of super-literate people who just don’t read stuff. Perhaps that’s the thinking Mangwana tried to harp on.

Anyway, back to the constitution draft squabbles not ‘touching’ women’s issues; I think this was the biggest understatement of the day. The most fundamental issues that Zanu PF wants amended are the very ones that to a significant extent affect mainly women. Issues to do with citizenship, devolution and electoral systems among others, are ones close to women’s hearts and lives. It also does not help any to make vague references to ‘women’s issues’ without assessing how the larger context affects the realization of those same issues.

What are women’s issues anyway? Because as a woman, I believe that if Zanu PF is trying to scuttle progress by removing clauses on devolution; removing the clause on the establishment of a peace and reconciliation commission; removing provisions of an independent constitutional court; restoring a wide range of unlimited executive presidential powers including appointments of the judiciary; reintroducing a compulsory national youth service – those are the very issues that affect me and my kin directly. So, which issues was Misihairambwi referring to? I certainly do not take any comfort in being informed that at least 70 percent of ‘our issues’ as women are covered and remain untouched if they do not include positive clauses on the above. I am particularly concerned that we are being encouraged to celebrate the 70% percent victory partially with the reasoning that after all, women can always challenge or advocate the other 30% through the proposed constitutional court. Somehow, people seem to conveniently forget that the subject of an independent constitutional court is one of the issues Zanu PF wants scrapped too from the draft. Nonnegotiable.

Nonetheless with all its shortcomings, the COPAC draft is still worth voting for because it reads like a much better devil and is a significant step towards the democratization agenda. It is just unfortunate though that because of the latest ‘deadlock’, the majority of women have actually not seen or read the draft constitution. They will vote whichever way without having clarity of what the actual content of the document entails for their future.

In the Zimbabwe women’s movement I have observed three kinds of people; there are those who know what’s really going down but choose to misinform people on technical issues while trying to push own political agendas by playing on the ignorance of the populace. There are those who know squat and sit there clueless like puppets just waiting to be instructed to make either a yes or no vote just because they foolishly answer to being referred to as somebody’s people. Then there are those who genuinely know stuff, want to impart knowledge as best as they can but whose efforts are undermined and frustrated by extenuating political circumstances. I look forward to a day the women’s movement actually operates as such and not as fragmented sections caught up in politicking at the expense of people’s welfare. This is the movement’s Achilles heel.

Freebies for all

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Tuesday, October 11th, 2011 by Natasha Msonza

Parallels can be drawn between the 1997 cash payouts to the war veterans and the recent disbursement of ‘youth development funds’ to the youth in Zimbabwe. The objectives of both programmes were to ‘economically empower’ ordinary citizens. While the war veteran payouts were just that, the YDF loans to the ‘youth’ are actually expected to be returned at some point. Under pressure from war veterans demanding payment for their role in the liberation struggle, President Robert Mugabe ordered unbudgeted payouts of 50,000 to each. The local dollar subsequently fell 71.5 percent against the greenback while the stock market crashed by 46 percent as investors rushed for the US dollar.

These unplanned payouts to war veterans went down the annals of history as the event that marked the beginning of the collapse of the country’s economy.

The ‘loans’ recently awarded to selected ‘youth’ in Zimbabwe may not accomplish glory of a similar magnitude, but what may follow can be anyone’s guess.

In the spirit of economically empowering the youth in Zimbabwe, the government – through the Ministry of Indigenisation and Empowerment – availed funds to be used in bettering the lives of youth through income generating projects. The funds are being managed through CBZ Bank, and insurance giant Old Mutual is part of a $10 million grant deal to the YDF. It is a big wonder what made the company agree to such an arrangement which stands to undermine its financial position. When companies like Old Mutual start to simply give away their net worth as gifts, we should get worried. But perhaps it is a clever way to escape the 51% remission guillotine.

In the YDF programme, there is no recovery plan, no obligation, and no collateral – just “young people who have benefited from the facility are encouraged to pay back the loans so that the funds can be extended to other eligible youth in revolving mode”. Are you kidding? So the 800+ lucky ‘youth’ whose names were published in recent press releases as beneficiaries are expected to create thriving businesses that will in the short term make profits from which the loans will then be paid back so that others can benefit.

There is no stipulated timeline by which the loans should be returned, so technically these are indefinite loans. There are just too many holes in this programme. As economist Erich Bloch would say it; the indigenization issue is being handled with a “total disregard for all economic fundamentals or principles.”

