The lean Cabinet appointed by President Mnangagwa to superintend over the affairs of the Second Republic has several new faces. Beginning today, The Herald will be profiling the new ministers, deputy ministers and permanent secretaries so that our valued readers get to know the persons behind the names. In this inaugural instalment, our Gender Editor Ruth Butaumocho caught up with the new Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Dr Sekai Nzenza; the following is her story.
AFTER globe-trotting for 26 years working in various international positions, Dr Sekai Nzenza decided to retire to her village in Chikomba District when most of her friends and colleagues were withdrawing to leafy suburbs and foreign lands.
Unbeknown to her, the decision to go back to her people was to mark the beginning of her political journey.
Dr Nzenza, who is the National Assembly member for Chikomba East, recently got an extra feather in the cap following her appointment as the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare.
“I am a people’s politician, whose support is grounded in the grassroots. I derive my strength from the people,” she said in an interview recently.
From being a global citizen, who traversed the globe working for different international organisations including World Vision International, Dr Nzenza retraced her footsteps to home country after years of mired cultural identity, to work with her people in Chikomba East.
She has managed to maximise her wealth of experience to improve the lives of ordinary people in Chikomba East, embarking on several developmental projects that have brought smiles to multitudes of people in her home area.
With the assistance of her regional and international friends, Dr Nzenza has drilled boreholes in the constituency, facilitated solar installations and construction of health centres and other public institutions. She will also be remembered for the construction of a community hall for Chikomba East, courtesy of the Australian Embassy, as well as building a rondavel for use in a local feeding programme.
On a national scale, in 2014, Dr Nzenza lured German investors to Zimbabwe who brought US$6 million worth of investment in agriculture and state-of-the-art agricultural equipment under the name Amatheon Agric Zimbabwe.
Through that initiative, close to 1 000 hectares of land have since been put under irrigation in Murehwa and Norton.
“Working with the community has been exhilarating. I can relate to the issues and I am able to put my expertise to use that I acquired in all the countries that I worked in.
“This (Zimbabwe) is where I belong and I am happy that I now have an identity of who I am, something that I struggled with over the years. My cultural identity issue could have been as a result of the missionary teachings I received in secondary school, my sojourn in foreign lands and detachment from my home for a long time,” she said.
Embracing the privilege of working and learning in distant foreign lands ushered in an opportune time for critical introspection for Dr Nzenza, which not only birthed a renewed sense of Afrocentricity in her character, but also gave her an insatiable thirst for uncovering her true culture and identity.
This, she said, gave her a leadership style that she hopes to take into the future as she takes Zimbabwe to another level.
“When I was at Kwenda Mission, I was a very strong born-again Christian.
“I just wanted to be English. I learnt to speak English with an accent. I admired everything about white people,” she said.
Still mesmerised with Eurocentric views, soon after the war, Dr Nzenza went to the UK in 1982 to study for a degree in child health at Great Ormond Street, after completing a nursing course at Harare Hospital.
For someone who had idolised white people during her teenage years while at Kwenda Mission in the 1980s, she experienced cultural shock when she got to London, after discovering cultural indifferences for the race she had idolised so much.
“It was while in London that I realised that the white people that I used to idolise were just like all of us. There was nothing special really,” she revealed.
“I even questioned myself whether I really wanted to be like them.”
It was during that time in 1984 that she wrote her first book, “Zimbabwean Woman: My Own story”, where she retold her phenomenal experience in the war as a female collaborator during the country’s liberation struggle while growing up.
Determined to promote a Pan-African perspective, she then enrolled for mural studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies to get an appreciation of the colonial experiences of the African people.
“I really wanted to understand how as Africans we ended up in the colonial situation that we were in. It really helped me understand who I was.”
The issue of cultural identity preoccupied Dr Nzenza so much that when she migrated to Australia from London, she yearned to fully understand the cultural identities between white and black people.
