WIP Contributor Grace Kwinjeh is an aspiring candidate in the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe. We recently received the following interview conducted with her by a local publication in Zimbabwe. We wish Grace all the best in her bid for MP.
Let us start with some background and context, what has been your mission in Belgium and for how long have you been there?
I have been in Belgium for over three years now. I came here primarily to continue my healing process and to reunite with my children and mother. I have, however, also stayed involved in the party (MDC-T) and pro-democracy movement and advocacy campaigns to advance the cause for democratic change in Zimbabwe.You are a founding member of the MDC under Tsvangirai since before the MDC split. Why the quest for political office in 2013, something you could have done in 2000 or 2008?
I have been an ardent cadre of the MDC since its inception in 1999. I have worked tirelessly to help the party deliver democracy and freedom to the people of Zimbabwe. I have always aspired to join the Parliament of Zimbabwe to continue that work. However, in 2000, I felt that I was too young and inexperienced to go into Parliament. At that point, I wanted to further my studies and acquire the experience and wisdom to better serve my country through the MDC.
Due to my activism for democracy, I was a victim of political persecution. I was jailed numerous times over the years and extensively tortured in 2007. Since then, I have been healing and recovering from the trauma of that experience.
In 2008, I was still recovering and did not feel strong enough to sustain a campaign. Furthermore, I could not be home because of the difficulties I had experienced in 2006 and 2007. Those were difficult years for Zimbabweans in both political and economic terms.
Today, in 2013, I feel stronger, ready and eager to fully engage with the political process in Zimbabwe. I have healed, grown and learned much over the years. I have much to offer the people of Makoni Central as their servant and representative in the House of Parliament.
Without doubt the MDC of today has undergone changes of its own since its founding. Do you think this is its best chance to lead Zimbabwe?
Since its birth in 1999, the MDC has been at the forefront of democratic reform in Zimbabwe. I think the party has grown and learned so much over the years. As a young party, we have faltered and stumbled on occasion. However, we remain resolute in our quest for equal opportunity and democracy for all Zimbabweans. We continue to listen to what the people of Zimbabwe say and allow that to guide us. We have become more grounded and acquired the governing experience that will allow us to move the nation forward. For example, the party has a better understanding of the realities and constraints of being in government.
The party remains committed to reforming the country’s institutions to weed out corruption and other vices that afflict government. However, there are always a few individuals who deviate from these values and bring the party into disrepute. For instance, the party recently dealt with party members who have been accused of corruption within city councils. One of my objectives as an aspiring Member of Parliament is to ensure that the party continues to eradicate corruption and abide by the founding principles of transparency and reform.
Clearly, as a party, we have had to go through the fiery furnace. Personally, I have struggled in unimaginable ways. I have been out of my motherland for six years due to my fight for democracy. I have experienced many difficulties in the process. For example, my first bed in South Africa when I got out of hospital after the 2007 torture was bought by the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum. I eventually triumphed by learning how to survive in other countries; South-Africa, then Rwanda, and now Brussels. In each country I resided, I learned new things and grew as a person. Various experiences, both inside Zimbabwe and outside, have made me stronger and groomed me to be a better citizen and leader. I also believe that the diversity of people, skills, and experiences that candidates like myself offer, make the MDC (T) party stronger.
Women have been somewhat sidelined in mainstream politics and their numbers still remain low. How do you plan to change this if at all?
That is a tough question. On one hand, I do not wish to present women as weak and incapable of campaigning and getting elected into office. On the other hand, women do face real obstacles and challenges in joining mainstream politics.
For instance, I find myself standing and competing with men who have enormous resources that I do not have. Notwithstanding such limitations, I believe that personal integrity and loyalty are important qualities. In my case, I possess both qualities and have been an ardent and loyal party cadre since its inception. I have continued to engage with democratic reform in Zimbabwe in various capacities.
It is a testament to these qualities, that I believe the people have encouraged me to seek office. I believe that it is good when people think of you and want to promote you. I do hope that my campaign, working with both men and women, can be an example to other women. I hope that through my campaign, I can inspire more women to become interested and involved in Zimbabwe’s political processes.
Zimbabwean women are resilient. In turn, there are tough women in the MDC-T, who have not let the political environment stop them from campaigning in their own right. However, we need the party to deal with past injustices against women, deal with low participation numbers and so forth. For example, they could do this by having a certain number of seats reserved for women. This is not because we are not able, but rather intended to address a history, culture and social practices that have kept our numbers low.
