When Zanu PF held its star rally in Mutawatawa, Mashonaland East province on 5 August, a man with long white beard almost took the limelight from party leader, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was the guest of honor.
Adorned in an all-white apostolic sect outfit, he interacted with the party’s supporters, including top officials who were jostling to have pictures taken with him.
He was indeed a star attraction.
“Chibaba ichi (he is the main man)”, a group of young men shouted to his amusement.
The long white bearded man, Bobby Makaza, gained popularity after a video of him vigorously singing Mnangagwa’s praises on his release from prison in May went viral. He was serving a 16-year sentence for raping a 10-year-old girl.
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“ED huchi (Mnangagwa is sweet like honey),” he yelled, attracting the attention of journalists who were covering the release of prisoners at Harare Central Prison in the capital city.
Makaza is one of the more than 4,000 prisoners, including sexual offenders, who were released from prison through a presidential amnesty. Some of the beneficiaries had served less than a quarter of their sentences.
Zanu PF has adopted “ED huchi”, as the party and Mnangagwa’s slogan, ahead of Wednesday’s general elections. It has been extensively used at the ruling party’s rallies and has found expression on the Zanu PF regalia.
Makaza’s victim, now 15, through the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights demanded an explanation from Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service (ZPCS) over the irregular circumstances which led to the release of the rapist. Rape is a specified offense, excluded from benefitting from the presidential amnesty. She wants the amnesty reversed.
ZPCS acting Commissioner-General, Shepherd Mpofu, in his opposing affidavit defended Makaza’s release primarily based on Clemency Order Number 1 of 2023, in which full remission of sentence was granted to prisoners who are 60 years and above regardless of offences committed. Only those sentenced to life imprisonment, death, or those convicted of public violence were not covered.
He stated that the minor’s parents must not be aggrieved by Makaza’s release on the strength of Clemency Order Number 1 of 2023 as it was promulgated in terms of the law and ought to be respected by every law-abiding citizen of Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, at the Mutawatawa rally, the master of ceremony announced that Zimbabwe’s Deputy Youth, Sports, Arts & Recreation minister Tino Machakaire had pledged to construct a house for Makaza, for coming up with the “ED Huchi” slogan. He also promised to give him US$500 cash while another party official pledged USD200.
Makaza has appeared on campaigning videos endorsing Mnangagwa’s candidature alongside Mashonaland East provincial chairperson who is also National Housing and Social Amenities minister Daniel Garwe, to the dismay of the public who are questioning the party’s willingness to address the sexual exploitation of girls.
Zimbabwe has been grappling with sexual exploitation of girls, with little progress being made.
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This is more so, when the perpetrators are members of the apostolic sects, like Makaza. Apostolic sects command a huge following countywide and are thus close to the ruling elite, who are careful not to offend church leaders, for political support.
Makaza’s case is therefore not isolated, an investigation by She Corresponds Africa with support from Information Development Trust under a project meant to Probe Corruption, Bad Governance and Electoral Manipulation, reveals.
Although Zimbabwe has laws to protect girls from child marriage and sexual exploitation, the quest for political power or retaining power has resulted in political leaders turning a blind-eye to the vice, as they seek to appease religious sects where the practice is common.
Some religious sects such as Johanne Marange Apostolic Church have many members, and have become almost untouchable as politicians fear losing votes. It’s not surprising that Mnangagwa, like his predecessor Robert Mugabe took time to visit shrines as part of his election campaign.
Naturally, he was endorsed by the religious leaders, who commanded their followers to vote for the ruling party.
Perpetrators of sexual offences largely walk scot-free, save for a few cases when there is massive public pressure.
On July 15, 2021, Anna Machaya (14) died while giving birth at a Johane Marange Apostolic Church shrine in Mafararikwa, Bocha, in Zimbabwe’s eastern province of Manicaland. She was abruptly buried at the shrine, a few hours after her demise, in a bid to conceal the predicament that had befallen her.
Machaya with the consent of her parents, who are devoted members of the church, had married her off to 26-year-old Hatirarami Momberume, in violation of Zimbabwean law, which makes it illegal to get married under the age of 18.
After the news of Anna’s demise broke and police opened an inquiry under huge pressure from the public, her parents lied that her name was Memory Machaya. They also claimed she was born on January 2, 1999, which would have made her 22 when she died, a lie the law enforcement agencies later exposed after acquiring documents which stated that the deceased girl’s name was Anna Machaya whose date of birth was July 5, 2006.
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Her parents, Edmore Machaya (45) and Shy Mabika (36) were jailed for nine months each after being convicted on charges of defeating or obstructing the course of justice by Kwekwe magistrate Samukelisiwe Gumbo. Her husband, Hatirarami Momberume, who was later charged with her murder fled in dramatic fashion, as soon as he had been granted ZW$50 000 bail by High Court judge Justice Isaac Muzenda.
