The greatest crime in Zimbabwe

For one week a year, and only in Harare, Zimbabweans turn a blind eye to what happens between consenting adults. The rest of the time, homosexuality is officially despicable.

On the weekend of 1 May 2015, Labour Day, Harare was buzzing even though the usual balmy temperature had dropped by a few degrees, marking the approach of winter. The charged atmosphere was principally caused by two unrelated events, but linked by the carnivalesque: the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa), a week-long showcase of mostly music and theatre; and what was billed as the “fight of the century” – a boxing match in Las Vegas between the American prize fighter Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao from the Philippines.

That year, the Swiss cultural institute Pro Helvetia had sponsored a visit to Zimbabwe by South African trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni and the Amandla Freedom Ensemble – which included drummer Tumi Mogorosi, saxophonists Oscar Rachabane and Nhlanhla Mahlangu, and Argentinian bassist Ariel Zamonsky – for a series of concerts on the sidelines of the main Hifa programme. Some Johannesburg-based Zimbabweans, including DJ and photographer Dwayne Kapula and multitalented artist Robert Machiri, were also making a return to their motherland with a “pungwe” night, inspired by the themed parties of the 1970s liberation era, which mixed song and dance with commissariat work.

The fight was scheduled for the night after the last night of the festival. I’m not a fan of boxing, but a friend said it would be a great contest, so it was worth checking out. Neither of us had satellite TV, so we would have to watch at a bar, but the places we normally frequented weren’t open after 2am on a Monday. Even though the mythology of Harare derives in part from a mythical chief whose enemies always found him awake and ready when they launched surprise attacks on him – Harare means “he who doesn’t sleep” – modern Harareans love their sleep, and the city’s bar attendants are not afflicted by the great ancestor’s insomniac alertness.

Eventually, we went to Pensao, also known as Portugal Restaurant, a creaking bar popular with Harare’s sex workers on the eastern end of Samora Machel Avenue, a thoroughfare that, before independence in 1980, was known as Jameson Avenue – named after Starr Jameson, imperialist Cecil John Rhodes’s lover and right-hand man. (That Rhodes was gay is a fact not known by most Zimbabweans.)

The festival as carnival

At some point during that long night, as I drank beer and waited for the fight, I went to the bathroom. A short man in his 20s came in and offered, without any preamble and while pointing at a cubicle, to give me a blowjob. Taken aback, I declined, thanking him for the offer. He repeated his offer, but I was firm in my refusal. I went back to the bar to wait for what turned out to be an insipid brawl, which Mayweather won, and got home as the sun was rising.

Later, I asked a friend who knew the inner workings of Harare’s subterranean sex world for her take on the advances in the bathroom. She dismissed my query with a wave of her hand and a laugh, explaining that he was probably a “Hifa gay”. She was implying that Harare’s instinctive inhibitions regarding homosexuality loosen, if only a little, for the duration of Hifa, a festival that seems to overturn the normal way things operate in the city. During Hifa, even Harare’s whites, who usually drink and dine in privilege in the bars and restaurants in the city’s north and northeast, come to the CBD, where, in the parlance, you can’t hear yourself think for the noise.

In fact, there is something about festivals and fairs in Zimbabwe that resurrect its deeper homosexual unconscious. It was at the 1995 edition of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, whose theme that year was “human rights and justice”, at which Robert Mugabe coined his signature phrase of gays being “worse than pig and dogs”, a line that would have many iterations in decades to follow.

In 2010, he would reiterate his position, saying that “today, the Anglican church condones marriages between men and [the] same for women. The archbishop of Canterbury is blessing such marriages. This is similar to dog behaviour. At some point I realised I was reprimanding blameless dogs and pigs, which are aware that marriage is for procreation … We will not listen to those advocating the inclusion of their rights in the constitution.” 

The Zimbabwean constitution doesn’t recognise same-sex marriage. In the country’s statutes, there is a passage that reads: “Any male person who, with the consent of another male person, knowingly performs with that other person anal sexual intercourse, or any act involving physical contact other than anal sexual intercourse that would be regarded by a reasonable person to be an indecent act, shall be guilty of sodomy and liable to a fine up to or exceeding level 14 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or both.”

