HARARE, Zimbabwe — Thirty years ago, on April 18, 1980, Zimbabwe was born amid joyous celebrations that the country had at last won its freedom from colonial rule after a protracted bush war.

Today there is little enthusiasm for the southern African nation’s 30th anniversary of independence as it continues to languish under the iron fist of President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party.

Bereft of policies that might rescue the country from the morass to which he has consigned it, Mugabe, 86, has turned to what he believes is a panacea: Bashing gays.

He thinks the issue of sexual preference should be excluded from the new constitution that is being drawn up by parties represented in the government of national unity.

“It is not worthy of discussion,” he declared at a ceremony to mark Women’s Day recently. “Those that engage in such acts are insane. We cannot tolerate this, otherwise the dead will rise against us.”

It is 15 years since Mugabe made his notorious speech comparing homosexuals to pigs and dogs in front of a distinguished audience that included Nobel laureates attending a book fair whose theme was human rights.

Mugabe made it clear that under his rule gay people don’t have any rights. Vilified abroad as an ignorant bigot, Mugabe worked to build a domestic coalition against gay rights of church groups, traditional leaders and politicians of all persuasions. Many were happy to climb aboard his bandwagon including whites and Indians.

Most analysts at the time missed the sub-text. Mugabe was asserting his claim to be the authentic voice of African culture in contrast to the strange new “rights” enshrined in South Africa’s draft constitution.

Mugabe paraded his narrow and exclusive nationalism as a direct rebuke to Nelson Mandela’s inclusive “Rainbow nation” where gays were not just tolerated, but celebrated.

There was another dimension to Mugabe’s 1995 speech made in the presence of Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka and South African author Nadine Gordimer, who had incensed Mugabe by attaching their names to a statement deploring the exclusion of Zimbabwean gays from the book fair.

He was taking a shot at the whole concept of the independent woman. "Look at the strange things that happen when women choose their own careers," he was saying of post-independence Zimbabwe. Look what happens when they are released from what Camille Paglia called the tyranny of the reproductive cycle.

It was a message that resonated with the deeply conservative instincts of the country’s leadership and its religious allies. Mugabe’s attack on civil society was applauded by many as a moral call to arms.

Fifteen years later the response is very different. Civil society has been quick to assert the right of gay people to be included in the proposed constitution. Very few voices have expressed solidarity with the president this time round.

Movement for Democratic Change leader and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, having at first been drawn into Mugabe’s poisonous embrace on the issue, was quick to withdraw and emphasize the right of gay people to be included in the constitution-making process. The alacrity with which he moved to correct a report in the official press that he supported Mugabe exposed the changing tide of public opinion.

Even church leaders, with the notable exception of a former Anglican bishop, declined to speak up in support of Mugabe.

“It was as if people, without any particular support for gay rights, were saying, ‘Well, if Mugabe thinks it’s bad, it can’t be all bad,’” one patron of an upscale shebeen in the capital, Harare, said of the president’s latest foray.

Gay people are no longer intimidated. The organization that drew Mugabe’s fire in 1995, Galz — Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe — recently held a party in a suburban house where they have their offices. The event was attended by hundreds of young people in the 18 to 25 age group dancing the night away, completely oblivious to any threat.

“Things have changed now,” said one reveler, Shadreck. “The country no longer takes its lead from the old man.”

The statement was greeted with laughter by his friends. Nobody seems to care what Mugabe thinks any more. And it shows.


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