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In Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai continues two-step on LGBT rights

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's support for LGBT rights, in comments to the BBC this week has been a major issue with spokespeople for his MDC party keen to play it down.

But the ruling Zanu-PF party of Robert Mugabe have an obvious interest in playing it up and that's what's been happening. On October 25 half the government-run TV news bulletin was devoted to slamming Tsvangirai's backing of gay rights.

“He thinks Zimbabwe is Europe. This is Africa,” said Zanu-PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo. “He is misguided and unfortunately he does not understand what is happening in Zimbabwe.”

At the first Prime Minister's Question Time in Zimbabwe's parliament on Thursday ruling party MPs lined up to declare Tsvangirai "misguided” and “out of sync with reality on the ground.”

But when an MDC MP asked whether the PM was advocating for gay rights in the constitution there was wild laughter when Tsvangirai said:

“Perhaps I am speaking here kuda mumwe musi mungangodai muringochani panapa (we may be talking while some of you may be gays here). What you do in your private sphere is your private problem.”

On Friday he took part in another sort of Question Time with SW Radio Africa journalist Lance Guma putting Zimbabwean's questions to him.

Guma asked if his statement to the BBC was, as widely reported and as I examined earlier in the week, a 'U-turn' and whether Tsvangirai wasn't "opening yourself to political point scoring?"

Tsvangirai repeated the line he gave the parliament:

"My attitude towards gay rights has never changed. I’m not gay and therefore I don’t prescribe anyone’s sexual preferences. What you should understand is that this is a diversion, the real issue is that the people of Zimbabwe are writing a constitution and that it is the people of Zimbabwe who are going to define what society they would like."

"Including the fact yekuti (that) if the majority don’t like gays, they will not reflect it in their constitution, but it’s up to Zimbabweans, it cannot be written just to satisfy one individual just because at one stage in their life they’ve been traumatized."

"So one has to say that the issue of gay rights is a diversion, an elitist project to avoid the poor people who are around the country who don’t have anything. So let’s concentrate, let’s not try to bring to the forefront an issue which is definitely inconsequential."

Whether Tsvangirai's 'personal views' can be successfully exploited by Zanu-PF remains to be seen. In neighbouring Zambia's recent Presidential election the attempt to use LGBT rights as a wedge issue clearly failed.

And in the SW Radio Africa interview Tsvangirai pointed to one of those issues LGBT rights could be seen as a diversion from. Asked about another recent violent Zanu-PF disruption of a public hearing, this one on new electoral laws he said:

"Well I mean it’s not a perfect society, it’s not a perfect situation. I mean we have always said that Zanu PF’s character of violence, intimidation, coercion, it’s not something they will wake up one morning and try to discuss, it’s part of their culture but it doesn’t mean necessarily that our people must also not be determined to make their views be heard."

Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe (GALZ) has urged Tsvangirai "to have the courage to stand by his laudable respect for human rights in the face of the propaganda and unpopularity that will be generated by the Zimbabwean media around his position."

 "True leadership remains steadfast in the pursuit of justice and equality,” they say.