This could well be a grand scheme by some well placed individuals to throw away populist money and obtain a few kick-backs in the process. Can imagine obscure groups like Upfumi Kuvadiki getting such loans and actually being expected to pay them back, laugh out loud. We are assured that there are no ‘ghosts’ on the beneficiary list. Probably. I personally know someone whose name appeared on that list. To the best of my knowledge and without being judgmental, this person has plans to purchase a residential stand, possesses no entrepreneurial skills and actually got a consultant to develop his business plan that got him the loan. He wouldn’t say exactly how much he is going to get, but he invited me to ‘also apply and stop being jealous and missing out’.

The requirements are that you just fill in a form, submit a business plan, company registration document, identification documents and Bob’s your uncle, literally. You also need to prove that you are ‘legally constituted’ in a partnership; and if you are not, you are expected to ensure this happens within three months after receiving the loan (why bother then?).

Am I missing something here? Or perhaps I am just being jealous? Well, if you can’t beat em join em hey?

This is Zimbabwe.

Useless US$ Coins

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Tuesday, June 28th, 2011 by Natasha Msonza

So, where are US$ coins actually accepted for retail in Zimbabwe? I find it interesting that having adopted a multi-currency system as a country – some retailers neither recognise nor accept US$ coins.  Picture this; you want to purchase a product that costs $3, 25. You hand over three US$1 notes to the teller and when you give them a quarter, they look at it, frown and say they don’t accept that but R2 (two Rand) would do instead. I mean what the bollocks?

Ever since I returned from the States, I have been carrying around a wallet full of what I realise now are essentially useless coins here. I just don’t get it. Yesterday evening while making a few purchases at the Bridge Spar, I tried my luck again with the coins. The till attendant looked at me squarely and said it was after 6pm therefore she could no longer accept US$ coins. I demanded an explanation as to what it being after 6pm had anything to do with what choice of coins was acceptable. The till attendant mumbled something along the lines of the shop being unable to give them to other customers as change or ‘cash’ them, whatever that means. I drew surprised stares when I thought aloud that that was one of the stupidest things I had heard all week.

It is bad enough we are not using our own currency, but to have selective use of the foreign currency that we do use is an unnecessary inconvenience. I think it is high time for whoever’s job it is to start working towards a more sustainable currency solution. I mean for how long can a country live under all sorts of speculation. The Short Term Emergency Recovery Programme (STERP) stipulates that the temporary use of multiple currencies terminates in 2012. Then what next? In last week’s Standard, the IMF was quoted in an article as having cautioned the Zimbabwean government against re-introducing the Zim-dollar. They said the country should rather extend the life span of the multi-currency system and also continue using the US dollar till 2014. The IMF Article IV report on Zimbabwe stipulates that the inclusive government has failed to put in place adequate conditions for the re-introduction of the Zim-dollar.

Last year there were speculations that the government attempted to join the Rand Monetary Union (currently consisting of Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa). Big wonder what happened to that idea. The media reported that Cabinet for the most part feared rejection. Now I hear old Zimbabwean coins are being purchased for long cash and selling like hot cakes on the streets. I wonder if like in 2008 the RBZ governor might just once again resuscitate old currency. I sure am holding on to whatever original Zimbabwean notes and coins I still have, all together with my currently useless US$ coins.

Airport security reaching ridiculous proportions

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Friday, June 24th, 2011 by Natasha Msonza

Frankly, I think security measures at certain international airports have reached ridiculous if not sometimes embarrassing proportions. Though not a very ‘frequent flyer’, I must say things have changed dramatically since the last time I travelled long distance. Recently I travelled to Washington DC via the dreaded Dakar route. The usual put-your-hand-luggage-through-the-scan-device-and-take-out-your-laptop was in order. So was the business of removing jewellery, belts and metal buckled shoes, and more. I stood in a long snaking ‘women only’ line at OR Tambo wondering what the hold-up was until I was about 10 people away from going past the scan myself.  There was a variety of interesting new security measures. People were not only taking off shoes, belts and jewellery – they were also taking off jackets in that biting cold, then handing themselves over to a burly female guard who would then conduct a pat-down similar to what I’ve seen ‘cops’ do in the movies. All out in the open. I mechanically went through the process, trying not to flinch at the thought of being groped and patted by those yellow-gloved hands. Next, a full body scan where you had to look directly ahead, legs apart and hands above your head. In about 5 seconds, the Rapid Scan 1000 device – informally known as the ‘backscatter’ – would then screen you for any hidden metallic and other potentially dangerous objects. Those in the know say this is the in-thing for all US bound travellers nowadays.

