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"Maybe I came out of the Guinness Book of Records": Zimbabwe's first woman vice president, Joice Teurai Ropa Mujuru, talks to New African and says if her people and party decide that she is the right candidate to carry the torch after President Mugabe, she will gladly accept the challenge.

From the outside, Joice Teurai Ropa Mujuru, 50, appears to be the new girl on the block in Zimbabwe. But she is not! Born on 15 April 1955 at Mount Darwin, she has been in the cabinet for 25 unbroken years--in fact since independence in 1980! A freedom fighter of some repute, she shot down an enemy helicopter on her 19th birthday in 1974, after only a year of basic training as a fighter. She was made a commander in 1975 and for the next two years she conducted political and military training for recruits.

She has since held various positions in government and the ruling ZANU-PF party, including head of ZANU's women department and member of the Central Committee and Politburo in charge of women (1977-79); member of parliament; minister of community development, women's affairs and cooperative development (1981-1993); governor/resident minister of Mashonaland Central Province (1993-1996); minister of information, posts and telecommunications (1996-1997); minister of rural resources, water & infrastructural development (1997-2004).

Her appointment in late 2004 as second vice president to replace the late Vice President Simon Muzenda on the ZANU side of the presidium, nearly tore the party apart, as a section of the party, led by the former information minister Jonathan Moyo, had other ideas. New African interviewed Mujuru on 11 May 2005. Here are excerpts.

NA: You were a young girl when you joined the liberation struggle. What are some of the long-lasting memories you have from that era?

Mujuru: Actually, people might be wondering where I am coming from; who I am, what have I got to offer, or where have I got this confidence from. What I can tell you is that I am part of ZANU--I have always been since when I was 18 years of age, that was when I really got to know about this liberation movement whose armed wing was ZANLA. I joined the liberation movement in 1973, just when I was finishing my Ninth Grade at school.

I come from the northeastern part of the country and that was where the war was being fought at that time. And being a young girl then, I was quite inspired by what my school mates were saying about the liberation movement, and what we, as Africans, had to do to regain our self-respect and our land. And all that came down to one thing: to take up arms and fight.


Maybe this was in tune with my character and the way I was brought up. My father never treated me like a girl; he never did that because most of us in the family were girls and he couldn't spoil us anyway. Therefore, all the chores reserved for boys were done by us. So I managed to take advantage of that chance and learn to do certain extraordinary things that girls of my age didn't do at the time. Therefore, it was easy for me to take advantage, again, of the recruitment that was then taking place in my home area into the liberation army. They said we could go and train in Zambia, Tanzania and elsewhere and come back home and fight. Being an adventurous person, I saw it as an opportunity worth taking, and so I joined the struggle in 1973 soon after school had closed for the holidays.

For a few months, we were in the home area where we were taught a few basic things--how to dismantle a gun, then put it back again; a few tactics, when this thing happened, what did you do? If you passed through a certain area, what you did to avoid detection by the enemy, how to take cover, or use camouflage, things like that. That was in 1973 and 1974.

But the commanders saw it fit that I should go for further training. Perhaps they saw some potential in me. Their decision, in fact, came after I had been involved in a heavy contact with the enemy and I had shot down an enemy helicopter. That happened on 7 February 1974, just before I turned 19. Perhaps it was one of my birthday presents.

NA: I hear several of your colleagues died in that contact.

Mujuru: Yes, we lost five of them. We were 12 and five died. Being not well trained at the time, I didn't know some of the detailed tactics. We were all lying down and I was expecting somebody to say, "Get up, come on, let's run". But for two days I was alone in the bush, trying to make contact with ZANLA units in the area, while the enemy was in hot pursuit. They had been told that there was a girl from the area among the ZANLA soldiers, and they were looking all over for me. But fortunately, comrades from nearby bases came to my rescue.


NA: A fascinating story; so what kind of weapon did you use to bring down the helicopter?

Mujuru: A semi-automatic rifle.

NA: Just that?

Mujuru: Just that!

NA: That was incredibly brave.

Mujuru: I am sure it was just God's plan, so I wouldn't say it was incredibly brave. You know what is ordained to happen, will happen. As such, a person you might not think capable of shooting down a helicopter with a semi-automatic rifle, will be the one to do it in the end.

NA: Then after that ...

Mujuru: ... After that I went to Mozambique because the enemy was looking for me all the time. My commanders feared that they might catch up with me one day, so they sent me off to Mozambique and later to Zambia to get further training. At the time, there were not many girls in combat. There were only a few of us. In Zambia, we were trained in various things--first aid, politics, operational duties, tactics, and so on. So I was one of the lucky girls that went through such a programme.

NA: Did you do all the things that the men did in the bush?

Mujuru: I did, I did.

NA: At the front?

Mujuru: I did everything except carrying heavy weapons, but otherwise materials like small arms, ferrying bullets here and there, magazines, grenades, how to throw grenades, how to lay a landmine; I did all that.

NA: So you were really engaged in frontline fighting?

