OPINION For once, I agree with Mugabe
Robert Mugabe says enough reprehensible things that we don't have to look for the horrific when it isn't there. This time, he's actually said something that makes a little sense.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe isn't always totally wrong in his public utterances - like when he described Britain, in 2013, as "a very cold, uninhabitable country with small houses".
But when it comes to talking about touchy-feely stuff, like respect for basic human rights, Mugabe often espouses insanely prejudiced views. This is the man who said that homosexuals are "worse than dogs and pigs". This is the leader who allegedly said that "the only white man you can trust is a dead white man".
I say "allegedly" there because I've been unable to track down a firm origin for that quote, and after recent events I'm in a fact-checking mood.
Even before Mugabe was tripping on carpets, he was occupying column inches this week, due to comments made to a VOA journalist on the sidelines of the AU summit in Addis Ababa.
Here are a few of the resulting headlines: 'Mugabe dismisses gender equality'. 'Mugabe insults women at AU', 'Robert Mugabe To Chair AU, Says Women Can't Be Equal To Men'. 'Mugabe Downplays Idea of Women Empowerment'.
I was barely inspired to read the accompanying reports, because 'Mugabe Says Sexist Shit' happens all the time. Here he is in 2008 on US Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer: "This little American girl trotting around like a prostitute". Here he is in 2013 on Zuma's envoy Lindiwe Zulu: "We are in that situation where even this little street woman could make utterances".
'Mugabe Does Sexist Shit' is also not uncommon, including the fact that he appointed only three female ministers to his Cabinet in 2013 despite the constitutionally-enshrined principle of equal representation for women in Zimbabwean government.
All this considered, it struck me as totally unremarkable that Mugabe would have made some outrageously misogynistic comment. What really piqued my interest, however, was the fact that a few days later, a DA press release appeared in my inbox. "Minister of Women must condemn Mugabe's sexist remarks at AU Summit", it was headlined.
"Media reports detailing sexist remarks made by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, in his capacity as new AU chairperson at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa this week, cannot be left unanswered by the South African government," it read.
The chances of the South African government condemning Mugabe's sexist remarks seem approximately nil, but I was sufficiently inspired by the sternness of the statement to go and listen to what, exactly, Mugabe said. I'm always in the mood for a feminist rage top-up.
Because the topic of the AU Summit was women's empowerment and development, Mugabe was door-stopped on the fringes of the conference by a VOA journalist and asked for his views on that subject. I discovered that most media outlets quoted him very selectively. The audio clip is extremely indistinct, and his views are far from coherent, but Mugabe can be heard explaining that one of the obstacles to women's professional development is that they take the lion's share of responsibility for raising families.
"Women get married, they must have babies, they must live at home, that's a problem," he says.
"In other words you're saying as women we must choose whether we want to have families or be in politics?" journalist Sandra Nyaira asks.
"No no no," says Mugabe. "I am saying it's not possible that women can be at par with men. You see, we men want children. We make the very women we want in power pregnant. And we remain. […]The treatment of women generally, it's hard. Equal pay for equal work. And even as they get pregnant, they must be paid, if they are employed. They must be paid for that period, and not for companies or government to say 'Ha, we'll give you only three months.' It must be nine months."
He concludes with a characteristic swipe at the West for lecturing Africa about gender when female representation in European parliaments is often insufficient.
The crux of the interpretational murkiness here seems to rest on his first utterance: "Women get married, they must have babies, they must live at home". If you interpret that as Mugabe's prescription - that that is what woman should do - then it's easy to take a dim view. The fact that he immediately follows those words with "that's a problem", however, suggests that is not his intention.
In my reading, when Mugabe says "it's not possible that women can be at par with men" - if you take into account what comes after it - he means that the current patriarchal set-up is preventing women from accessing their full potential because they are left, literally, holding the baby. He explicitly draws attention to the hypocrisy of men wanting children but also being able to "remain" in their positions unscathed. He also notes the injustice of under-paying women who are pregnant.
I don't know about you, but I don't really see anything to quibble about there. Mugabe does not seem to consider the possibility that some women have no interest in marriage or children, which is undeniably problematic, but for underprivileged women there is realistically often very little choice in the matter.
"The patriarchal and sexist assumptions inherent in his comments are deeply worrying," ran the DA statement. "A women's ability to carry and have children does not preclude them from the workplace."
But Mugabe's point seems to have been precisely that: that it is a lamentable fact that women are often not given the necessary support to raise families and develop successful careers, unlike men.
You may well ask why we should work so hard to give the benefit of the doubt to a man who has often, in other contexts, made deeply sexist statements. If we really care about combating sexism, however, rather than political point-scoring, surely we should at least attempt to ensure that our outrage is not premised on half-truths and inaccuracies. Mugabe says more than enough actually insane stuff worthy of repudiation.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.