Then there were the smug police and other security personnel that seemed to intently observe travellers; some a little more than others – as they walked up and down the long queues. I heard they are called ‘behaviour detection officers’. Their open stares were peeled to pick out anything in the least suspicious-looking – like someone sweating with the aircon on perhaps.

The brief stopover in Dakar was also colourful. Security men and women methodically searched over and under, probed and almost tore apart all the seats that had been vacated by passengers whose final destination was Senegal. A little later, everyone was asked to take possession of their hand luggage. This would enable them to quickly spot any unattended bag and remove it in case it was a bomb or something. For a moment there was an unclaimed bag in one of the overhead lockers, which of course caused a bit of a flurry including the calling in of what looked like a stand-by bomb squad. It later emerged that the bag belonged to an elderly Russian who neither spoke nor understood English, and therefore had not understood the instruction to take possession of his bag.

Many hours later, we touched down at Dulles Airport. As I waited for the baggage to arrive, an announcement was repeated at almost 10 minute intervals warning travellers never to leave their bags unattended as they risked being ‘removed’ by the security detail with a great chance of them getting damaged in the process. I later discovered that bomb threats are a common, almost every day thing in Washington. On one of the days our host was very late for a conference because she had had to go back to her house and fetch her car after there had been a bomb threat at one of the subway stations.

On my way back to Zimbabwe this week, I went through the now familiar processes. As we stood in the long queues, I could see all the frustrated and annoyed looks of travellers, some of whom really risked missing connecting flights. Security seemed to be taking a lot longer than usual.

Later I reflected to myself, what kind of life is this when it is punctuated by so much fear?

Understandably, security is meant to protect us innocent civilians, but for a country to be constantly looking over its shoulder for fear of being attacked is indeed a sad way of life. They say in Shona kuvhunduka chati kwatara hunge uine katurikwa, loosely translated to mean that he who is uncharacteristically always jumpy knows what he is guilty of.

I have friends who firmly believe the Americans brought this upon themselves, bullying and sticking their nose into other people’s business; attempting to run the world. So many have a bone to chew with them including Iraqis, Afgans, Pakistanis, Somali’s and now Libyans. But more attacks certainly can be anticipated now that Bin Laden has been neutralised. I cannot help but recall the words of one Somali in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, a harrowing and somewhat fictionalised account of the happenings of October 3rd, 1993 in Mogadishu when a US Delta Force military raid went terribly wrong resulting in the gruesome deaths of 18 soldiers. He said: “Didn’t the Americans realise that for every leader they arrested, there were dozens of brothers, cousins, sons and nephews to take his place? … They were trying to take down a clan, the most ancient and efficient social organization known to man.”

The question is; how long can a country keep this up? Obviously whomever it is they are afraid of, would attack when least expected and wouldn’t be so stupid as to attempt passing through all that security strapped with bombs?

But I guess nothing can be left to chance.

Some advice for job seekers

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Thursday, March 24th, 2011 by Natasha Msonza

What NOT to do when applying for a job vacancy:

1. NEVER write at the end of your resume that referees will be made available upon request. Unless you assume REFEREES and REFERENCES are one and the same thing.
2. NEVER append your CV as a link to some kind of a down loadable web application. Just attach a word or PDF document, plain and simple. What if the reviewer has poor internet connectivity?
3. Try to include referees from some of the organizations you claim to have worked for before.
4. Working for 7 different organizations over a space of 2 years is not a very consoling attribute.
5. Use reader-friendly fonts like Arial, Calibri and Times New Roman, and the less colourful the better. Black and other dark colours give a more professional look.
6. Always spell check and ensure that your CV doesn’t reflect all the gory track changes detail. This can be accomplished by simply finalizing your edited document without mark-up or simply editing outside track changes.
7. Avoid appending a photograph of yourself unless you are absolutely sure that it will work to your advantage, or if you have been specifically asked to do so.
8. You never single handedly reduced the HIV prevalence rate in Zimbabwe.
9. Make your CV up to date to show you really mean it, like for example 0912 is now 0772. In view of this being a small world, it is important to keep track of your referees’ location, contact details or current job.
10. Lastly, if I had the PM as a referee, there are certain vacancies I just wouldn’t apply for.