Mujuru: I was engaged in frontline fighting just in the early days. But when I left for Zambia, the movement decided that it was better to put us there, in Zambia, because they needed more military and political trainers to look after the youngsters who were coming through. This was at the time Chitepo died and left us in serious difficulties. I was then one of the commanders in Lusaka who were asked to look after the young figthers.

NA: How did you keep up with your education?

Mujuru: Oh, at that time I had to shelve it completely. The only material we were studying were Mao Zedong's thoughts, and other materials from North Korea, Romania, Yugoslavia and those Eastern European countries where we used to visit to solicit for funds and arms.

NA: So even in Zambia, you did not go to school?

Mujuru: No, no, no. Most of the time, we were learning about the war; we spent most of our time learning about tactics, strategies and so on.

NA: Zimbabwe is celebrating 25 years of independence. Do you remember the days when an African was not allowed to walk on First Street in the centre of Harare?

Mujuru: Those days can be remembered by those who were privy to that life. I wasn't. I never knew Harare or Salisbury as it was then called. The only times I came to Salisbury were when we went to play football matches in nearby places. And you know what happened? We were closed in, in the lorry with a tent. So we couldn't see Salisbury. We used to peep as we passed through. And they used the outer roads rather than the inner ones.

So I can't say I knew Salisbury until I came back home from exile in 1980. That's when I began to appreciate the large number of cars in my own country rather than seeing them in London or the other places we went, or even in Zambia where we were. But otherwise, I cannot tell you about that period. Harare, to us, was nothing to think about at the time. We had no remembrance of it. To come to Harare to see who? If you had no relative living in Harare, you had no reason to come here.

NA: You were a young girl when you joined the struggle. What did your parents say? Were they happy?

Mujuru: My mother was very much against it, but because I was close to my father who was a politician in his own right, I was able to go. My father was one of the people who were helping the struggle by ferrying arms to and fro for the comrades in the bush. That was something never done in public. You did it by night, in secret, and your family would not even know about it. The head of the family would be out all night doing all sorts of things, and we wouldn't know.

But I told him of my intention to join what my school mates were talking about--the freedom fighters. At the time I thought I would go for two or three months, finish the business, come back home and go back to school because I had timed it so well with my holidays. I thought by January or February I would be back home and continue with my education. You know, here you were dealing with a teenager, and I thought I could go there, have some training and continue to do the feminine type of things we used to do. But it never happened!


NA: You were 18 at the time, so what really inspired you to say "I want to join the freedom fighters"?

Mujuru: It started with peer support, peer advice and peer discussions; it didn't start with an individual. There were others who knew much more than I knew--after all I was just a Ninth Grade pupil. But to me, I thought it was an adventure.

NA: When you told your father that you wanted to join the freedom fighters, didn't he have any reservations or fear that you might not come back?

Mujuru: You know what my father said to me? I thought he was going to be the most difficult person to convince, because African parents like their lobola (bride price)--you know, "my daughter is now about to get married, once she finishes her Ninth Grade and trains as a nurse or a policewoman and so on. She can then support the family."

But you know what my father said: "In our tribe we have a lot of fighters; maybe that spirit could have come through you, so I shouldn't discourage you. Maybe the spirits of the ancestors have come through you to go and fight for your land. You have my support."

So I went, and after I shot down the helicopter and stayed in the local area for about two months, I sent him a message that I was now ready to go to Zambia. He responded: "Yes, I know you are going to do well. I know the fighting spirit of the ancestors will look after you. But when you come back, you will not find me alive; because if you find me alive, you will not live long."

For sure, the Lancaster House negotiations for independence were about to start when I lost my father. He died around June/July 1979, and Lancaster House started around September 1979, and we only got back in early 1980. So my father died only seven months before I returned from exile as a freedom fighter.

NA: He must be very proud, wherever he is, to see where you are today.

Mujuru: Wherever he is, wherever he is! I am sure he is very proud of me and the decision he took to let me join the struggle.

NA: Did you meet your husband during the struggle?

Mujuru: Yes, I met him during the struggle. I first met him in 1974 but it never dawned on me that he was going to be my better half for life. In fact, what I had in mind at the time was: "Oh no, this thing [the struggle] is going to finish early and I am going to go home and get married."

But as time went on, you know I was also growing up--two years later, I met him again, this was after ZANLA had joined with ZAPU to form ZIPRA which was the fighting force of ZANU and ZAPU. He came back from Tanzania where he had been blocked; and I was likewise blocked in Mozambique. That's when we became fond of each other, and you know it happened, we got married and now ...

NA: ... And now you have been blessed by how many children?

Mujuru: We have four daughters who have given us five grandchildren from the first two daughters. Of the five, four are boys.

NA: The family is getting bigger?

Mujuru: Oh yes. I thought I wouldn't have a son, but here I am with two sons-in-law and four grandsons.

NA: Let's talk about today. Zimbabwe now has a first woman vice president. Are we going to see the first woman president in Zimbabwe and Africa?

