I have always believed that advocates are created; that through their life experiences and influences they are shaped and indoctrinated into beliefs that force them into action. I was pleased that Fadzayi Mahere proved this theory to be untrue. This is someone whose passion for advocacy started before she could probably even spell the word, when she spoke up to her mother about how unfair it was that she had to do the dishes because she was a girl, and that her little brother got more food because he was a boy. If that’s not in the veins, then I don’t know what is. With a dream of being a lawyer and a judge at the Hague at the age of 14, to get into politics at 18 and “at 20, to max out completely on my potential and be remembered”; now in her early 30s I can confirm that most of the goals on this list have a massive green tick next to them. But I wouldn’t expect any less from her. Here is why.
Fadzayi was my senior and Prefect in High School. She was the most feared of all because she played strictly by the rules and was incorruptible – every junior student’s nightmare! You could charm any other Prefect out of a punishment, but with Fadzayi you knew that if you did the crime, you would do the time. She has always been fiercely disciplined and focused (while her peers were stressing about dresses for the school dance, Fadzayi was the girl more interested in making sure her she completed the year with flying academic colours). So to anyone who grew up knowing her, it was no surprise that at a critical time in Zimbabwe’s political and economic timeline characterized by “daily injustice – including an unaccountable government” she realized “it was important to stand up against that injustice as a matter of principle”. Didn’t I tell you about my Prefect Fadzayi? In her words, “I was tired of complaining, and the negativity and powerlessness that came with it. I figured I had done enough of pointing out the problems and it was time to be the change I wished to see in our political system. “ And just like that, Fadzayi declared to run for a parliamentary seat as an independent candidate in Zimbabwe’s 2018 General Elections – no Godfathers or funding – just a girl with a dream, and a community who believed in her. Isn’t it amazing how those who start from where they are with what they have always make a name for themselves?
We all know, it is difficult for an established, financially buoyant, respected, mature man to run for political office, so imagine the odds against a single, female 33 year old lawyer with dreadlocks and a penchant for pantsuits – everything was used against her daily and “openly in the media where my views and success were attributed to my father. My marital status (was) always a point of conversation when I was in the process of discussing something important like our manifesto and my plan for progress.” Before people digested or critiqued what she was offering as a candidate for office, it seemed the primary concern was with why this young lady’s priority was working towards her vision for her country instead of focusing on getting married and having children? It reminded me of those high school dance days all over again.
One of her most successful strategies is that she accepted that she needed help. “I had a strong communications team that was well trained and effective. They equipped me with the necessary media training. This went a long way in redirecting the conversation. I had an amazing campaign team that kept me inspired and reminded me daily of why we started and why our work mattered. I also just developed the head strength not to care about the trolls and hate. It’s a skill I have retained to this day.” The trolls and hate never spared her, with mentions upon mentions filled with name-calling, slander and abuse. No one ever called her incompetent or questioned her policies, but they persisted with the narrative that a single and successful young lady must have sexual skeletons to attribute to her accomplishments. Either that or her father must have pulled a few strings in her favour. Her reaction? “I ignored it and moved on. It was important to keep the main thing the main thing. The world is not yet ready for a woman who fights back publicly.” Wow. Let me let that sink in for you.
When will women in Africa be able to fight back publically? Its one thing for us to chime into global movements and conversations, but we’re all anticipating the “action” part of this era at home. “It will take time – many years, perhaps decades. The mindsets of mothers, fathers, teachers, women and all of society would really need to change. Women may also have to break down the barriers themselves. The women’s movement would need to be revived and feminism would need to be viewed as normal and acceptable.” Across most of Africa, the norm still stands that “An outspoken, confident woman who’s at the top is generally viewed as countercultural. Society tends to view such a woman as aggressive and difficult”. It would explain why most women prefer to play more quietly behind the scenes, lest you are ready for unsubstantiated attacks on your alleged sexual immorality and of course accusations of nepotism. How is it possible that in Africa in the 21st century the sum of a woman’s worth is still her father, her wedding finger, her womb or her vagina?
Fadzayi may not have secured her seat in the election, but she has secured a place for herself in history as a trailblazer in normalizing strong, focused, young women to Zimbabwe. We all know the quiet whispers behind closed doors of praise for her far surpass those of opposition to her. Politics will always be politics, and my take is that her calling is far greater than the unpredictable dynamics of the corridors of government power. In simply being herself, and being strong enough to stand firm in her choices and outlook on life – she has reminded us that life is about making the choices that we believe in and standing firm.
Her mandate is clear; “I wish that every woman could be empowered about her constitutional and legal rights in any setting – from marriage to work to life because knowledge is power. Power leads to action. I hope that women in the future never have to deal with challenges their male counterparts don’t have to go through including sexualized insults if they choose to get into public office, prejudgment of their skills and character by society and gender-based discrimination in the corporate or professional world. I aspire for a world where the silent screams of women who encounter sexual harassment, violence and assault find a voice that is heard and a remedy that is effective.”
My take – there is plenty more where that came from!