“If you are in active politics or elected office you really have to learn how to work with people in order to achieve your objectives and influence the way things are done.” - Jesse Majome
iKNOW Politics: As a female member of parliament in the House of Assembly in Zimbabwe, what challenges have you faced?
The challenges of being a member of parliament in Zimbabwe at this particular point in time are actually quite enormous given the controversy and the lack of conclusion of the dispute surrounding the presidential election… To date, more than half a year after that election was actually held, there is no resolution in sight. So being a member of parliament in a situation like that has its own very unique and very unfortunate challenges.
One of them is that while I was elected with all the others on the 29th of March, we were only sworn in four months after that so it’s as if a big part of the proportion of the term of office was actually lost. And because of the terms of the constitution of Zimbabwe you cannot commence duties as a member of parliament until you are actually sworn in and right now because of the absence of a clear government, parliament is still for the present not able to really function properly.
iKNOW Politics: How did your background as both a municipal councilor, mayor, and also your previous background as a lawyer—help you to meet these challenges?
I would think that my background, having been elected as a counselor and having entered local government and headed a local authority and my law practice, certainly has a bearing and a positive impact on me being elected now into parliament because part of the motivation is that those roles sort of glide into each other. I decided to run initially as a counselor for my political party because I realized I was doing a lot of work for the political party in terms of representing the members of the party, because it has been in opposition and has been receiving the unfair end of the law in terms of, I will openly call it persecution—using the law to try to discourage it and keep that party in check.
So I found I was doing a lot of work defending members of my political party who were arrested for various things because of their political involvement. I was then asked to stand when there became a vacancy for council. I had always wanted to be in active politics but I had planned to do it at some later stage in my career. But when that opportunity presented itself, I found myself with no excuse to refuse because I thought, “Well I might as well do it now because I’m already involved in opposition politics as a lawyer. I’m actually even on the frontline.” There are issues in Zimbabwe with being active in the opposition. It is actually dangerous, it has cost some people lives, it has cost arm to limb and it’s not the safest kind of thing that you can do. A lot of us are hoping that we get over that phase, but I realized that I was exposed anyway so I might as well run.
Because again, it’s actually a responsibility. I believe that it’s important that people do run for office because if we all withhold ourselves and keep ourselves safe and carry on with our professions and make lots of money we’ll be letting ourselves down. There is a lot of work that needs to be done as far as setting right the way government is run and the way policies are made and so it is actually a responsibility that people and women, and women professionals especially, must not shirk from. I’m not saying as an individual I will single handedly change the terrain of Zimbabwean politics and policy making but I want to believe that I can contribute positively to influencing the way decisions are made that affect the public and the way laws are made, for the better. I believe there are many, many, many of us that are needed—women of persuasions of all kinds, but especially professional women are sorely needed in that arena.
iKNOW Politics: You’ve outlined now some of the extreme challenges of entering the political arena in Zimbabwe. Do you find that because you are a woman there are any additional challenges that you faced?
I would say that being a woman does have its additional challenges because when you are a woman there are certain harms that can be visited on you that men can’t experience. For example, you can be raped. You might argue as to whether men can be raped or not, but I think women are the ones who can be raped and there is always that danger. Political violence can be very, very ugly and you always know that there’s the potential of that. If we, as women, decided to focus all our attention on that possibility then we’d never be able to do anything at all because women can be raped anyway even when they’re not in politics, wherever they are. Then we’d stop doing anything at all as women so the idea is not to focus on that, but to embrace the opportunities.
iKNOW Politics: Did you find that the support of other women has been helpful to you?
I did receive, I have received, I continue to receive a lot of support from women and from men. My entry point into politics also has been the women’s movement because I have for a very long time been involved in trying to use the law in order to change the status of women. I notice that male lawyers in Zimbabwean politics seem to have tremendous influence in the laws that are made and also even in terms of political opinion. I was looking around and I was not seeing any women for a long time, particularly elected women. In Zimbabwe’s parliament there was a woman prior to the 18th constitutional amendment which was passed in December 2007.
There was scope for appointments for thirty members of parliament appointed by the president out of the 120 parliamentarians that were there. There was a woman appointed who is a lawyer but then she was not appointed subsequently. And there’s also scope for appointments to the Senate. There was a woman who was appointed as a Senator for part of the term, but in this current election she decided to run for the House of Assembly and she didn’t succeed. While there are no distinctions in terms of voting powers for appointed members of parliament, I think a lot of people will agree that getting into parliament through election is very uncontroversial as far as issues of women’s representation are concerned.