Mujuru: Aaaah ... hmmm ... whatever I am doing now is not a personal wish as such. I go according to what my people want because even for this vice president, I didn't go all out to campaign for it. It was the women's group in the party that went to the presidium and spoke about it. They even passed a resolution at their congress saying they wanted a quota system; where three people are appointed in the same area, they want one to be a woman. This resolution was passed by them but it took some time for it to be implemented.

So when they held their congress again last year, they decided that the country should have a woman vice president to replace the late Simon Muzenda on the ZANU side of the presidium. So the party politburo sat and decided that it was time the women's resolution was implemented. But, to me, it came as a surprise. In fact, according to custom, which I thought my husband was above practising, the women went via my husband and said to him: "Please, can you talk to your wife because it appears she is not getting the silent messages we are sending to her; we want her to be our representative on the presidium."

So my husband came one night and said, "but it looks like you are not responding to the messages they are sending you. Do you want it or not." I said: "OK, for every post that I have held in the party and government since 1980, I have never campaigned for it. But if they think that I am the right candidate, I will go for it. And knowing that it has come from them, they will be ready to support me, which they did."

And they went all out to support me. Yes, to start with, it was the women's resolution; but since it was adopted at the party congress, it now became the party's resolution.

NA: So it is not true as reported around the world that the president put you there so you can take over from him and look after his back when he is gone?

Mujuru: [Laughs heartily]. No, no, no! You should hear what came out of this, the criteria that took me here. The women will tell you that they were looking for a woman with a track record, a woman who had fought in the war, who had grown through the ranks of the party, and I am sure the president being the chairman of the politburo, was also surprised to hear what the women wanted.


NA: People are also saying that the president has deliberately put a "soft" woman in that strategic position to take over from him. I asked the president in an earlier interview about this, and he said, "Teurai Ropa is not soft at all".

Mujuru: [Laughs and laughs].

NA: Is that the right description of you--a soft lady out to look after the back of a retired president?

Mujuru: I don't know what they mean by being soft.

NA: That's what some people here in Zimbabwe, the UK and elsewhere are saying.

Mujuru: Oh, they think women are soft? If they were talking about Margaret Thatcher, would they say she was soft?

NA: To them, she was their iron lady; perhaps Zimbabwe now has its own iron lady. Is that right?

Mujuru: If they are talking about iron, then we have a lot of iron in Zimbabwe [laughs]. Actually, to tell you the truth, it is circumstances that make someone think and feel like doing a job and performing at it. When I look at what is facing Zimbabwe, or maybe where we have come from, I can say that the president is part of what I have gained in my personal life. He has not treated me as a girl or woman at all. He has treated me as a person with the capability of doing certain things. And personally I have been ready to face the challenges.

I will tell you this: When I was first appointed into the cabinet in 1980, I was only 24. Maybe I came out of the Guinness Book of Records. I was the youngest woman to be appointed as cabinet minister. At the time, I could hardly utter any English word because I had lost almost all that I had learned at Ninth Grade during the war. But because of self-conviction, determination and discipline, I had to put a lot of effort in getting some education. I had to swallow my pride and go back to school.

NA: Even as a cabinet minister?

Mujuru: Yeees! Cabinet minister! I was attending evening classes when others were enjoying themselves at parties. I was attending school with young boys and girls. But I respected them and they me. And they helped me with my studies. So slowly but surely, I gained what I gained. I did my 'O' levels. I did my 'A' levels. I did my diploma. And right now I am doing my Bsc in management. I am sure not many people at my age can go through this long route.

Yes, you can get support from here and there, but you as a person must be ready to adapt and accept certain support. So as a person I am very lucky and proud to have a head of state and head of my party who is that supportive. For anybody who wanted to make it in life, if he or she listened to what the president had been telling us, I am telling you that, that person has made it!

The president is not somebody who gives anybody favours. But he is somebody who avails every opportunity to everybody to take and use. So here I am, I wasn't ashamed to learn new jobs; I am telling you I have been appointed to new ministries in the past with no structures at all. Even in those days when I didn't know what an organogram was, I was charged with the responsibility of coming up with a definite organogram, which I did. And I was not ashamed to tell people that I didn't know. Right now, I can tell you that my strongest support comes from government officials. I am not ashamed to say to my permanent secretary: "This thing I don't understand, can you tell me more about it." This is how I have made it in life.

NA: Very, very inspiring; but I will ask you my last question. Am I talking to the future first woman president of Zimbabwe and Africa?

Mujuru: No.

NA: Why?

Mujuru: Because I don't know what my people will think of me.

NA: But if they should think of you as the person to carry the torch after President Mugabe, would you accept it?

Mujuru: With my party's support, yes.

An IC Special Report produced by the Communications Department of IC Publications and published simultaneously in New African and African Business magazines in June 2005

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Title Annotation:The Presidium
Author:Ankomah, Baffour
Publication:New African
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:6ZIMB
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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