The High Court in Zimbabwe recently made a landmark ruling in which it awarded a victim of workplace sexual harassment $220,000 in damages in a case that had dragged for nearly two decades.
In 2003, Rita Marque Lunga-Mbatha was summarily fired from her job at the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) after raising sexual harassment charges against the body’s then chief executive officer, Farai Zizhou. Mbatha was Zizhou’s personal assistant.
She took her case to the Labour Court, which ruled in her favour, a ruling that CZI succeeded in getting overturned, prompting her to appeal to the Supreme Court. In June 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in her favour and since then, she had been pursuing damages for both loss of job and the sexual harassment that she suffered at the hands of Zizhou.
Unable to afford a legal defense team, Mbatha defied the odds by representing herself against some of the country’s top legal minds that the deep-pocketed industries’ body hired throughout the protracted battle, and repeatedly winning, hands down.
On 2 February, the Supreme Court threw out an appeal by the perpetrator against the landmark ruling siding with Mbatha.
“The matter has had a long turbulent history,” said High Court Justice Joseph Mafusire of Mbatha’s victory, which, he claimed, came through “blood and sweat.”
“The wheels of justice have turned slowly for her. There can be no denying that. She has been to this court. She strives for closure. Any lesser mortal would probably have given up. Plainly, Mbatha is no lesser mortal. Her tenacity and fighting spirit have moved mountains. She is still fighting,” the justice added.
FairPlanet spoke to Mbatha, who is now the director of the Women’s Comfort Corner Foundation (WCCF) and a board member of the International Alliance of Women (IAW), about the landmark ruling.
FairPlanet: Briefly, how do you feel about the case and its conclusion?
Rita Mbatha: Bitter-sweet, this is a whole lifetime. I cannot recover the years wasted. No amount of money or compensation can alleviate the pain that Farai Bwatikona Zizhou exposed me to. I have made a commitment to defy the stigma associated with sexual harassment and speak out.
How much were you awarded by the courts?
The amount awarded to me for unfair dismissal was US$41,161.30. The amount of US$180,000 (for sexual harassment) is to be paid jointly by Zizhou and CZI, one paying the other to be absolved. I am not legally obliged to wait for the outcome of CZI matter, it’s between them and Zizhou.
Which follow-up case did the Supreme Court throw out on 2 February?
What the Supreme Court threw out on the 2nd of February, 2022 was a chamber application for condonation of late noting of an appeal and extension of time within which to note an appeal. The application was fatally defective and was thrown out.
What was Zizhou’s case in the High Court case that was ruled not urgent on 24 January?
On 24 January, 2022, he wanted to stay execution and prevent his property from being auctioned. The matter was ruled not to be urgent and was struck off the court roll.
His household property and car have since been sold by auction. One of his immoveable properties – the house in Hatfield (a medium density suburb of Harare) will be sold as the sale of household goods did not raise enough money to satisfy the amount granted to me.
Why do you think most victims of sexual harassment hesitate to report the abuse?
Fear of stigma. It is the norm for any woman reporting sexual harassment to be shamed and intimidated. Simple facts are twisted and manipulated. Wild and damaging allegations are made against survivors of sexual violence. Instead of being a victim you become the accused.
The ramifications can be chilling. Coming straight from college, I was not prepared for the depth of despair that sexual harassment brought into my life.
I will never forget how the then President of Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries [whom Mbatha first appealed to] callously averred that as a married woman, I should be ashamed to report that I was being sexually harassed.
Hopefully, the High Court’s landmark judgement will make a difference.
“WILD AND DAMAGING ALLEGATIONS ARE MADE AGAINST SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE […] THE RAMIFICATIONS CAN BE CHILLING.”
How did you grapple with this stigma, which forces many victims to suffer in silence?
The connection of friends and relatives has helped tremendously to ease me back into the mainstream of life-physically, if not emotionally. I wish my dad, sister and brother were alive to celebrate this momentous occasion with me.
What is your word of advice to other women fearing to come out?
It is important to speak out. The abusers thrive on the silence of victims who become the accused when they report sexual violence.
The publication of Justice Mafusire’s judgement resulted in women and girls from all walks of life contacting me and the Women’s Comfort Corner Foundation for assistance, the numbers are staggering. This supports the averments that I make that speaking out helps to create change that is needed to fight crimes of sexual harassment and rape… the act of reporting is a big step.
For now, most of those reporting want the matters to be dealt with privately. We respect their privacy. Hopefully in the near future the status quo will change and victims will not be ashamed of speaking out.
Your wish for now?
Finally, the Judiciary ought to speedily deal with, and finalise, the cases of rape and sexual harassment.