The President of the labour court, Justice Evangelista Kabasa, last week ruled that you cannot fire someone on the basis of their sexual orientation. The ruling follows a challenge by Raymond Sibanda of his dismissal for misconduct by the Ministry of Youth and Economic Affairs on the basis that he was involved in “gay practices” that put “the name of the ministry into disrespect and disrepute”.
While her full judgment is yet to be handed down and analysed, parts of the internet have started celebrating; mainstream platforms have largely, and tellingly so, kept mum on the subject. Nevertheless, this ruling remains of significant symbolic value, and views have generally been celebratory about the fact that the principle of non-discrimination has been held in this case to extend to sexual orientation in the workplace.
While this decision is certainly of importance as an indication that certain parts of the legal system do recognise an obligation to protect the rights of queer Zimbabweans, we cannot deny that queerphobia in Zimbabwe remains rife, institutionalised and jealously guarded, as though prejudice and discriminatory practices are a heritage to be proud of.
As a people, Zimbabweans like to come together – even across their political lines – for some queerphobic hate speech, managing to insert a spot of this into pretty much all aspects of public life. As you may remember, in September President Mugabe went off speech at the United Nations General Assembly, with the now infamous “we are not gays” outburst. This detour came about as he discussed our commitment to human rights, and registered his disdain for what he labelled “new rights”, as though there is anything new about queerness, and also as though there is something offputting about protecting the rights of all Zimbabwe’s citizens.
While we are complicit by our silence, we are also complicit by our own words. When we laugh at jokes at comedy shows with queerphobic content, or share such such material in ‘jest’ as part of conversation, we are engaging in societal queerphobia. Recently, I sat through a comedy show at a popular arts festival where three of four comedians had virulently queerphobic content including, but not limited to, intimations that queer men are rapists and paedophiles. Don’t even get me started on the femmephobia in these sets. When I raised my concerns with fellow poets I attended the shows with, I was told I was being too sensitive and that that was how comedy worked, apparently; that is, by further vilifying marginalised communities, affirming bigots and contributing to the perpetuation of state-sanctioned violence.
What does queerness have to do with the capacity to work?
Allow me to return to Sibanda’s case here to underscore what I am saying. Sibanda is a former employee of the Ministry of Youth and Economic Empowerment, and was arrested in December 2013 following a raid of a Christmas party hosted by Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) in yet another case of queerphobic harassment. Sibanda was arrested on allegations of public indecency and paid an “admission of guilt” fine.
It is on the back of these incidents that Sibanda was then subjected to a disciplinary hearing on the basis of “misconduct”, namely, as previously stated, “putting the name of the ministry into disrespect and disrepute” by “engaging in gay practices”.
Sibanda’s case then seems to have hinged on whether or not his mere admission to the charges the police levelled against him could be equated to “engaging in gay practices” and further, whether or not the dismissal was valid. Justice Kabasa ruled in Sibanda’s favour, adding that the case was without merit.
We don’t actually know whether or not Sibanda is queer and quite frankly that’s none of our business. What we do know and what we need to be concerned about is that A WHOLE government thought it fit to dismiss someone because they thought he might be queer.
What does queerness have to do with capacity to effectively carry out a job?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Reports also indicate that while the Attorney General’s office has agreed to the invalidity of the dismissal, it however had gone ahead and defended the Ministry as it had been instructed that it was important to clearly indicate that “the government does not support gay activities”.
I’d really like to get a sense of how the case was handled; as from what I can see, it seems that the argument Sibanda’s lawyers led on his behalf was essentially along the lines of ‘none of what you’re saying proves that I’m gay, how could it prove that I’m gay, how dare you fire me for being gay without showing that I am gay?’ They don’t seem to have argued a non-discrimination case at all. And what makes me tilt my head about this line of defence is that it essentially adopts the premise that were Sibanda shown to be queer, it would possibly be okay that he get fired.
I would also like to get an understanding of what it is we mean by the term “gay practices”? What are those? Could somebody please explain to me how this phrase makes any sort of sense? It sounds as though it is born out of a combination of fear-mongering and othering and I’m not sure why it even exists in our government’s vocabulary?
The ruling apparently gives Sibanda the right to be reinstated, which is great in the sense that jobs are few and hard to come by. However, I query the propriety of such a ruling as he will clearly be faced with a hostile work environment, that is still queerphobic. Is the Ministry being given a positive obligation to ensure that their work environment is queer-friendly? If not, how meaningful is this ruling on a practical basis?
We are all complicit
Zimbabwe has many “thought leaders”, self-proclaimed and otherwise, but you wouldn’t know it from the deafening silence the this case, or the President’s remarks have elicited. Where are all the so-called progressives? The people allegedly committed to human rights for all? What about the people who are so dedicated to the dissemination of information on the protections offered by the bill of rights in our constitution? They are certainly not using their upper-middle class heteronormative male privilege to challenge the fact that the President is content to discriminate against his own people as though he isn’t supposed to represent us all.
He says these horrendously prejudicial things at home and abroad in our name. And we let him.
There are queer Zimbabweans, and Zimbabwean society and its institutions continues to try to act like there aren’t. Clearly there is a war being waged on queer bodies. And we, the silent citizens, are complicit. And dear Zimbabweans, please also take note that the phrase “the gays” is never appropriate. It’s rude and erasure-laden, as there are a myriad queer identities.
We really need to starting talking about our complicity and get to a place where we’re effectively dealing with queerphobia, protecting the rights of our queer citizens and creating a culture where casual queer bashing is not looked at as proof of passing the Standardised Zimbabwean Authenticity Test™.
Because it isn’t.
Main image taken from www.guardianlv.com