By Shami Lynette Makombe
FORMER opposition leader and war veteran Margaret Dongo, dubbed Robert Mugabe’s worst nightmare, still walks with the physique of a teenager and the vibrancy of a fighter that she has always been.
Dongo, a former Zanu PF member, has had a colourful political history, being the first woman to form an opposition party in 1998. Dongo formed the Zimbabwe Union for Democrats (ZUD) after breaking away from the ruling party which she accused of electoral fraud.
Dongo became popular in the 1990s when she rebelled against the feared Mugabe, long before even Emmerson Mnangagwa was a sellable option to succeed Mugabe.
Everything about Dongo is remarkable – particularly her unrelenting campaign, despite death threats and intimidation, to bring democracy against President Mugabe’s favoured one-party state.
She was arguably the only revolutionary left in the Zimbabwean parliament in the 1990s where at one time Zanu- PF party had control of 147 seats out of 150.
How did Dongo start to ‘rebel’?
Dongo was a once a Zanu MP. But unlike the rest, her reverence for the great commander Mugabe who had liberated Zimbabwe did not blind her to his single-minded pursuit of power; neither could she stomach the cosy, corrupt patronage in the ruling party.
Always critical, she was finally dismissed from Zanu PF in 1995. President Mugabe, in whose office she once worked, no doubt thought her vanquished and silenced for good, but that was not to be.
Dongo contested her Sunningdale seat as an independent, despite a blackout by the government media. When she lost to the official Zanu PF candidate, she went to court to have the election declared illegal, and won. In the re-election she took the seat; and became an even bigger pain to the regime.
“In parliament they all hate her,” John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, famously remarked. “But deep down they wish they had her courage. They phone her in the middle of the night to say ‘keep it up’. But to say so publicly would be political suicide.”
Months later, Dongo described all Zanu MPs as “Mugabe’s wives” in Parliament, because they never questioned his bidding. Other MPs had to restrain a former army commander as he angrily launched himself across the parliamentary floor trying to attack Dongo for the stinging utterance.
Who is Dongo?
In her own words, this is what Dongo said about herself:
“I was born in the 1960s into a family of seven children. My father was a builder and my mother a peasant farmer. At age 15 I joined the Zimbabwe war of liberation, and fought alongside my sisters and brothers for Zimbabwe’s independence, but also first and foremost to free the women in Zimbabwe from the bondage of slavery imposed on them as women. I have never believed that men make the best leaders or rulers in society.
“After the war I co-founded the Zimbabwe War Veterans Association to give voice to veterans who were marginalised after the war. I entered active politics and for many years and served as a member of the central committee of Zimbabwe African Nation Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), which I later left.
“In the 1995 elections I was the first and only person to challenge vote rigging successfully, and went ahead to win the subsequent run-off as an independent Member of Parliament. While in government I was a member of a number of parliamentary committees, including Public Accounts, the Committee on Indigenisation, and as Chairperson of the Local Government Portfolio Committee.
“I served in Parliament for ten years before becoming the first woman to head an opposition party in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats.
“Throughout my life as an active politician I have remained focused on improving the lives of women. It has not been easy. There is still a culturally entrenched inertia to accepting women leaders, particularly in active politics.
“Formal political life has still not adapted to being welcoming of women political leaders. We are also facing arguments against gender equality that are being backed up by some of our religious leaders. The often quoted Biblical origin of women from the rib of Adam is often abused to mean that the women are subservient to men. Unfortunately many women themselves believe this, and accept the idea that they hold a lower status in society.
“I believe in the power of self-actualisation, and have invested in my own personal development through education, pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University. I now coordinate a voluntary development programme to uplift the lives of women and children in the rural areas through projects that are sustainable and make a real difference in their lives.
“I am moved by the success of many women leaders like Mbuya Nehanda who stood up for their people. And I will never forget the competent involvement of women cadres in the armed struggle in Zimbabwe, which clearly demonstrated to me that there is no scientific basis for discriminating against women. I hold firm to my own belief that discrimination based on gender is wrong. We need to maximize our potential as human beings, and give life our best shot.”
Dongo rejects the MDC, prefers working with former Zanu PF cadres
When the MDC was formed in 1999 and led by Morgan Tsvangirai in 2000, Dongo was leading her party ZUD which however was finding it difficult to challenge the well-resourced Zanu PF.
Tsvangirai invited Dongo to join them fight against Zanu PF together, and she turned down the request.
She would, fifteen years later, be approached by politicians aligned to Joice Mujuru to join the Zimbabwe People First movement, and she accepted the invite.
Dongo said in 2014 she was approached by Rugare Gumbo who wanted her to persuade Joice Mujuru to lead ZimPF, a political outfit fronted by Gamatox politicians who had been chucked out of Zanu PF by Mugabe in 2014 for siding with Mujuru.
She said on several occasions she drove to the Mujuru’s farm in Beatrice outside Harare to convince her to enter opposition politics after her dramatic expulsion from Zanu PF on allegations that she was plotting to assassinate Mugabe.
“She was hesitant,” Dongo said. “Her heart was still with Zanu PF.
“I was forced to assure her that I would come on board and support her. I had a series of meetings with war veterans at my house. Later, I invited women from all the 10 provinces to meet her.”
Soon after Mujuru took leadership of the party, tension built up between the two women leaders until Mujuru fired Dongo two years down the line.
In 2016, a fire erupted at Dongo’s home in Ridgeview, Harare, and she attributed the inferno to “assailants in Zanu PF” who she said will never forgive her for rebelling against Mugabe.
Selling chickens, and politics
Dongo, now aged 61, is now fighting a different kind of battle altogether: raising chickens for sale to mainly boarding schools in Mashonaland West province.
She is running the chicken business from her farm in Mhondoro, where she spends most of her time.
“I have some of the best value for money chickens in the entire province, my daughter,” Dongo said when this writer enquired about her business venture.
“We supply to schools, retailers, fast food joints, organisations and households. Besides the chickens, we also are farming a wide range of vegetables here in Mhondoro.”
She refused to be drawn into politics.
“Maybe another day, another time, we’ll talk about the men who have dragged this once beautiful country into the abyss,” she said with a chuckle.