Last week Harare’s CBD was rocked by two very different, but equally important protests. On one hand, several civic society groups including -Katswe Sistahood and the Women’s Coalition- organised a protest against Prosecutor General, Johannes Tomana ,whose statements a few days before in The Chronicle seemed to indicate he was in favour of allowing 12 year-old girls the ability to consent to sexual intercourse. His comments sparked fear and outrage in all sectors of society and Tomana was roundly condemned in media and social media alike. In protest of these statements, and in solidarity with young women and girls, a march was organised to demand Tomana’s resignation. The march was held last Tuesday at Townhouse in Harare CBD, ending at the Ministry of Justice offices.
The very next day, different calls of protest echoed in the CBD, this time by a movement led by the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe. It is widely acknowledged that vending, which has taken over almost every square inch of pavement in Harare’s CBD has been poorly managed over the years and currently presents a genuine health and safety concern. However, the government solution to this widely-agreed problem, to unceremoniously evict the vendors using military force, has been met with resistance from vendors who have in the past few weeks defied the initial June 8th deadline to clear out of the CBD to designated areas. A deadline extension of June 26th was announced, and the June 24th protest was a show of vendors’ resistance. The vendors, armed with a petition against the government directive of forced eviction, made a dramatic march to parliament where their petition was delivered.
Two protests. Two different results.
Two protests. Both protesting injustice. One day after the other. It begs the question: why did these two protests not unite?
What are We Marching For?
The protest led by women’s organisations seemed rather hastily organised and the event perhaps suffered because of this with a poor turnout. In all fairness, there wasn’t as much time to prepare and go ahead with the protest while the issue was still topical, but would our cause not have been better served if we, as a movement, had united with the larger movement of vendors?
The protest led by the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe boasted hundreds of protesters, carrying signs, angrily and loudly protesting a situation that they had no control over and which for most was a matter of literal survival. As this protest featured the vendors themselves protesting something that directly affected them, it was packed, eliciting the deployment of about 100 riot police who blockaded their way and prevented the crowd of protestors from delivering their protest to parliament, in the end only allowing four to bring the petition forth.
The protest by women’s organizations took place with a few dedicated women and girls’ rights activists. Yes, they managed to deliver their petition to the Ministry of Justice, but a combined effort – between those protesting against Tomana’s statements and the vendors – could have been a powerful show of solidarity, showing two aggrieved parties working together and forging alliances that would allow combined voices to carry further and louder.
In the end, of the two protests, the one organised by the vendors last Wednesday gathered national attention. Vendors’ rights are also high tension and very emotive in Zimbabwe’s current economic downturn. No matter how we feel about their new make-shift market places in the CBD, it is undeniable that this is the last resort of people who have no options but to sell their wares on prime real estate in a difficult economy. Furthermore, the City Council has now admitted it does not have the financial resources to facilitate the relocation of vendors to the designated locations that had previously been spoken of.
We Achieve More Working Together
In fact, government has not carried through its threat to evict the vendors in the face of such a solid display of dissent. On the other hand, Tomana who spoke on Monday night on the popular radio show The Platform with ZiFm DJ Ruvheneko Parirenyatwa shows no signs of backing down. Tomana’s remarks (whether you believe his backpedalling response of being misquoted by media elements out to get him) highlighted the law’s troubling history of denying justice to young girls who can find themselves in circumstances where they are exposed to sexual activity too early by family members who might attempt to marry them off, or who are preyed upon by unscrupulous men who can easily manipulate young, immature minds.
In the face of last week’s twin demonstrations, some may be asking if protests are still effective. And looking at last week’s events, one could answer yes and no at the same time. Marches where the voices of the most affected are most audible certainly do work. And many times, the women’s movement has drawn important attention to causes this way. The question we might ask is how to include the girls affected directly by Tomana’s statements into our activism. One way would have been to link the cause to the vendors’ protest; because young female vendors run the risk of falling into many forms of abuse if they cease to have this as their only source of income and outlet to some power to make decisions about their lives. Because all issues around injustice are intersectional and make better sense when they are fought collectively.
Perhaps the lesson to be learnt here is that next time, we need to march in solidarity, not singularity.
Main image from www.modernghana.com