Lone voice of opposition braves death threats for democracy

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The Independent Online
'She is smart enough to know she could be killed' - but she may yet be Mugabe's nemesis. Mary Braid meets Zimbabwe's independent voice, Margaret Dongo

IT IS difficult to take in. From the corner of this tiny backyard in a lower middle class suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe's entire parliamentary opposition is masterminded.

It is even harder to accept that the lone - and disproportionately powerful - opposition voice in the legislature belongs to the young woman, glamorous in dramatic African print, who is standing by the plastic garden table, no more than 5ft 4in even in her platform sandals.

Everything about Margaret Dongo, a 38-year-old mother of three, is remarkable - particularly her unrelenting campaign, despite death threats and intimidation, to bring democracy to President Robert Mugabe's one-party state. She is arguably the only revolutionary left in a parliament where the Zanu- PF party - which in 1980 finally wrested Zimbabwe from white colonial rule - holds 147 of the 150 seats.

Ms Dongo was also once a Zanu MP. But unlike the rest, her reverence for the great commander who had delivered Zimbabwe did not blind her to his single-minded pursuit of power; neither could she stomach the cosy, corrupt patronage which later oozed from the President, eventually smothering principle and independence of mind.

Ms Dongo has long been a thorn in the party's side. Always critical, she was finally dismissed from Zanu in 1995. President Mugabe, in whose office she once worked, no doubt thought her vanquished. Who had ever amounted to anything without the omnipotent party?

But Ms Dongo contested her Sunningdale seat as an independent, despite a blackout by the government media. When she lost to the official Zanu candidate - Mr Mugabe put up her best friend against her - she went to court to have the election declared illegal, and won. In the re-election she took the seat; and became, if possible, an even bigger pain to the regime. As a non-Zanu MP she does not even qualify for a salary.

"In parliament they all hate her," says John Makumbe, a political scientist at Harare University, and a Dongo fan, with obvious pride. "But deep down they wish they had her courage. They phone her in the middle of the night to say 'keep it up'. But to say so publicly would be political suicide."

Though the last six months of strikes and demonstrations have proved Zimbabweans are shaking off the complacency that helped Mr Mugabe gain a stranglehold, for the moment Dongo is still largely alone. With her ferocious parliamentary reputation a stranger expects a tough cookie, which is why her prettiness and approachability are disarming, to say nothing of her humour.

While her arrival on the Zanu front line at the age of 15 is spoken of by admirers with awe, she makes it sound as ridiculous as an Enid Blyton adventure. In Four Join The Revolution, neither she nor the three girlfriends who accompanied her across the border to Mozambique to join Zimbabwean liberation fighters had the vaguest idea of what they were getting into.

"We were just four little girls," she laughs. "It took three days to get there, and we were so hungry. When we met up with Frelimo [Mozambique's own revolutionary movement] soldiers they just laughed. We cried and wanted to go home. We had such childish ideas. My friend wanted a gun to shoot her stepmother, and I decided that my first victim would be a policeman who had run after my mother and made her fall when she was pregnant."

But the story says as much about perseverance as anything. Ms Dongo stuck it out in the bush for five years, and rose to camp commander. And, unfortunately for her former comrades, now Zanu MPs, she continued to believe in free and fair distribution of land and equal access to education and health - policies jettisoned by so many others for a seat on the gravy train. "We fought to change the system," she says. "After five years in power I realised we were getting into Ian Smith's shoes."

Her enduring idealism irritates many. A few weeks ago she was attacked in parliament by a retired army commander after she described Zanu MPs as "Mugabe's wives", because they never questioned his bidding. Other MPs had to restrain the old soldier as he launched himself across the parliamentary floor, and she had to have a police escort home.

It has its humorous side; even Ms Dongo laughs. But it's a deadly game. In February she was petrol-bombed by Zanu supporters as she campaigned for one of a new breed of independent candidates inspired by her to contest local elections. Zanu, it appears, fears her new independent movement may yet grow into Zimbabwe's first opposition party.

And the personal strain should not be underplayed. Late last year there were rumours Ms Dongo had been poisoned, although she says a week-long stay in hospital was the result of stress and overwork.

For Iden Wetherell, assistant editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, which is severely critical of the Mugabe regime, Margaret Dongo is representative of the new emerging Zimbabwe - questioning, and demanding of participation and political opposition. Mr Mugabe - obdurate, arrogant and unable to reform - clings to Cold War rhetoric. Typifying a bankrupt past, he blames everything on whites, colonialism and counter-revolutionaries.

While the President, an arch socialist, has conceded the economic adjustments demanded by the new world order, he cannot make the political concessions that might make economic change work. "He has tasted absolute power," says Ms Dongo, "and he cannot let it go."

In the past few months, popular dissatisfaction with the Mugabe regime has swelled, and now threatens to engulf his party. Even Zanu now has an interest in challenging the status quo, and if radical change does come, then Ms Dongo may be poised for high office. But even if she does have presidential ambitions, she would be mad to admit them now. Mr Mugabe's grip may be slipping, but that makes these particularly dangerous times.

"She is smart enough to know she could be killed," says Mr Makumbe, the academic, who believes she might be a strong presidential candidate, Zimbabwean chauvinism permitting. Ms Dongo seems aware of the limitations, describing her husband, Casper, as a man in a million because "African culture tells him he should not be ruled by his wife".

Meanwhile Mr Makumbe and a coterie of admirers build up her strength and tackle weaknesses. Though she is clearly intelligent, she never had a higher education. Mr Makumbe is seeking a donor to send her on a short Harvard University leadership course, though a home sponsor is difficult to find when being a friend of Margaret Dongo can still be costly.

On the walls of the tiny office in the corner of her yard, she displays a cartoon of Mr Mugabe sitting on a stool outside parliament, singing "Handi Ende" (I Will Not Go), country and western style. "She stood up to Mugabe before anyone else," says one of her volunteer workers. "She was the first."