While in Australia between 1986 and 1996, Dr Nzenza pursued her dream of interrogating Pan-African perspectives and politics and enrolled for a Political Science and African Studies Degree at the University of Melbourne, while also working for World Vision as a programme manager for Rwanda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
She briefly returned home in 1997, to manage the then Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe water, sanitation, health and agricultural integrated developmental project by the World Vision. She was also monitoring food distribution in that area.
“It was during that time that I critically looked on sustainability issues. I really got interested in looking at whether aid really works.”
With some lessons learnt, Dr Nzenza went back to Australia in 1998 where she became a director of policy research, advocacy and communication for World Vision, focusing on Asia, Africa and Latin America. Boasting of a wealth of experience that earned her the moniker “the poverty expert” because of her discerning eye to paucity issues, she was assigned to Sri Lanka to work alongside other stakeholders when tsunami struck the region in 2005.
All this time, Dr Nzenza was shuttling between Australia and Zimbabwe and sometimes would travel six times in a year to attend to her sick mother.
“All the time, I kept questioning myself on my identity. Who was I, and where I belonged to were some of the questions that I could not answer. I was trying to find a home, having spent 26 years in the Diaspora.”
To dissipate her growing frustrations on her identity, Dr Nzenza started writing articles on her personal narrative for several publications in Australia, including the Guardian Weekly. During that time, she also wrote her second novel, “Songs to an African Sunset”, in which she talks of her experience of coming home, and spending time in the village with her mom.
“I was in a state of confusion. I had been a global citizen for 26 years and yet I didn’t know where I belonged.”
In all these sojourns, Dr Nzenza, who is a sister to the late diplomat, Charity Nzenza, never imagined herself as a politician.
In 2011, Dr Nzenza was to return home following the death of her two sisters and her mother’s failing health.
Adjusting to life back home, Dr Nzenza, who had found writing to be therapeutic, began writing for The Herald while living with her mother in Chikomba, like any other villager.
From being a global citizen, the learned doctor became an ordinary villager, who would attend to night vigils in Matarutse Village alongside her peers. She became part of the community and found herself superintending over a local burial society – Tsungai.
In the midst of all those interactions, Dr Nzenza was, however, shocked by the sea of poverty in Chikomba East that she immediately reached out to her international friends for assistance.
Dr Nzenza said her decision to assist the locals was not inspired by the possibility of any public office of some sort, but she wanted to improve the waning fortunes of her impoverished community.
It took the persuasion by several villagers from different political parties, including those from the opposition MDC-Alliance, to convince her to stand as the Zanu-PF candidate a few months before the elections.
After she bought 30 pairs of shoes for them, the campaign took off, run by women, but appealing to all voters who wanted faster development in Chikomba.
Up against the better-funded campaigns of incumbent Cde Edgar Mbwembwe and evangelist Alexander Chisango, as well as five other male contenders, Dr Nzenza won emphatically with over 8 000 votes, earning herself a ticket to represent people of Chikomba East in the National Assembly.
With elections regarded in some sectors as the “rich men’s game,” the soft-spoken philanthropist-cum-politician revealed that she never used a dime to lure supporters.
“The people of Chikomba East knew what I was capable of and they voted me into power,” she said.
Turning to her mandate as the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, Dr Nzenza will look at a number of issues that include, but are not limited to distribution of food aid, proper and efficient distribution of inputs under the Presidential Inputs Support Scheme as well as ensuring proper water and sanitation facilities. Her ministry will also collaborate with Treasury in rationalising the wage bill on a phased basis in a manner that has a “human face”.
“The saved resources will hopefully be redirected to sectors that promote economic development and thereby reduce dependence on social welfare,” said Dr Nzenza, the holder of a doctorate in International Relations.
Issues pertaining to the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) will also be high on the agenda to put an end to challenges currently bedevilling the parastatal.
Dr Nzenza is already geared to take up the issues in her ministry head-on, and will put the expertise on public sector reform to use to ensure the success of the ministry.