Going into politics, what issues concern you most and which ones are top priorities for you?
The level of poverty in Zimbabwe is of great concern to me. I aspire to represent a constituency with both urban and rural populations that are affected by this issue. For example, I have listened to what people on the ground have to say about the lack of access to proper healthcare and a quality education for their children.
As a Parliamentarian, I will work diligently to ensure that I contribute to policies that alleviate poverty across the country. Also, I intend to contribute towards our budgeting process to ensure that our limited resources are spent on those Zimbabweans most in need. For example, why should the army receive more money than the health sector?
In Makoni, I will create a pragmatic development programme for the constituency. I have a team of Zimbabweans with vast experience to help me draw one up. The first part of my constituency manifesto will also be launched soon. This will be in line with the party’s JUICE programme, which has been endorsed by many as credible, authentic, and just what Zimbabwe needs.
A voter will ask, what are you going to do differently or offer the electorate that other politicians have failed?
One thing for sure is that I have zero tolerance for corruption and I believe in integrity, transparency and accountability. These are qualities that should be prerequisites for Zimbabwean politicians. For instance, I have filled out forms declaring my assets. This can be evaluated after five years should voters wish to verify whether I have accumulated unexplained wealth that I cannot justify.
Also, I am a woman of God, a trained intercessor gifted in the area of healing. I believe that the spiritual journey I have undertaken has humbled me as a person, meaning that my life is governed by the principles of the Kingdom of God, a servant of the people, who is called to lead a righteous life.
Would you say the transition from journalism to politics was a natural one for you?
Yes, it has been quite natural. As journalists, we are always “on the ground” and therefore develop close relationships with communities and the people. You have to be open, a listener, informed, and easy to interact with. These are skills that I possess as a journalist and will leverage in representing the people of Makoni Central.
In your take on the democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe, what needs to change?
The MDC has worked hard to advance democracy and human rights on behalf of Zimbabweans since 1999. However, there are still challenges and much still needs to be done. A large part of this involves reforms to our political institutions through constitutional reform, for example. Also, the political culture in the country and lack of leadership accountability needs to be addressed.
For instance, imagine that even as a candidate, I am not aware of when elections will be held because the decision on polls is concentrated in the hands of one person. We have a serious problem of leaders who take people for granted without fully grasping that our country is in a serious governance crisis. You even hear in some quarters people saying that the President might decide not to have elections this year; that his party Zanu PF is not ready. Such issues need to be addressed.
Critics might ask, you have been exiled in Belgium for a while, are you in touch with issues on the ground at home?
Firstly, I am so in touch with the grassroots it’s incredible! I have kept myself updated on all developments on the ground and am in touch with people both in the party and civil society. In Makoni, I remain connected to my family and community. Makoni is kumusha to me. Six years in exile cannot take that away from me. I am very much a “daughter of the soil” and remain in touch with the issues that affect this constituency as well as Zimbabwe as a nation.
I will also say that exile is not a new phenomenon. Most of our country’s nationalists have been in exile at some point in their lives. Like them, I left Zimbabwe due to political persecution. I left Zimbabwe on a hospital bed, went to SA, where at some point I really struggled on my own, with very few options. I went into exile because I dared to stand up for democracy in my motherland. It was a very precarious existence during which I could not return home. Violence was escalating and I could not travel much, as I did not have the necessary documentation. When some people talk of exile they assume it is pretty sitting. The reality of exile is far from pretty. I have been there and I can testify to that.
These experiences and challenges have sharpened my desire to ensure that our country becomes a beacon of democracy and prosperity, and that no Zimbabwean ever has to leave their country as a result of persecution and bad governance!
Your fears about running for office, if any?
Well, my fear has really to do with the political environment, in the absence of the necessary media and electoral reforms. My greatest fear of course being that Zanu PF might decide again to use violence as they have done in previous elections. However, I will not let these fears dissuade me from completing the task of democratic change and bringing hope to the people of Makoni Central and Zimbabwe.
What is the Zimbabwe that you want?
The Zimbabwe I want to see is a prosperous one, where men and women live side by side in peace and harmony regardless of their political or religious beliefs. God bless Zimbabwe.