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Woman warrior takes on Mugabe's corrupt clique

LOCAL HEROES 15 : Margaret Dongo
If credibility is the driving force in a successful political career, Margaret Dongo will travel far. While only in her 30s, she is one of the few politicians who has established her credentials in the blood, sweat and tears of the past and also laid a claim to the (hopefully peaceful) future.

Zimbabwe is still close enough to its guerrilla struggle of the 1970s for a glittering war record to boost political advancement, and Ms Dongo's claim is strong. She left school at the age of 15 and walked several hundred miles into neighbouring Mozambique to sign up as a freedom fighter.

"There were times when we went without food and up to 50 people could die," she recalls. "You could walk for days without food."

Ms Dongo's nom de guerre during the war, Tichaoua Muhondo, means "We will sort it out on the battlefield."

But soon after independence, she educated herself and became a highly regarded administrator, rising rapidly in the ranks of the party which Robert Mugabe insisted would rule Zimbabwe for ever. It was with Zanu PF's firm backing that she became one of the handful of women who became members of parliament in 1990.

However, while independent Zimbabwe has paid lip service to the sacrifices of those who fought for that independence, practical help has been less forthcoming.

"When we came home, things were not better," Ms Dongo explains. "The situation worsened for the ex- combatants after independence. Few were lucky and many remained bitter."

Ms Dongo first achieved national prominence when, as a founding member of the War Veterans' Association, she pledged her support to the ex-combatants and battled hard for compensation for the many who came back destitute.

Mr Mugabe himself endured 10 years in jail under Ian Smith. But in power, he has been accused of trying to hijack the concept of heroism for his own ends. Ms Dongo's first-hand experience of the struggle for independence remains for her a yardstick by which to measure the hypocrisy of the leadership.

If Ms Dongo has old-fashioned credibility, she has also established her credentials for the new era that many Zimbabweans hope for, in which those who have governed the country for personal gain will be finally removed. She has an impressive record of opposition to this class.

Her outspokenness after her election as a Zanu PF MP resulted in her fall from grace, and Zanu PF's aged heavyweights opposed her attempt to stand as the party's candidate in last year's parliamentary elections. With the support of her Sunningdale constituents she decided to go it alone and stood as an independent.

Despite a large and loyal following she lost to a Zanu-PF-backed candidate. Confident of the strength of her support, she decided to try to expose the irregularities and rigging of the electoral system.

She became the first person to challenge the validity of election results in the High Court and in a landmark decision, the vote was annulled. After a new vote last year she emerged victorious against the party of which she was once a stalwart. Her record of protecting the rights of women, children and the poor helped her secure a place as the first woman in Zimbabwe's history to win a parliamentary seat as an independent.

She urges her constituency members to become self-sufficient and has helped set up cottage industries, including soap-making, retailing, tie-dying and wax-making. Among her plans for Sunningdale, where she lives, are to build a secondary school and day-care centres, donor-funded adult literacy classes and expand existing co-operatives.

Her preoccupations may seem small beer. But they address her constituents' real needs, and if she continues to listen to ordinary people and act on their behalf, she will be well placed to step in when the discredited old guard finally loses its grip on power.

Reyhana Masters-Smith