DROPPING a green hose pipe in her small vegetable garden, she ushers The NewsHawks crew into her neatly swept yard in Mutare’s Dangamvura high-density suburb.
Walking past a number of flowering strawberry pots, she gently taps a creaky old door into her neat and compact lounge.
Eloquent but soft spoken, Sophia Gwasira is a bit of an enigma. Very little is known about her, yet she is Mutare’s first resident.
She has a penchant for invading spaces that are traditionally perceived to belong to men.
Gwasira is a motor mechanic by profession. She has, once again, gone against the grain to become the first-ever female mayor of Zimbabwe’s third-largest city.
Her self-proclaimed WhatsApp handle moniker for years — “Sophia the First” literally became reality last month when she was elected, unopposed, to the highest office at Civic Centre.
“I never dreamt of being mayoress, but I have always wanted to make an impact. My wish was to represent people, especially the vulnerable ones,” Gwasira said.
Gwasira grew up in Dangamvura going, where she attended Rujeko Primary School before moving on to Kriste Mambo High School for her secondary education before enrolling to study motor mechanics at Mutare Polytechnic.
The mother of two is on a quest to change the interaction between her community and the leaders who represent them by connecting with everyone.
“Growing up I discovered that I didn’t even know who my councillor was and I did not even know his or her responsibilities,” Gwasira said.
“l saw a gap in this because people know there are councillors, but they don’t know them because they are not working together with communities. This motivated me to try to bridge that gap so that people understand the role of their elected representatives.”
She only joined active politics in 2009. She had humble beginnings as a ward secretary before rising through the ranks into the provincial and national leadership structures.
Gwasira is a chip off her mother’s block.
“My mum was politically active, so some of the things they would discuss motivated me to join politics,” she said.
She went on to contest and win her first election in 2018 on an MDC-Alliance ticket. But with the recalls, her first bite of the cherry was a messy affair.
“I was recalled in December 2020, I was elected again in the March 2022 by-elections as a councillor, then I won the August 2023 harmonised elections,” she said.
As she reflected on her tenure as councillor, Gwasira glowed. She recounted some of the issues that she looks back on with pride as achievements, particularly for the underprivileged.
“If you look at my history as a councillor, I have done a lot for vulnerable groups and girls. I mobilise resources for them, I have done food hampers for the elderly and Donated-a-Pad Campaign to assist girls with sanitary wear,” Gwasira said.
“Being mayoress is adding up to what I have been doing and positions me to do even more.”
Without a formal job, her political journey has not been easy.
Although women constitute about 52% of Zimbabwe’s total population, they are the most economically challenged segment of society. The disempowerment creates a huge stumbling block for women in politics, and Gwasira is not spared.
She bemoaned financial challenges and violence as the biggest setbacks in local politics for women.
“First obstacle you have to overcome as a female politician is the issue of finances and resources. Currently I am not formally employed, so to go through the election processes there is a need for financial power in politics,” she said.
Intimidation that comes with the violent nature of local politics has been another huge huddle to clear for the mayoress.
“Our political environment is very violent, so there is fear of the unknown. As a woman you fear for your life. If you look at what’s happening now, one of our former MPs was abducted recently and is badly injured… so those are some of the things that affect women because you don’t have protection,” she said.
These two factors, she said, are keeping a lot of women out of active politics.
Even after landing the mayoral post, Gwasira feels she is subjected to undue scrutiny. Former mayors, all of them men, were not treated this way.
“When l was elected to the post, l saw some people demanding to see my curriculum vitae, which is something that I never saw being done to former mayors.
“l felt these demands were being made because I’m a woman and there are some people who still don’t believe that women can handle this level of responsibility,” she said.
Zimbabwe Electoral Commission statistics shows that only 25 female candidates were voted into the National Assembly in the August polls compared to 185 males during the 2018 general elections.
Gwasira feels there should be reforms to ensure equal representation of men and women. That way, women’s issues can be properly addressed at all levels.
“If we could have policies that ensure 50/50 representation. In the 2018 election, we had five [female] councillors who were voted for, but this year there are only two for our party. The numbers are actually going down yet we are talking about 50/50,” she said.
Gwasira vowed to challenge local authority thinking to ensure that municipal governance does not ignore the needs, wishes and aspirations of women in dociety. After all, women bear the brunt of poor service delivery.
“If you look at the issue of service delivery, it is poor women who are affected more,” she said.
“My focus will be to make sure that all issues that affect women are addressed. In every discussion I engage in, I will make sure it’s gender sensitive . . . even our housing policy there is a percentage reserved for women from my work as a gender champion in the previous council.”
*This article was supported by the Canadian Embassy in Zimbabwe in partnership with the Centre for Public Interest Journalism (The NewsHawks)