Other well-known cases of child brides who succumbed to maternal complications in recent times include 15-year-old Ferby Munyafi of Chiadzwa Village in Marange who died from excessive bleeding while delivering under the watch of a faith healer in January last year.
Nokutenda Hwaramba (15), also died in 2022 while giving birth at an apostolic sect shrine in Bikita District, Masvingo Province.
Activists say Makaza’s case and child brides are confirmation that the country’s problems with sexual violence against women and girls are generally not taken as seriously as they should be.
A UNICEF report released in June 2022 noted that there are over 1 million young Zimbabwean girls married before the age of 18 with 241 000 of these betrothed below the age of 15.
Save the Children International states that; “The devastation of child marriage robs a girl of her education and more, replacing lessons learned in the classroom with adult responsibilities, including forced pregnancy, before she’s ready. This not only violates her rights, but risks her life, the lives of her children and the future of her community.”
Early childbearing contributes to maternal mortality, and is a leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 globally.
Zanu PF’s relationship with the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect
For decades, the Johanne Marange apostolic sect has enjoyed good relations with the ruling party as seen by Mugabe and Mnangagwa’s visits, especially during election seasons.
Not only do the congregants religiously attend state functions, they are also a strong support system which provide a substantive number of votes to Zanu PF.
In the wake of the harmonized election on Wednesday, the Johanne Marange church and other apostolic sects have publicly endorsed Mnangagwa’s candidature and assured him of its members’ overwhelming vote.
“As a church, we have faith he (President Mnangagwa) shall continue to lead our nation. The coming elections will just be a formality of processes as President Mnangagwa already has our vote and full support throughout,” the church said in July this year.
Mnangagwa visited the church shrine in July, as part of his campaign.
In return for political support, the congregation receives support and protection from the government, which has enabled it to get away with a number of actions with impunity, among them, the sexual exploitation of young girls.
Although Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi told parliament that police faced resistance from the Johane Marange Church while investigating the Memory Machaya case, resulting in delayed justice, the government went out of its way to protect the sect and prevented it from abolishing child marriages.
In October 2021, the government opposed a High Court application filed by child rights activists seeking to compel the Johane Marange Apostolic Church and other apostolic churches to launch a campaign against child marriages.
In the application, the applicants, Masvingo resident Sharon Moffat, Legal Resource Foundation and Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe stated that they wanted the Marange Apostolic Church and the Apostolic Churches Council to display anti-child marriage messages at every place of worship or shrine for 19 consecutive weeks.
The Marange Apostolic Church of St Johane and the Apostolic Churches Council were cited as the first and second defendants respectively.
Vice-President and Health minister Constantino Chiwenga, Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi, Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe, Women’s Affairs minister Sithembiso Nyoni, the Zimbabwe Republic Police, Zimbabwe Gender Commission and Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission were also cited as third to ninth defendants respectively in the matter.
In their plea, the government officials opposed the application describing it as unnecessary, further stating that they had taken all the necessary steps required at law to curb child marriages.
“Defendants plead that all the legislative and other steps required at law have been taken to stop child marriages and enforcement of the same is being taken as occasions require,” the defendants said.
However, the church’s impunity did not stop.
In February 2022, still investigating the death of Memory Machaya, police were barred by church devotees from exhuming the body of child bride, at a church shrine in Mafararikwa Village where she had been illegally buried.
Although the police had an exhumation order signed by the district administrator as required by the law, they were sent packing as per orders of the church’s new leader Noah Taguta.
Taguta demanded that the police officers bring a letter of authorisation from President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
In a separate development, that shows that there is no political will to stop the sexual exploitation of minors, the government is in breach of a Constitutional Court decreto requiring that the legal age of consent for sex be raised from 16 years to 18.
In May 2022, the highest court in the land, struck down as unconstitutional provisions in the Criminal Law that set the age of consent for sex at 16.
Many welcomed the ruling in hopes that criminalizing sex with underage girls could help slow cases of teen pregnancies and child marriages that have become a thorn in the flesh.
Tendai Biti, the lawyer who argued the case said that it was unconstitutional that children could not be married until they attain 18 “yet the law allowed them to be sexually abused from the age of 16.”
“Men were now having their cake and eating it too, so in some instances a man could say ‘I slept with you, I want to marry you but the law says I can’t marry you but I can have sex with you,’’ he said.
The ruling was welcomed by children’s rights activists countrywide.
“This ruling guarantees protection of girls under 18. In the past we had old men taking advantage of girls. Pedophiles were getting away with abuse,” said Talent Jumo, director of Katswe Sistahood, a group that campaigns for girls’ rights, soon after it was announced.
The Ministry of Justice had 12 months to enact a law, but no action has been taken to date, meaning the age of consent legally remains at 16.
Ziyambi refused to give this reporter audience on five different occasions, in person as well as via phone calls.
However, in 2021, the minister argued in parliament that “most children are mature, beyond their age nowadays and are already sexually active.”
