WHAT is life like for women in a country where inflation is 300 million percent and counting? What is life like for women in a country where their life expectancy is 34 years? What is life like for women in a country where three men hold a nation hostage?
It is difficult to answer these questions. In fact there are no easy answers. It is only once you visit a country that has been torn apart that you can fully understand the implications of this dismembering and subsequently what constitutes life.
But the media has become very good at reporting the pulse of Zimbabwe via palatable sound bites and this reporting has been such a recurring blip on the so-called media electro-cardiogram that we no longer notice it, we no longer notice that it has flat-lined.
But despite this women are fighting to stay alive. They are fighting to survive. And in Zimbabwe right now the contradictions of this struggle run deep. I listen to stories of women who have nothing to eat, who forage for roots, wild fruit and rats. Stories of desperation, displacement and despair. But the magic of capital plays interesting games in a context of dire need and so the development of a highly sophisticated informal economy means the deprivation coexists with plenty.
And everything and anything can be conjured up if you have the money, just not in the places you would expect to find it: petrol is available not at a garage, but under a tree on a quiet side road in Harareâ€™s avenues, at an office on the ninth floor of an office block, or after a quick phone call to arrange a pick-up (if you can get through given the ever breaking down mobile networks and stolen fixed line cables).
Sugar and rice can be purchased from a car boot, and chickens from the hardware store near the train station. Some fresh produce can be bought from women selling on the side of the road, a victory given that roadside vendors were â€œcleaned up and outâ€ after Operation Murambatsvina removed the filth, but then given that the country has â€œdollarisedâ€ you have to have â€œmaUSAâ€ â€“â€“ as its known locally â€“â€“ or US dollars to make your purchases even of a few tomatoes, sweet potatoes or greens.
So if you donâ€™t have access to â€œforexâ€, you donâ€™t have anything right now and basic commodities will remain an illusion. Depending on the formal sector for jobs or access to services means you just donâ€™t survive.
More so because there is no cash and the endless queues outside the banks are evidence of the difficulty that women have getting their, and you can take your pick of â€œre-valuedâ€, â€œde-valuedâ€, â€œunder-valuedâ€, but certainly hard-earned cash out of the banks. This means that everyone is trying to make a quick buck, to wheel or deal to generate maUSAâ€™s and remittances from diaspora workers abroad go a long way.
And while this may read like a comedy of errors, women, whether in the leafy suburbs or in the remote rural areas, are tired of the struggle for survival, of the inconveniences, of deprivation, of trying to figure out where to get the next meal to put on the table.
Women are tired of the collapsed healthcare system, characterised by a lack of drugs, the shortage of personnel and the breakdown of equipment. They are tired of an ailing education system characterised by continued strikes by teachers due to poor remuneration, lack of supplies such as textbooks and stationery, delays in the writing of exams and in 2008, owing to elections and political instability, schools operating for only 65 days in the year.
Women have had enough of the electricity and water cuts that sometimes last days and weeks, tired of the violence, the grave politically motivated and sexualised violence that women and women activists of all ages have suffered during the post-election period and which has continued to prevail due to impunity.
Women are fatigued with having their roles dictated by the private sphere even when entering the public and are fed up of the months and of the retrospective years of waiting, waiting while the quality of womenâ€™s lives continues to decline.
And the three men and their teams continue to deliberate.
The election onÂ March 29 2008 was one in a series â€“â€“ eight in the last eight years â€“â€“ meant to break the stranglehold of the increasingly authoritarian Mugabe-led Zanu PF regime. With the birth in 1999 of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), elections as an expression of democratic practise were meant to do just that: to reinstate a new and democratic dispensation.
But as history records, the extreme politically motivated violence and accompanying post-election machinations have meant that elections have lost their integrity in Zimbabwe and the voting public are both traumatised and fatigued by the process.
Â If we are serious about the so-called change that Zimbabwe needs, it is important to ask what is the kind of change we are hoping for. Should we not be concerned about the quality as well as the quantity of the change? What exactly is the prescription or framework that will resuscitate Zimbabwe?
Are we going to be ushered into an age that is even more intolerable and dehumanising? We live in a pitiless era of neoliberal market dependence whose end is even more poverty and misery. It will require much more radical thinking of what is possible and much more imagination of what is desirable for a so-called â€œnewâ€ Zimbabwe.
And once the current impasse has been overcome and the ink has dried on the agreements and deals, what then? Will we, as we did in 1980, breathe a sigh of relief and put our feet up, basking in the glow of victory for this â€œdemocratic movementâ€? Will women be co-opted in order to once again serve male agendas? How do feminist activists conceptualise the work ahead? But let me not get carried away by critical questions for some uncertain future.
So while the talks deadlock and the weeks roll into months women are sacrificed, a country is sacrificed, a sacrifice made on the altar of power of male ego, political survival, posturing and self-interest. The deliberation of three men is holding the country hostage, and right now it is not clear how the current round of talks are going to bring food back into the shops, teachers back into the schoolsÂ and medicines back into the clinics.
As long as the male leaders maintain â€œZanuâ€ political cultures and party specific agendas they are paying lip service to the principles of freedom and justice outlined in the GPA and a new Zimbabwe will be in a state of constant deadlock. As long as the talks continue to happen behind closed doors, holding our â€˜newâ€™ leaders accountable will always remain intangible.
But while the men talk in the golden glow of the Rainbow Towers in Harare, women are saying enough! On October 16 at the very same venue, Zimbabwean women met, deliberated, and had the militant foresight to engage in direct action by occupying public space in an extremely hostile and policed environment, not only to call attention to injustices in Zimbabwe but to catalyse action and demand that the talks end immediately.
We are on the frontline of this war and for too long we have suffered. We want change now! We are worn down but not broken! We are here! Look at us, starving. All we want is a â€œnormalâ€ country with â€œnormalâ€ systems that work.
We will continue to create community where the social fabric has been ripped apart, we will continue to share scarce resources in a context of extreme deprivation, and we will continue to fight and act, to make our voices heard in order to sustain and make ourselves strong so we can challenge sexism and realise the dreams and possibilities of a new Zimbabwe as full and equally participating citizens in all spheres. â€” kubatana.net.
Shereen Essof is a Zimbabwean feminist and revolutionary activist currently based in Cape Town, South Africa.