Ever the bridge-builder, Fanny Chirisa was brilliant at going for the big-ticket change. She broke down barriers step by step. She was unafraid of power. She understood it, disturbed and disrupted it. And above all, she redefined it, shared it and redistributed it without any expectation of return patronage.
It was impossible not to fall in love with Fanny Chirisa on sight. In all aspects of her life, she carried herself as the Big Sister she was, gathering together, holding dear and uplifting other women and girls. For her, living an African feminist life was innate.
Her skills as a community organiser were alchemical. When Sis Fanny, as we respectfully called her, waved her magic wand, doors that had seemed intractably closed to women opened. It was not uncommon to witness her mobilising women from different political belief systems, ages and geographic spaces as well as ethnic belongings to join hands for a common non-partisan feminist alliance that scored significant victories for the collective good
Her commitment to advancing women’s rights in Zimbabwe, where political differences can be the source of unimaginable acrimony, was a blessing.
Although at the time of her death, on 28 October 2020, Chirisa was predominantly known for her last public political leadership role as a member of Parliament for Zimbabwe’s main opposition party – the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) where she had served in the national executive committee – her route to mainstream political leadership came via decades of dedication to women’s rights activism and civil society.
Born in Mutare, then known by its colonial name Umtali, on 10 November 1951, Chirisa grew up in Sakubva, a township that was home to the city’s black working-class families.
In the 1980s, Chirisa worked for the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations as well as for the international charity Save the Children (Norway). She was stationed in Masvingo where she headed a community feeding programme for seven districts that focused on providing food support to families in need, as well as building social services that particularly benefited women and girls, such as schools, clinics, nursing homes and preschool shelters.
Election To Parliament
In September 2013, Zimbabwe’s women’s movement celebrated a shared victory when Sis Fanny was named one of 124 women to serve as an MP in the southern African country’s eighth parliament. The proportional representation quota system in the then new constitution had worked. The overall number of women MPs in 2013 more than doubled to 35% from 17% after the 2008 elections.
The possibilities of gender equality in political leadership etched into our second constitution – which had been approved by popular referendum in March 2013 and became law in May of the same year – appeared within full reach
Chirisa’s rise gave all of us much-needed hope, and courage with a capital “C”. She believed in the proportional representation system to redress the historical sexist exclusion of women from political leadership and power.
Chirisa knew that we had to keep on pushing. She warned that women’s quotas were vulnerable to patriarchal backlash. Without clear safeguards, the light women had advocated for could be swiftly extinguished by a male-dominated political culture that was irritated by, and resistant to, sharing powers to govern with women.
Sakhile Sifelani, executive director of the Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU) said: “Sis Fanny represented the power of pushing. She said it a lot: if you really want something you have to push. It meant working in a cross-political way, in a community way. I remember that we would come back from work exhausted and she would say: “We are building from the bottom, the foundation, the ground, so that we have a power base.
“Working with Sis Fanny, I saw that we didn’t have to accept the country as we saw it. She used to do simple, yet high-level analysis and was brilliant at going for the big-ticket change. Her vision was bigger than the 60 proportional representation seats. She wanted women to sit equally in political leadership,” Sifelani remembers, offering a tribute of gratitude to the generation that has paved the way for her own leadership.
Speaking to mourners gathered at Chirisa’s home, Minister of Defence and War Veterans Oppah Muchinguri Kashiri of Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF party, and also its national chairperson said: “We worked very well together with Sis Fanny in the women’s parliamentary caucus, both groups of women MPs, whether from Zanu-PF or from MDC. She trained many women, giving us the skills and tools that enabled us to take up leadership roles in parliament – to be confident, to support each other, to be united and to shine.”
Chirisa served in parliament’s portfolio committee on public accounts (PAC), moving motions on the economic marginalisation of women and budget transparency and accountability, as well as the portfolio committee on foreign affairs, where she advocated for more women to be appointed to Zimbabwe’s diplomatic corps.
Recognising her thirst for hard work, her stellar networks and her skills, her party appointed her as the MDC’s shadow minister of women’s affairs, after which she switched to the portfolio committee on gender and women’s affairs. She was also appointed chairperson of the subcommittee on energy, again raising motions with respect to women’s needs for reliable and affordable energy sources.