He claimed that raising the age of consent to 18 “means children below the age of 18 having sexual intercourse will be criminalised” and have “unwanted criminal records.”
Despite numerous cases of child marriages, some of which have resulted in deaths when child brides go into labour as revealed in this investigation, Abraham Mafararikwa, one of the Johanne Marange church’s, top leaders, denied that their church supports politicians in order to get protection from the government of the day.
“Our church isn’t involved in politics because politics is a dirty game,” he says.
Ironically, church spokesperson Nyasha Marange is the Mutare West Zanu PF candidate, while church leaders instruct all congregants to vote for the ruling party during elections. Church members are also forced to attend Zanu PF rallies.
“It is unfortunate that Zanu PF as a political party has a relationship with the Marange apostolic sect. Ruling party politicians often conflate government law enforcement agencies to actually protect this apostolic sect,” said Linda Masarira, the leader of Labour Economists and African Democrats party.
Masarira, who is also a women’s rights activist added: “You will find that pedophiles that were released under amnesty by the president, had raped girls as young as 13 and 14 which is a cause for concern.”
Sexual exploitation of girls in the Johanne Marange Religious sect
The Johane Marange Apostolic Church, named after its founder, was established in Zimbabwe in the 1930s, and has since spread its wings throughout East, Central, and Southern Africa, as well as to Europe, particularly the United Kingdom where it commands a following of more than 1.2 million due to its blended teachings of Christianity with African traditional beliefs like polygamy.
Investigations revealed that church members believe that Johanne Marange, the founder, received the church’s charter, its rules and practices through the Holy Spirit, who also requires they strictly adhere to the teachings and practices, as well as comply with all normative values of the group.
“We are people of the spirit. Everything we do is guided by the holy spirit as was prescribed to our founding father Johanne Marange in 1932,” said Brian Makarichi, a church member.
Investigations further revealed that one of the common practices part of the “holy spirit” prescribed doctrine include ‘mucheso’, performed by older women to check girls’ virginity.
“It’s our duty as elderly women to make sure that we keep our children grounded in the way of the Lord and one of the ways we do so for girls who have reached puberty is making sure that they are not being promiscuous through virgin testing,” said a senior female church member who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of repercussions.
We discovered that after undergoing ‘mucheso’, girls who fail the virginity test are forced into polygamous marriages, and go and live with older men, together with their wives, in a process called ‘kuputsa’ as a form of punishment. Whilst those who pass the test are encouraged to become head-wives of slightly younger man who have never been married.
Fifteen-year-old, mother of two, Nyasha Kusotera* is one of the countless child brides who belong to the church. Despite having been good at her academics, she was married off to a 24-year-old man from the same congregation before completing her primary education in 2021.
“I remember coming home from a nearby well, where I had gone to fetch water to find three elders from our church talking to my mother about having come to collect their wife. I proceeded to wash the dishes and before I was done, my mother called me into the hut where they were seated and told me that a man who had requested my hand in marriage now needed me,” she said.
“Although I was confused with what was being said, I just took comfort in knowing that other girls from church like my former classmate Maria (who was pregnant at the time), had travelled the path that I was about to embark on,’’ she said.
Church followers like Nyasha’s* mother, Mirriam Dera* do not see anything wrong with the practice.
“Most people despise our church because our girls are married off young but a minor who has sex with a husband is better than one who has sex outside marriage. “As soon as a girl reaches puberty, any man in the church can claim her for his wife,” Mirriam* said.
A 2010 study by theologian and researcher, David Bishau, found a high illiteracy rate among married women belonging to the Johanne Marange church.
Efforts to get a comment from church spokesperson, Nyasha Marange who is also the aspiring legislator for Mutare West constituency were futile as he was said to be busy campaigning.
However, whilst reeling under massive pressure from local and international human rights activists and organizations, after the death of Memory Machaya in 2021, he denied that the church condones child marriages and that Machaya’s was an ‘isolated case’, which must be separated from them.
“This was an individual case that must be separated from the church”.
“We have high respect to our government and as a church we also have our own laws that clearly state that girls under the age of 18 must not be married,” he said.
Marange’s claims would be thwarted several months later when another 14-year-old, child bride, Delight Masomeke, who was the second wife to Tinashe Chibuwe from the same church, died in January this year, three days after giving birth to a baby girl, from labour related complications.
Like in the Memory Machaya scenario, Chibuwe and his relatives tried to conceal Delight’s death by moving her corpse at night and burying it, a move that backfired when some of her relatives heard of her passing and alerted the police.
“To this day, I’m still gutted by what happened to my niece. Personally, I thought that she was still in school, only to learn about her having been married off at such a young age, after her demise,” said Norris Jones, Delight’s uncle.
Tinashe Chibuwe was later charged with ‘having sex with a minor’ as well as the unlawful movement of a corpse.
He is currently out on bail.
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