“To me, it’s a human right,” he said.
The interview was headlined as “a gay rights U-turn” by Tsvangirai, but, as I was reporting last year, his actual position has been somewhat opaque.
The statement was part of a substantial interview with the BBC’s premier news show ‘Newsnight.’
Tsvangirai told the BBC that he would defend gay rights if he became president in the forthcoming Zimbabwean elections and he said that sexual orientation should be included in Zimbabwe’s constitution, which is currently in a lengthy and controversial revision process.
Although he has been widely reported, including in this BBC story, as being publicly opposed to homosexuality prior to this interview, the history of both him and his MDC party on LGBT human rights is far more opaque.
Last September, this is what he told The Guardian about proposals that the country’s new constitution offer protections for LGBT:
“We’re not writing a constitution for the west, we’re writing a constitution for Zimbabweans. It is Zimbabweans that have to give their views regarding that particular issue. I hope they will be progressive, they will be liberal, but I know how Zimbabweans feel about that particular subject.”
Asked for his personal view, Tsvangirai said: “There’s no such thing as personal view. If I give my personal view, people will say the prime minister is influencing what the outcome should be. My personal view is known publicly and I don’t need to repeat that.”
Last year, internationally reported remarks by Tsvangirai at a rally alongside President Robert Mugabe seemed to suggest the opposition to homosexuality which the BBC reports he had. Afrik.com reported Tsvangirai’s remarks as: “I don’t agree with the idea of a man breathing hard on the neck of another man while humping him.” An official in Tsvangirai’s office later told reporters that the Prime Minister had only been expressing his personal views and not those of his party.
In an open letter to Tsvangirai, the Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe, which includes Zimbabwean NGOs and civil society organizations, questioned whether the remarks quoted in the Zanu-PF supporting the Herald newspaper, which then went around the world, were actually made by Tsvangirai. They asked:
If it is an accurate reflection of the Prime Minister’s response, and his personal views, what is the position of the MDC about homosexuality, gay rights and the protection of gay rights in the Constitution?
However, according to an open letter released at a press conference by Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) and the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Tsvangirai wrote in his weekly newsletter at the same time as those reported remarks:
There can be no place in the new Zimbabwe for hate speech or the persecution of any sector of our population based on race, gender, tribe, culture, sexual orientation or political affiliation. All of us are entitled to our own opinions on certain values and beliefs, but in order to move our nation forward and achieve national reconciliation and healing, we have to uphold and foster the fundamental principle of tolerance, including tolerance of people that have chosen to live, believe and vote differently from ourselves.
For too long, many of you, my fellow Zimbabweans, have not had the freedom of choice. Our new constitution shall be the cornerstone of a new society that embraces this particular freedom of choice and tolerance of both majority and minority views.
GALZ also wrote to Tsvangirai asking for clarification on the reported remarks but did not get a response.
Then a month after this letter was released, the Select Committee for the country’s new constitution (Copac) said that no protections for LGBT would be included and that their ‘outreach teams’ will not elicit any views on the issue.
Copac chairperson Munyaradzi Paul Mangwana said:
“During the outreach training programme, the issue was never raised. The issue of gays and lesbians has been shunned by all the three principals to the Global Political Agreement.”
The principals to that agreement which the new constitution is part of are Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and the divided opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.
Mangwana also said it was key for the nation to focus on issues of development rather than to focus on “weird Western cultures.”
Why Tsvangirai’s party dropped support for LGBT people — in its original submission on the constitution MDC-T (his faction) had said that “gays and lesbians should be protected by the constitution” — might be explained by political maneuvering: the Zanu-PF assault on the constitutional consultation and their use of LGBT as a ‘wedge issue’, as we have seen elsewhere in Africa, such as in Zambia’s Presidential election last month.
Despite Mugabe’s rhetoric, arrests of gays have been rare and the raids appear to be an attempt by Zanu-PF to bait the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has no coherent position on gay rights. Zanu-PF could be looking to put Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on the spot – he cannot condemn the arrests without being seen as supporting gay rights, which are strongly opposed by his supporters. But he cannot support the arrests as this will anger his civil society allies and Western supporters, who want an end to years of restrictions on personal freedom under Mugabe.
Zimbabwe Independent reported that LGBT rights are being used by Zanu-PF party to push through Mugabe’s version of a new Zimbabwe constitution, known as the ‘Kariba draft’:
The issue of gay rights has taken centre stage in the constitution outreach programme with Zanu PF reportedly telling villagers in Mashonaland West that any constitutional provisions outside what is in the controversial Kariba draft will promote same sex marriages and homosexuality.
Villagers in President Robert Mugabe’s rural home in Zvimba, 110km west of Harare, and neighbouring Chitomborwizi in Makonde district now strongly believe that those calling for a people-driven constitution, who are opposed to the Kariba draft, want to include the issue of gay rights in the new constitution. Zanu PF, the villagers allege, is using homosexuality, something which they know people – particularly those in rural areas – are strongly opposed to, to make sure that they parrot what is in the Kariba draft.
Villagers claimed that Zanu PF campaigned for the Kariba draft, written by the three political parties in the inclusive government, during meetings prior to the constitution outreach programme. Villagers in Chief Chirau’s area, also known as Kawondera village in Zvimba, say that they were addressed by soldiers three weeks ago, who told them that they should demand a constitution with an executive president who has far-reaching powers to appoint without any consultation.
The villagers refused to be named for fear of being victimised for adopting what might be perceived as “anti-Zanu PF” positions on the constitution.
In that open letter to Tsvangeri, the Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe cited the current situation in Uganda of a serious and violent backlash against LGBT. They warned Tsvangirai that the encouragement by politicians of prejudice against minorities “can easily fuel violence, hatred, and intolerance, which can divide the country.”
“It is imperative,” they wrote, “that politicians use their public profile and status to promote tolerance, encourage diversity, and embrace all sectors of the population. To do otherwise is an egregious, offensive violation of the spirit of democracy, peace, human rights and ubuntu [an ethical concept of African origin emphasizing community, sharing and generosity] on which the Movement for Democratic Change is founded.”
It would appear that Tsvangirai is now listening to Zimbabwean civil society like Kubatana Trust. However, resistance has already started. In Harare, Tsvangirai’s spokesperson Luke Tamborinyoka reacted to the BBC interview by telling AFP that the prime minister still believes that “the issue of homosexuality is alien in Africa.”
“However, he is a social democrat,” said Tamborinyoka. “What he was saying is that ordinary people’s rights must be respected as long as they do their things in private.”
Photo credit: Daylife