Spaces and Power: The story of Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda

On Wednesday the 10th of July, I woke up to the disappointing news that  UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had not appointed Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda as the new UN Women Director. I was disappointed for a number of reasons;

  1. She is a Zimbabwean woman and as one of us I stood solidly behind her just as the African group Gender Is My Agenda Campaign (GIMAC) stood behind her .
  2. I had hoped, beyond hope that her appointment would be the beginning of the recognition of Zimbabwean citizens within the global system as individual citizens of a country with a complex history but also with amazing capacity to hold key and top positions rather than as an extension of our government which is not exactly the most popular nor the most influential within global politics.
  3. But above all, I was disappointed that the process of appointment was mired in secrecy and a general lack of transparency. First there were six candidates as listed here . Then there were seven as listed here . Commentaries such as this ; predicting who would be appointed never mentioned the individual who was finally appointed. But clearly there were eight or more candidates.
    Nyaradzai in conversation with AU Chair Nkosazana Dlamini, Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Thokozani Khupe and GIMAC founder Mama Ruth from Uganda at the AU Women Stakeholders' Conference on Agenda 2063
    Nyaradzai in conversation with AU Chair Nkosazana Dlamini, Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Thokozani Khupe and GIMAC founding member Mama Ruth from Uganda at the AU Women Stakeholders’ Conference on Agenda 2063

Should the UN have been more transparent?  In my view, yes because if the global body that preaches transparency and accountability does not practise what it preaches, what are we to think? I believe I had a legitimate expectation as a supporter of Nyaradzai’s candidacy to know all those who were in the running for the same position?  Surely it is not too much to ask that those who were vying for this position should have been so declared, openly and publicly. Why then this secrecy?  I agree with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) in expressing deep disappointment in the lack of transparency of the UN in appointing the UN Women Executive Director.

I do have a good idea why things went the way they did.

A couple of months ago, a good friend of mine-Marjoca-introduced me to the concept of people, power and spaces. She gave me an article by John Gaventa called “Finding the Spaces for Change: A power analysis” in which Gaventa analyses the different kinds of spaces in which citizens operate, trying to engage policy processes from local to global fora. Gaventa makes a very incisive observation; that it is not about the presence of institutions that citizens are able to engage effectively but rather about power relations that exist between and among those seeking to engage these institutions.

Gaventa talks of closed or uninvited spaces where decisions are made behind closed doors with no pretence of broadening the boundaries of inclusion. Attempts to try to penetrate these spaces are futile. To mind comes the core of the UN Security Council, what the world has come to know as the superpowers; China, Russia, France, the US and the UK. The BIG FIVE.   Just like the big five within the African context- the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo- no matter how much the zebra asserts her belonging in the animal kingdom; she will never be one of the big five. Unless of course, maybe one of the big five goes extinct- something that we all hope never to happen for the sake of future generations. But my point is-such spaces are so closed yet they make decisions for and on behalf of others; decisions that are not always for the good of all represented.

Gaventa also talks of invited spaces where individuals can enter by invitation. The rules of engagement are already set. So you may try to change them, but will only make so much headway. To mind comes the UN Secretariat where anyone who works for it goes knowing that they are subject to rules, regulations, codes of conduct and of course the crippling bureaucracy.

Gaventa then talks of claimed spaces where individuals enter into spaces, set the rules, learn how to push the boundaries and ensure that the process of inclusion is not just window dressing. Maybe just maybe, someday the UN will become this space. Maybe the time will come when we won’t ask questions like; who is allowed into that space? Who isn’t allowed into it and why? What can we say and do within that space? How effective are we in influencing that space to cater to our needs?

In my mind, I am clear why Nyaradzai did not make it. She is a radical at heart, the embodiment of activism, heading the world’s largest grassroots movement the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) and tackling girls and women’s issues in the most brazen manner. Why shouldn’t she be radical, when she has worked with women for so long that the work is now her life? Why shouldn’t she be brazen when her life and experiences embody the lived realities of the suffering African child?

Nyaradzai receiving African solidarity from sisters from the continent in Addis Ababa early on in the year
Nyaradzai receiving African solidarity from sisters from the continent in Addis Ababa early on in the year

She walked barefoot to school, braving the cold. She learnt to manage hunger and live on what was available. She knows the value of education for the girl child-she is a living testimony of the results of the value of an educated and empowered girl child.  She knows what it means not have access to clean, safe and accessible water. She knows what it means to walk miles to a hospital just to get painkillers for a headache, only to get back home with sore feet and a headache.

Is this kind of individual not exactly what the hungry, war-torn, sick, education-hungry, battered, barefoot, pregnant, poor women and children world over needed?

Surely if the UN Women Director post had been filled based on popular support and global citizens’ belief  in individual candidates’ ability to best represent the wishes and aspirations of women and children, then I have no doubt Nyaradzai would have made it.

But decisions were made, we know not how; we were just informed after the fact. One of the requirements was that the candidate must be politically astute and able to engage effectively with a wide range of key actors in international negotiations. Clearly, for the UN such politically astuteness means you must have been a politician in your past life if the precedent set so far is anything to go by. Its first Director was the former President of Chile (2006-2010) and its second Director is the former Vice President of South Africa (2005-2008).

When I was a little girl, I had big dreams. I dreamt that one day I would be the Secretary General of the United Nations. Then I grew up and I began to understand that not my passion, nor my dedication to the cause for human rights would get me to where I wanted to go. There were other factors that would determine whether I made it into that space like; where was I born? Was I born male or female because in its whole history the UN has never had a female Secretary General? Instead it has been one male after the other rotating from region to region Ban Ki Moon, the current Sec Gen; Kofi Annan from Ghana (Jan 1997-Dec 2006); Boutros Boutros-Ghali from Egypt (Jan 1992-Dec 1996; Javier Pèrez de Cuèllar from Peru (Jan 1982-Dec 1991); Kurt Waldheim from Austria (Jan 1972-Dec 1981; U Thant from the then Burma, now Myanmar (Nov 1961-Acting, Nov1962-Dec 1971); Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden (April 1953-death Sept 1961); and Trygve Lie from Norway (Feb 1946-Nov 1952).

Would I make it as an African? And even if the choice was meant to come from Africa would I be from the right region? Would I be from the right country? Which of the BIG FIVE would support my candidacy?

More and more I realise that we are all born people, but as we grow older some are moulded to become more “human” than others because of their nationality, race, ethnicity, gender and so on. The ability to enter different spaces at different times differs depending on who you are. Yet I still hope, for real change, for real equality, for true humanity and for the reinforcement in each individual of true dignity. Someday…for now, the world keeps failing me.

8 thoughts on “Spaces and Power: The story of Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda

  1. I know that you havent met me mum but forever as long as l will be alive, l wont forget you. You helped me to be where l am n made me complete my high school through your organisation rmt in murewa. I thank you and pray for your life to be filled with all things that mean the most to you. I had A’s in all my A level subjects. Thank you mom

  2. We leave everything to God he is the final decision maker. I am sure Nyaradzai accepted the out come.Now lets bless the one who got this big
    job. Also lets thank the Lord for the post she is still holding and her love for others, especially the poor backgrounds and young woman and girls.

  3. This reminds of the fierce lobbying for Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma for the AU top post and the celebrations afterwards by the SA contingent that left a bad odour on the entire proceedings. you’re right the lack of transparency of the UN organs is disturbingly ironic.

  4. Very good points Miss. But in short, is it your feeling that the recent appointee was not deserving of the said post? However, it is indeed critical to clamor for more transparency in this system.

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