Neal Hovelmeir’s coming out

Given that The Herald newspaper, the flagship state-owned daily, is an appendage of the government’s information ministry, you would think the events surrounding educator Neal Hovelmeier were instigated by that newspaper. But no. His coming out and subsequent resignation after parents expressed concern over his sexuality was the result of the work of Daily News, a privately owned tabloid.

Until his resignation at the end of September, Hovelmeier was deputy headmaster and an English teacher at St John’s College, a top private school in Borrowdale, northern Harare. When The Daily News started asking questions about his sexuality, to pre-empt the tabloid’s enquiries, he was forced to come out in an address to the school. Even though the headmaster of the school, the chair of the board and Hovelmeier’s students were broadly supportive, the pressure on him to quit from the school at which he had worked for 15 years was intense. The headmaster description of him as “a man of complete integrity and whose record … is unimpeachable” wasn’t enough to save him and his career. He holds a PhD in English from Wits University, and the loss of his skills in a country hollowed out by a brain drain that started in the 1990s is incalculable.

New Frame sat down with Hovelmeier to talk about what happened. When asked whether people at his school suspected his sexual orientation before it became public, he replied that, until the newspaper’s enquiries, his sexuality had “never been once an issue. I think people might have presumed my orientation, but what people can’t deal with is the fact that it is now open. Ironically, when I am keeping it a secret it’s fine, but when I am honest about it, it’s now a big issue. That is the sort of thing that astounds me.”

In his hounding, the Bible was naturally invoked, even by people who don’t normally read it or, if they do, systematically disregard its other precepts. “One of the big issues at the school was, ‘Oh, well, this is a Christian school, so we can’t have someone who is gay,’” he said. Yet some of the support he has received has been from the church. “I have spoken to people who are genuinely Christian, including pastors and preachers, and they told me that the true teachings of Christianity are about acceptance and tolerance, and not judgment. I find that people who hide behind that agenda are actually simply masking their own inherent attitude towards gay people.”

Intimidation and threats

The intimidation and threats were intense: “Whatever happens, we’ll make sure we’ll bring you down. We know where you live, we’ll come to get you, we’ll kill your dogs,” recalled Hovelmeier of the abuse he faced. He received some threats on social media, others over the phone. “I genuinely feel quite shocked that, in this day and age, this story would be the centre of attention. I would have thought that by now we would be at a stage where, given the other problems the country faces, this is really insignificant.”

When asked to what extent homophobia in Zimbabwe derives from the Mugabe years, Hovelmeier replied: “I think it has always been an issue, even prior to independence. Obviously we know it was a legacy of the colonial rule. In fact, the law itself stems from the colonial period, but certainly Mugabe has not helped by continually denouncing.”

Hovelmeier was educated at Eaglesvale School, a private school in the industrial zone of southern Harare. He recalled that the environment there was also homophobic. It was clear at high school that he was “slightly different from … the Zimbabwean macho” male, whose identity is at once evolving but fixed. Since colonisation in 1890, the prototype of the figure of the powerful white male in Zimbabwe has been derived from the white farm owner, rough and tough, dressed in shorts and khaki and wearing the ugly but practical farmer shoe, lording over land he forcibly seized from black people. But the young Hovelmeier was musical, an actor. “There was always toxic language surrounding the issue of gay people … This is not something new. This is something that has always been happening in schools forever in this country.” The short story “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu” is a subtle and exceptional exploration of homosexuality at a Christian school by Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah published in the New Yorker.

Would he go back to work? Was he contemplating emigration? Hovelmeier said he was still trying to process what had happened and “work out what to do next”, but his sense of regret at being unable to do what he was trained to do was palpable. “I think it is a great shame, because I was a good educator. I was really professional in my job.” Would any school in Zimbabwe be willing to employ him? “I would imagine my name is quite toxic. I would stir up a reaction anywhere I went.”

After a while, he stood up, saying he had another appointment in Harare, where “transgressive” behaviour is tolerated only during the city’s carnivalesque moments.

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