There is a status issue with that. If you are appointed, yes you are a member of parliament, you will be taken as a serious politician, but for women especially it’s important that we have members of parliament who were actually elected by the people. I think you have greater bargaining power. I think you are more influential that way so it’s important to be elected. In the history of Zimbabwe’s parliament there had not been an elected lawyer who was a woman so I decided I think it’s time that we pack women lawyers into parliament and I decided to be the first. I was fortunate I was elected and I’m glad that I have become the first elected woman who is a lawyer in Zimbabwe’s parliament.
But unfortunately I am by myself, I wish there were more. I’ve actually taken it upon myself, because I’m a member of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers’ Association, to lobby for more women lawyers to get into elected office and I’m hoping that there will be more. I found that lawyers are very influential in the history of Zimbabwe’s parliament. There are very many areas of law that have discriminated against women in Zimbabwe and for years we’ve been lobbying men and male lawyers to push for gender positive legislation, but I think that it’s important that we actually get in there and we do it ourselves so I’m hoping to contribute in my own humble way to that.
iKNOW Politics: Do you find that your leadership style has changed over time?
I would say that I’ve learnt very many lessons and I think I’ve grown very much politically speaking. I’m coming to understand more the very complex dynamics that there are in working with people. If you are in active politics or elected office you really have to learn how to work with people in order to achieve your objectives and influence the way things are done.
So it’s a very delicate balance between the vision that you seek to achieve and also the interest and the views of the people that you are representing. I think being a lawyer also helps because even in my election campaign strategy, I am accustomed to representing people’s positions and views, so I would be able to represent those views in parliament and also to argue and debate. But clearly it is not only lawyers who can represent people and who can articulate views, but I think being a lawyer is helpful to me.
iKNOW Politics: Can you tell me an example of something that you have done or plan to do that you feel benefits women in Zimbabwe?
Right now it’s a bit difficult because the Zimbabwean parliament has not yet started to work as a parliament. For example the committees of parliament themselves are waiting for a government to come into play. So at the moment we are on the runway or on the dream board and trying to put in play strategies. I have found a home in the women’s caucus in parliament because there are lots of strategies that we want to try and adopt as far as issues of women. Being a member of the women’s caucus I found that my legal knowledge is useful to my colleagues. I can actually share it.
Being in parliament is really about the law, it’s making the law, so it helps if you already know what the law says and what it can say. I’m hoping that I can be an asset to my colleagues because a lot of the time they would have to rely on asking people from outside and getting information from NGOs, which we’ll continue to do of course, but I think having a lawyer on site is convenient. I’m also hoping that we can move motions for various things in Zimbabwe even outside law making in the parliamentary role of the monitoring of government policies and actions. For example, in Zimbabwe very many women have a problem registering births of children born out of wedlock.
Obtaining passports is a nightmare for a lot of women because of the male dominated family system where sometimes women are forced to change their names when they want to obtain passports because they’re married to somebody. But the law itself doesn’t compel women to change their names. There are issues that can be raised around demanding that the registrar general explains exactly why they are making women’s lives so miserable and actually forcing them to change their names and preventing them from enjoying their rights. I think there are very many possibilities.
iKNOW Politics: What would you see as the kind of support that a network like iKNOW Politics could provide for you?
I think it would be very exciting for me to just interact with members of parliament from other parliaments and so on. I was actually talking with a Kenyan friend of mine who is a lawyer who I was studying with recently and she got very excited that I became a member of parliament. She said she would try and put me in touch with Kenyan women members of parliament. So I thought, “This is really perfect.” It’s the kind of thing that would really help to just share experiences because that is very uplifting and it would improve the quality of our work raise the morale. And to try and learn what issues they have raised because sometimes they have some very innovative strategies that have been used by women to uplift women.
I think it would be extremely rewarding to exchange and to benefit from the experiences of other women parliamentarians. And also they might also possibly find Zimbabwean experiences also interesting.
iKNOW Politics: If you were talking to a young woman who’s thinking about entering politics but she’s not sure, what kind of experience would you want to impart to her? What would be your advice to her?
I would advise her that if she’s thinking of entering politics, I believe she should go right ahead because the wonderful thing about the political arena is that it’s wide open. It gives a lot of freedom; it’s you who decides what you want to be because virtually there are no limits. You just need to come forward. If you step forward you then equip yourself with information about the possibilities because there are so many opportunities. I think I will upset a lot of women, but I think part of the reason why there are few women in positions is because we are not stepping forward. Sometimes it’s doing nothing that’s really holding us back, but we just need to decide that “this is what I want to do, I want to be in elected office.”
You decide which one you want to get into and you find out how to get there. You look for the map and chances are you might not get in right now, you might not get in next year, but ultimately you will get in because like I said, it’s a wide open space and it’s waiting for women to get in there and take those positions.