Zimbabwe: Mugabe arrest provokes positive response

Keith Goddard of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) says last October’s OutRage! protest against President Mugabe has had huge positive benefits.

When we first heard about OutRage!’s attempt to arrest President Mugabe of Zimbabwe during his annual shopping expedition to London late last year, none of us realised the massive impact it would have back here in Zimbabwe. Four months later, the incident is still being referred to with amazement and admiration by the media, opposition politicians and, of course, by gays and lesbians.

What is really heartening is the way the OutRage! protest has raised the credibility of GALZ within the general human rights movement in Zimbabwe. Because OutRage! highlighted the torture of Zimbabwean journalists and the genocide in Matabeleland – as well as abuses against the gay community – the media and mainstream human rights groups in this country took the protest very seriously. They began to realise the links between Mugabe’s attacks on gays and his other human rights violations. As a result, GALZ’s voice has been heard loud and clear, and with greater respect than ever before.

Far from damaging the lesbian and gay community or setting back the struggle for gay equality, OutRage!’s attempted citizen’s arrest of President Mugabe has produced many benefits.

It is true that two gay men and one lesbian were assaulted by off-duty policemen who accused them of ordering the attack on Mugabe. OutRage! cannot, however, be blamed for these attacks: the responsibility lies squarely with the perpetrators of this violence and the anti-gay rhetoric of the President, which has had a devastating effect on our community. In 1995, Mugabe referred to lesbians and gays as “worse than dogs and pigs” and undeserving of “any rights at all”. He has called for the arrest of anyone parading publicly as a homosexual.

Far outweighing any negative consequences of OutRage!’s actions, we have witnessed over 300 press articles, news items, letters, radio phone-in programmes and cartoons relating to the OutRage! “arrest” of Mugabe. Many of these have also included mention of gay human rights issues. Most notably, GALZ was, for the first time, invited to appear on national television. Never before has the State allowed GALZ to speak uncensored.

Another breakthrough was a Sunday Mail feature about Herbert Mondhlani, a professional black Zimbabwean gay man. This was the first occasion that the state-controlled newspaper admitted that black lesbian and gay people exist independently of the white gay community.

Although GALZ did not order the OutRage! protest and had no prior knowledge of it, we were deluged with letters of congratulations. Members of the public phoned GALZ to add their voice of approval. Many ordinary Zimbabweans who contacted us –gay and straight– expressed great disappointment that OutRage! did not succeed in getting Mugabe arrested and put on trial.

Comments on the OutRage action by the Zimbabwean public indicate the declining popularity of Mugabe. They see their President and his wife enjoying a rich lifestyle on the backs of impoverished Zimbabweans. Peter Tatchell caught the general mood here perfectly when he said: “It is sickening the way he [Mugabe] comes to London to buy luxuries at Harrods while millions of Zimbabweans are living in poverty”.

Mugabe’s bizarre reaction to the OutRage! protest has only served to further damage his public standing. His claim that the protest was a plot hatched by Tony Blair’s “gay gangster” Government, MI5 and OutRage! has highlighted the deteriorating state of our national leadership. Even hardline supporters of Mugabe have been hard put to swallow such an extraordinary suggestion. Thanks to OutRage!, Mugabe is more discredited than ever and GALZ has won new respect and allies in the human rights movement in Zimbabwe.