Can someone tell Biti to hold his tongue?

Tendai Biti

Posted a colleague (name withheld) on Facebook somewhat angrily — and understandably so — this week: “I was born into a polygamous family in Manicaland and it’s not feudal by any description! Happy with it!”


Anger was not out of place because the core of his very existence and values — his family foundation — had been attacked by MDC Alliance principal Tendai Biti in a tweet after the main opposition bloc had held a well-attended electioneering rally in Marange, Manicaland province, so it was absolutely unnecessary to stir a hornet’s nest, or, as they say in Shona, kudenha mago arere. But Biti contrived to do that, hence the raging fallout from his tweet.

The offending tweet went thus: “A big rare smile from Marange . . . Manicaland regrettably has the highest rate of polygamy in the country with 45% of ‘married’ persons in this community being in polygamous unions. Education and development will eliminate these throwbacks from our feudal past.”

Firstly, by putting “married” in quotes, the inference is that the validity of those marriages is questionable. So, by extension, an offspring from that is an illegitimate child, a child who is born to parents who are not married, or who is born out of wedlock, and can also be referred to as a “love child” or, even worse, a “bastard”. This is the stuff that stigmatisation is made of and, is, in fact, a throwback to feudalism.

Secondly, making a blanket statement that people in Manicaland go into polygamy because of lack of education and development is highly provocative. I am not from Manicaland, but one thing I know is that Manicalaland is not a wasteland of ignorance or backwater of poverty. I have been twice to Marange itself, deep, deep into Marange, where I saw people who are very much attuned to modern ways.

Respected journalist and film-maker Hopewell Chin’ono was also not impressed, saying: “Foot-in-mouth disease here! You can’t insult the people you want votes from and expect them to be kind to you. Politicians must learn to know when to talk about something and when to keep quiet. These marriages are rooted in their culture, so Tendai Biti has attacked a whole people and their culture which is anchored through their biblical beliefs or cultural traditions. The other guy (from Zanu PF) will go and respect their culture and give them freebies and you cry foul. This is not Europe where you impress with Western values! . . . Insulting our people as feudal shows the Western indoctrination in us. There is a difference between consenting adults and forced marriages. He should have addressed forced marriages instead of attacking people who are in polygamous marriages for religions and cultural norms as feudal.”

This is not the first time that Biti has talked out of turn as he often speaks in a tactless, bombastic way. We have all come across people who say something erroneous, foolish, or impudent at an inappropriate time or when they do not have the authority to do so. And, with all due respect, Biti is one such individual. What he blurts out is mostly high-sounding, but with little meaning, little relevance like sound and fury signifying nothing. He rushes to open his mouth without, to use a lawyerly word for his benefit, “due” consideration of the consequences.

The problem with Biti and many other — not all — lawyers is that they have this tendency to look at things in the narrowest legal sense. He might be a brilliant lawyer, but he lacks the emotional intelligence to be an effective politician. Former president Robert Mugabe and the late MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai showed how it’s done when they climbed down from their high horses and deferred to the Marange community by putting on apostolic garments, becoming one and the same with the community for the duration of their visits, not this superior, condescending and disparaging attitude displayed by Biti, which is a throwback to the days when Mugabe referred to Mbare residents as “totemless” and reaped the political whirlwind. Across the Atlantic, it is said that one of the main reasons which turned the tide against Hillary Clinton is her labelling of Donald Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” (marombe in Shona/abantu imithwalo in Nguni).

Biti might have a heightened legal perspective, but he comes woefully short when it comes to the sociological perspective, that essential ingredient which gives one a perspective on human behaviour and its connection to society as a whole. It is an approach to understanding human behaviour by placing it within its broader social context. This is in contrast to those academics who live in a rarefied world, a world which is different from the lives and concerns of ordinary people. These academics, in their rarefied scholarly pursuits, only relate to and are interesting to a select group. The Ibbo Mandazas, Tony Reelers and Brian Kagoros come to mind.

Moreover, these Marange polygamists are open about it, but what about many professional men who have “small houses” and children with their mistresses on the sidelines who mostly only surface after the man has died like it has happened with Zanu PF’s Guy Georgias, Tsvangirai and many other prominent people? Is it not hypocritical to condemn the exact thing you do? Are we going to label Tsvangirai and Georgias as having been feudal?

But because Biti is so self-righteous and judgmental he completely misses this. Remember he is the same person who disparaged the late Tsvangirai as “another Gumbura”, equating him with jailed habitual rapist Robert Gumbura whereas Tsvangirai never raped any woman, but was having affairs with consenting adults. Does anyone still recall during the era of the inclusive government when the late former MDC-T minister Eliphas Mukonoweshuro, who was in charge of the Labour portfolio, famously described Biti, who was then Finance minister, as trying to act like a “super minister”? Is that where the key lies in trying to unlock Biti’s mind?

That said, there is need to hammer again on the sociological perspective. This perspective offers paradigms for explaining how society influences people and vice versa, meaning women in the Marange community are not passive victims at all or child-bearing machines, but are very much part and parcel of the community with active and influential roles to play as I have seen with my own eyes. This sociological perspective enables us to look for the connections between the behaviour of individual people and the structures of the society in which they live, and if you look closely you will discover that the Marange community is very much functional, not dysfunctional as Biti would have us believe.

Observed Chin’ono: “If ever you wanted to know about the definition of sabotaging your own campaign, this is your answer . . . I have to say that Biti is bold. To call 45% of married people in Manicaland feudal and backward in an election cycle requires a stiff drink!”

Indeed, Biti is completely offside on the Marange community and the opposition could suffer serious consequences as a result of his deplorable tweet.
In the circumstances, can someone tell him to hold his tongue?

lConway Nkumbuzo Tutani is a Harare-based columnist. Email: This article was first published by News Day