But after first being elected as an MP in 1990, Dongo almost didn't make it back into office. She lost in the 1995 elections as an independent candidate after rampant voter fraud in her district was engineered to ensure her defeat.
When she set a nationwide precedent by taking the government to court, many called Dongo "mentally unbalanced" and said she was simply carrying a grudge against President Robert Mugabe.
(Extract from The Republic of Dongo: Parliamentarian Margaret Dongo, By Joyce Jenje-Makwenda, Zimbabwe)
HISTORY has a way of repeating itself in mysterious ways. The Secretary General of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Tendai Biti, recently signed a letter dissolving the Women's Assembly of the party.
The same heroic Biti 12 years ago, joined other activists in fighting Zanu PF's intransigence, when the party fired vocal politician Margaret Dongo from its ranks. With the support of pro-democracy activists, Dongo challenged Zanu PF in the Harare South constituency and the courts and won.
Activists united in Harare South to campaign for Dongo for many reasons, with the main one being she had been a voice of reason within the Zanu PF structure, saying things "Mugabe's wives" (her crude description of Mugabe loyalists)could not say.
"I'm saying this because I was in that parliament. I endured a lot of hardship under a one-party monopoly. You stand up and try to reason with him, and one tells you, ‘You are a bitch, go and cook in your house.’ Or tells you to sit down, that you are a minority..." said Dongo in an interview with Frontline World.
Thus she became a symbol of defiance against a system many feared and at the time thought was invincible, as has been the case with most post-colonial African states. She lit a candle of hope that the one party system could be challenged and dismantled, bringing the possibility of new political organisations with a different value system to that of Zanu PF.
I want to posit here that the Harare South battle should therefore be viewed in the context that it was an extension of the whole process that led to the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) in 1998 and subsequently the MDC in 1999.
It is, however, important to rewind this particular tape a little bit to understand the dynamics that played themselves out at the time within Zanu PF and their relevance to the political discourse today, within the MDC. I will use various theoretical positions and traditions to explain Dongo's battle in view of what Lucia Matibenga is up and against in the MDC vis-à-vis the question of intra-party democracy and women's empowerment as a pre-requisite of good governance.
Writing in the Financial Gazette of 11 October, journalist Clemence Manyukwe gave an account of some of the victims of Zanu PF's internal dictatorship, among them Dzikamai Mavhaire and his famous "The President must go" speech, Frederick Shava, and Edgar Tekere. While all these have since been neutralised or silenced, none made a mark in our collective conscience the way Dongo did.
The battle in Harare South was important and still has a relevance to us today especially for those whose political activism was then propelled by Dongo's victory. What was the principle behind the overwhelming support for Dongo's battle against the Zanu PF 'chefs'?
It was a brutal and lonely fight for Dongo. Zanu PF put all its resources in campaigning for Vivian Mwashita who had been Dongo's best friend. They had the control of the media, government resources, top politicians went into Harare South to de-campaign Dongo. Senior Zanu PF female politicians for their own political survival took sides with the men.
It is against this background that Matibenga's battle in the MDC is important for us activists who were inspired and greatly influenced by Dongo in our political activism. The above scenario is repeating itself in a rather bitter manner. Reading Biti's statement after the High Court ruling on Matibenga's challenge of her committee’s dissolution, in which he claimed “victory” and “vindication”, my heart sank. The statement represented several tragedies and dangers for those of us who have been engaged in the protracted struggle for democracy.
While our interpretation of the judgement passed by the High Court is that only the Women's Congress can dissolve its leadership, the MDC leadership seems to have their own.
The first concern is to do with moral leadership, what lessons can the MDC learn from the “struggles within the struggle” during the war of liberation as documented by the late Masipula Sithole?
"The Zimbabwe liberation movement has been torn apart by tribalism and regionalism, but rarely will this be admitted in public by the leadership and organisations in question, preferring distant Marxist ideological explanations.
In a prophetic letter after the assassination of Chitepo, his brother Ndabaningi said: "I cannot be indifferent to the death of a man such as Chitepo for political expediency. It is immoral and wrong. I am in this struggle because of moral quality otherwise I would have nothing to do with it."
"The uneasy feeling one gets in supporting Matibenga's cause is of being at war with the leadership with the consequence of serious political backlash"
Still on the leadership question, writing after being sacked as South Africa's Deputy Minister of Health, Nozizwe Madlala–Routledge said in an article entitled ‘Seeking servants of the people: “When we choose leaders, we need not give up our own power by putting them on pedestals that distance them from those that they lead. We need not accord them hero worship or fear them so much that we cannot tell them what we think or feel, that we can only tell them what they want to hear. We need not allow them to think they have the last word and that they may not be challenged. True leadership is about giving people the feeling that they can be heard, regardless of who they are and how junior they may be."
The uneasy feeling one gets in supporting Matibenga's cause is of being at war with the leadership with the consequence of serious political backlash. I want to argue further that the MDC is faced with these problems because of the failure to dismantle the exhausted patriarchal model of liberation as espoused by Horace Campbell and others; a model whose main characteristics are sexism, dictatorship and cronyism.
In the same the way the nationalists integrated themselves into the colonial systems, the MDC and other social liberation movements such as the Movement for Multi-party Democracy in Zambia have become hybrids of these models.
Of this system, Campbell says, "instead of liberation becoming the foundation of a new social order, the militarist and masculinist leadership turned the victory of the people into a never ending nightmare of direct and structural violence."
The failure to break from colonial and nationalist politics can be described as another instance of what Frantz Fanon called “false decolonization” or “political decadence”. Fanon said: "In its beginnings, the national bourgeoisie of the colonial country identifies itself with the decadence of the West. We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end."
Fanon goes further to say, (and this explains the prevailing status of the MDC): "It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness, or the will to succeed of youth."
What Biti seems not to understand is that the authority he has to actually write this statement derives itself from patriarchal privilege, one that he and his cohorts do not have the ideological sophistication to articulate in order to dismantle it. That is the tragedy. Thus the commission investigating the conduct of the women's assembly for instance is made up of three men in a party that is blessed with so many well meaning and capable women. Biti sees nothing wrong with this. Not to mention again that the National Executive and National Council of the party were never informed of this decision.
Just to advance my thesis further on the relationship between intra-party democracy, women's emancipation and good governance, I will use the example of Mozambique's FRELIMO which has produced not just some of the greatest women in Africa, let’s take Graca Machel, but one of the best governments too. Fresh from winning the inaugural US$5 million Mo Ibrahim Award for African Leadership, former President Joaquim Chissano, denounced autocratic rule saying it has no room on the African continent anymore.