By Takura Zhangazha
A local weekly, the Sunday Mail newspaper recently carried a very disturbing story on allegations of sexual abuse of female worshippers by well-known clergyman Walter Magaya. Titled, ‘Magaya Bombshell’ the story gave accounts of some of the worshippers and how they were either victims or witness to the alleged sexual abuse. One of the victims also claimed that ‘…the police were compromised and so were most of the journalists…’ so recourse to the law or the court of public opinion was by implication, difficult.
After the story had been published, social media also had its say on the allegations. And one of the alleged victims cited in the Sunday Mail’s story took to Facebook to accuse the paper and journalist who broke the story of ‘using her’ to fix the clergyman. The newspaper and its journalists in turn released video snippets of the alleged victim’s interview and promised a follow up story in its next print edition.
In one of the videos shared by the paper, the victim makes reference to Magaya having given her US$1500 in fifty dollar notes and how she had knelt down in gratitude, a point I will come back to later.
This particular story has caused a lot of debate on social media probably because of the popularity/populism of the celebrity religious pastor involved. And with all matters religious the debate has focused more on the (im)morality of the figure in question. Together with the societal behavior influence he yields as a result of his ministry and his wealth.
Across the Atlantic, a billionaire financier and friend of a former and a serving American president, Jeffrey Epstein was recently arrested and faces charges of sex trafficking. For more than ten years Epstein had been accused of sexually abusing minor girls. He had even managed to strike a deal with prosecutors that stopped a federal investigation into the allegations. Using money and probably political connections he had been almost immune from indictment. At least as reported in American media, he will be put to his defence in that country’s judicial system.
I have cited the allegations against Magaya and Epstein in tandem because they have a number of things in common. Even if one is a clergyman and the other a billionaire financier. The first common factor in the allegations is the alleged use of money to either pay off the abused or to lure them into abuse. Epstein reportedly paid his victims ‘hundreds of dollars’. Magaya reportedly offered US$1500 prior to the abuse. It would almost be as though the fact that they have money would justify their actions.
This is where the evil (I use this word deliberately) of the commodification of the female body comes into the picture.
One of Magaya’s alleged victims describes the scene in which she received money as having knelt before him crying with gratitude. It’s not difficult to picture the power dynamics at play here: standing ‘prophet’+ money and a kneeling vulnerable woman. The assumption of power and the right of exchange is entirely with the money giver. And the female body here is the designated/arbitrarily valued commodity.
The same with Epstein who not only allegedly paid his victims but also recruited them to recruit others, that is to become commodities that lure other commodities.
While we have to defer to due legal process the allegations are therefore a reflection of the tragic circumstances in which many young and economically vulnerable young women find themselves.
But these two cases are the direct result of a neo-liberal global political-economic system that creates powerful men who live as though they are above the law and can purchase anything they want because they have money. And making this appear to be as normal as it can be. In most cases such individuals function with an impunity garnered either from political protection, instilling fear in alleged victims and ensuring they avoid the glare of the media using either, again, money or influencing media owners.
On the latter point of avoiding the public glare, it is also significant that they also seek to influence public opinion. In the case of Magaya and judging by some social media responses, it is clear that members of his church are keen on defending him. In doing so they cast aspersions on the alleged victim’s credibility or morality. Or they may get the alleged victims to retract previous statements published or given to the mainstream media. And because for many Zimbabweans, money, particularly, the $US, is a fetish in and of itself, the transaction between the alleged abuser and the abused makes the story one of morality than it would be of a crime.
Again we must ask ourselves what causes such vulnerability of young women to predators. It is largely the political, economic and cultural system as a whole. Economic in the sense of high levels of poverty and exclusion from mainstream opportunity for young women and men that come from lower but quantitatively larger economic classes. Political in the sense that this system is nurtured by a neo-liberal, highly individualistic consensus between holders of political power and those that own capital (money). None wants to bring the other to account because of what appears to be a mutually beneficial relationship.
Cultural in relation to how it mixes religion with monetary, lifestyle and even sexual desire. Neo-liberalism has created a very strong culture of individualism in Zimbabwe and beyond. And these individuals have aspirations of ownership and lifestyles that they may never be in a position to acquire in reality. Even if they try the route of the promises of prophets and their hedonistic churches. Or even via access to the wealthy elite (normally politicians and connected owners of big business or state tenders) who equally wield such power over young Zimbabweans. All they see is what they envy, the power of it. Hence the limited public outcry or the satirical social media banter over such allegations.
But more regrettably, as a final point, there are some (young and old) who would envy such power or are assiduously working to acquire it.
Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com