Women In Parliament Support Unit (Wispu)
Chirisa’s acclaim grew at WiPSU, initially established as the Women in parliament support unit. As its director, she steered the organisation in a way that secured its reputation as a stable, non-partisan and credible force for women’s political participation
WiPSU has a razor-sharp focus on increasing the quality and quantity of women’s political participation in Zimbabwe. Its programmes focus on strengthening the leadership capacities, availing tools, tactical support and resources available to women in elected office in Zimbabwe.
Chirisa built the organisation’s second track of work, training young women and female university student leaders in strategies designed to trump the domination of men in politics.
Her work came at great personal risk.
The constant reinforcement of patriarchal gridlocks colluded to keep women out of political power. She faced Zimbabwe’s abrasive political culture with integrity and faith that there would be a positive shift.
During the negotiations for the establishment of Zimbabwe’s power-sharing pact, the Global Political Agreement, signed on 15 September 2008, Chirisa was an avid supporter of the Feminist Political Education Project (FEPEP) which met with political party negotiators and the mediator, former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
Chirisa’s understanding of, and relationships with, female politicians and women in civil society gave her unparalleled, trusted access to both groups. Ever the bridge-builder, Chirisa shovelled cement and baked bricks. She was an invaluable behind-the-scenes interlocutor between the two groups. she carried on playing this role unobtrusively in the G-20 group – a gender equality and women’s rights constitutional lobby group that pushed the constitutional parliamentary committee to adopt the demands put forward by the Zimbabwe women’s rights movement and feminists for the 2013 constitution.
Zimbabwean feminist Thoko Matshe, former chairperson of the national constitutional assembly, said: “Sis Fanny’s shadow gave a soothing kind of protective shade to many people. She shared who she was as a sister in the struggle, not just in organisations, but in her family and in her heart.”
The University of Life
Unsurprisingly, Chirisa didn’t have the academic accoutrements of many Zimbabweans, like many other black women of her generation forcibly deprived of their rights to education, not to mention access to professional jobs. Most were not expected to amount to much beyond marriage. She made the best of her disadvantages, which included a marriage that did not serve her needs and came to an end.
She had a contemplative strategist’s mind. The quality of her logic was disarming to those who doubted her and uplifting to those who trusted her.
Zimbabwean political analyst and women’s rights activist Tsitsi Mhlanga said: “I learnt everything I know about organising and participatory community engagement methods from Sis Fanny. My greatest memories of her [are] of sitting with her in halls, in classrooms, under trees, singing and sharing, learning and challenging each other. What amazed me was her ability to see through partisan politics and bring women together to sit and share and strategise. There are many moments [when] she encouraged, supported and guided – that will never be known publicly – that changed women’s political participation in this country.”
Chirisa knew how to reach out to women and make them feel welcome in politically charged and sometimes less-than-amenable women’s rights spaces.
Between 1998 and 2001 she had co-built the Linkage programme of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) – an initiative aimed at strengthening the strategic connections between female political leaders and the voting representatives of the constituencies they served.
Zimbabwean feminist Shereen Essof, executive director of JASS Crossregional, said: “How can I forget the first time I met Sis Fanny, when she joined the ZWRCN team in the late 1990s? She walked into the boardroom and her presence filled the room. She always kept things interesting with her energy and life. She broke down doors step by step, moment by moment. She reminded us all to just keep going.
“Fanny understood how the personal was political. She was open-minded, flexible and had a very big heart. For Fanny, feminism was a sensibility that was subject to constant revision, but very portable. She took it with her wherever she went. She was one of those rare activists who tried to understand rather than demolish her adversaries and often won them over with care and flair.”
Chirisa greeted every woman she came across with an effortless, genuine smile, crowned by her signature vibrant lipstick. She was unafraid of power. She understood it, disturbed and disrupted it. And, above all, she redefined it. Shared it. And redistributed it without any expectation of return patronage.
She lent her skills to mould and shape not only her peers or seniors, but the multiple generations of younger black female political leaders who have emulated the Chirisa model.
There is no doubt that the depth of her legacy will nurture the thousands of women whose lives she touched.