Plastic bag ban

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Friday, January 14th, 2011 by Natasha Msonza

Yesterday I passed through TM Avondale supermarket picking up a few things. In the queue ahead, an elderly customer purchasing an assortment of beverages was informed that the supermarket was no longer issuing free plastic bags. He would have to purchase one for R1 or one of the fancy green bags that cost a lot more. Though he was both surprised and annoyed to say the least, the customer ventured to ask the reason for that development. I strained with great interest to hear what the till operator would say. He sighed and said dismissively that oh it was some long story about preserving the environment that would take a lot of time (or one he couldn’t care) to explain.

Due to growing concerns over the environment and increased pressure from the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), the government recently issued a directive for supermarkets to stop issuing plastic bags to customers. As a result, plastic bags are now being sold as a measure to discourage their use. TM Avondale is among several other supermarkets that have not bothered to put up explanatory notices for the benefit of its customers.

The directive from government to ban plastic bags is praiseworthy, and Zimbabwe has joined a few other countries in the world who have implemented this. Although we applaud the bold move, it is interesting how there is very little public awareness over why certain directives such as this are being instituted. Unless I missed it – save for a few news articles in the press and Environment Minister Francis Nhema making an announcement broadcast one or two days on the news – there has hardly been any public awareness campaigns to explain things to ordinary people. But at least we know that at the end of this year when COP17 touches down in Durban, Zimbabwe would have demonstrated to the world that it has taken baby steps towards mitigation.

While I was in South Africa during my annual break, I noticed how companies like Eskom constantly run public campaigns in all forms imaginable – why and how citizens can consume less electricity. This is one company I have to go all out to beg its customers to buy less of its product. Just an aside. The point is; it takes little effort for government to spread the message more vigorously – especially on the state run broadcaster.

I think that just issuing out directives is not enough to get public cooperation or instil a sense of buy- in, unless this is viewed as immaterial. While R1 for a plastic bag is a deterrent for many and might in the long run achieve the objective of getting customers to bring own carrier bags – many people are still willing to forego small change that would have otherwise been given in the form of sweets or a credit note for a plastic bag. It is a small price to pay versus clutching all one’s purchases to one’s chest. In some quarters, the public perception is that this is just another ploy by the retailer to further fleece the customer of hard earned cash.

Perhaps it is indeed a long story, but one which I doubt the enforcers of the ban themselves really understand or care to explain further.

The long and short of the story is that plastic does not decompose and is one of the biggest environmentally-unfriendly polluters blamed for clogging drains and waterways and killing wildlife. The main options available for its destruction are either burning or recycling, of which the former option contributes a lot to the carbon emissions largely responsible for the changes in climate. Recycling on the other hand has for some reason not been a very popular or viable business in Zimbabwe. However, more thought needs to be put in aside from banning plastic bags. Discarded plastic soft drink containers and cans also do not dispose easily and are other headaches the state needs to deal with. They are a big eyesore in Harare, especially the avenues area.

On the flipside of things, it is worth exploring whether or not the ‘ban’ is actually working. What they have done essentially is to ban the free issuance of plastic bags rather than saying there should be no plastic bags at all. What this means is, a lot of people still forget to carry own carrier bags (me included) and only remember at the till point such that they have no choice but to purchase the R1 plastic bags. A total ban of plastic bags and concentrating on the manufacture and selling of recyclable eco-bags would ensure that customers remember to carry own shopping bags to the store. But I suppose this would be too drastic a measure at this point and perhaps the plan is to move in that direction in the near future.

The other concerning thing is, there is no telling whether this directive somehow skipped clothing shops, because yesterday I bought a few t-shirts in a department store and again, only remembered at the till point that I had forgot to bring a carrier bag and would probably do the clutch-to-the-chest thing rather than part with R1. But the kind young man behind the counter silently packed the clothes in a nice thick plastic bag. I thought he had gone ahead to charge me without asking first, so I declined the bag. He looked at me in surprise; you don’t want a plastic bag? After a brief discussion, turned out the bag was for free.

As for the elderly customer buying beverages at TM Avondale, rather than part with R1, he preferred to scoop up all his bottles and clutch them precariously to his chest. Apart from thinking the directive is working to some extent, I hoped the old guy had a car waiting outside.