Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza) is now a household name in Zimbabwe because of its members’ pioneering work in civil activism.
One of its leaders, Jenni Williams, has been arrested over 65 times, with the latest detention lasting a couple of nights in Bulawayo police cells after Woza staged a protest during Zimbabwe’s recent Test match against New Zealand at Queens Sports Club on August 6.
Williams and co-Woza leader Magodonga Mahlangu have also won a string of international human rights awards, but she still sees herself playing a leading role in bringing the authorities to account for some time to come.
Williams (JW) spoke to our reporter Silas Nkala (SN) about her experiences and hopes for Zimbabwe. Below are excerpts of the interview.
SN: Who is Jenni Williams?
JW: I am a wife to Michael Williams, mother to Natalie, Christopher and Richard and grandmother to Benjamin and Evangeline.
I was born in Gwanda, Matabeleland South on April 1 1962 to Violet, who is daughter of Raymond McConville and Bahlezi Moyo.
SN: You have led Woza protests for a long time. do you think your form of activism has been effective in Zimbabwe?
JW: Woza is a mass movement of female and male activists. I founded Woza with the late Sheba Dube. I am on the board as founder, but daily I play a role as national coordinator, an elected national leadership position.
Initially, I used to be the one to call out the slogan to start protests, but so many activists are brave enough to do this work such that it is only in times of real fear that I have to play this role.
As a nationally elected leader [together] with Magodonga Mahlangu you can say we lead the protests, but our role has become more of facilitation of all the components that bring a peaceful protest into the street.
It is a Woza leadership criteria that when it comes to the hard work in the street, everyone is equalised and has to play a role to make the protest remain peaceful and to reach the intended target point and deliver a message.
So we become just one of the greater number in the protest, singing, dancing like everyone else. We also have to ensure that everyone reaches home safely.
Our form of activism is not only about street protests. We believe we are involved in a non-violent struggle for socio-economic rights. Non-violence has two strategic modes
– The obstructive programme: We stand in the way of wrong-doing. this has over 200 forms of protest activities and Woza members conduct many — street drama, deputations, public speeches, sit ins, etc. The issues that motivate this array of activities come from members through a highly consultative process and they select the type of activity to do and only when there is a need for escalation do we have a mass protest. An escalation means policy makers have not heard our demand.
– The second part of our work is called the constructive programme; we lead the way in creating solutions and to quote Mahatma Ghandi, “be the change you seek”.
Woza had neglected this part of the work since formation so from 2011 we have been quietly doing this work in our community of members.
People then complain that we are silent or have lost our “mojo”, but we are very busy trying to help members beat the poverty trap and take their activism into their economic existence. We have formed savings clubs for members and they also collectively run income-generating projects.
SN: What led to the formation of Woza? Do you think you are achieving your goals and what have been the highlights of the group’s history?
JW: Women, individuals, some from church women’s wings, gathered together in 2002 to talk about the bad governance, economic meltdown and the culture of fear caused by Posa [Public Order and Security Act] and Aippa [Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act].
They decided rather than to suffer in silence as was done during Gukurahundi, they would speak truth to power, be visible through peaceful protests as a way of showing Zimbabweans how to hold political leadership accountable for the crisis.
We told each other we would ask Zimbabweans to choose love over hate and show them that the power of love can overcome the love of power.
Therefore, our first official march as Woza was on Valentine’s Day of 2003. We handed out red roses and asked Zimbabweans to choose love over hate. We have shown Zimbabweans this form of democratic practice as a way to hold government accountable — evidence is plain to see in the number of protests in the streets.
Highlights include the walk from Bulawayo to Harare — 440km — to hand over a petition calling for the NGO Bill to be stopped. [Its] success caused the arrest of over 100 of us. Some were arrested twice in one week, having been arrested, released on bail then rearrested at parliament.
We have successfully taken constitutional cases under Posa to the constitutional court [ConCourt] on the right to protest, allowing others to use these successful rulings to join us in the fight for the right to protest.
As a result of the police still arbitrarily arresting us when we are conducting a peaceful protest, myself and Mahlangu as leaders and Woza members have successfully taken a case on the right to protest to the African Commission for Human and people rights, which has been ruled admissible and is at the merits of the case stage. All this work has been done with the support of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
Woza used an array of non-violent actions, including sit ins, escalating to a protest march to Zesa headquarters in 2010 where four of us, including myself and Magodonga spent seven days in a sewerage-infested Harare Central police station.
Immediately upon release, Zesa met us to negotiate for a 45% reduction in tariffs for fixed charge electricity holders: success for the nation at large, not only Woza members.
The four of us that spent seven days in Harare Central Prison also successfully petitioned the ConCourt to grant that women should never be made to remove undergarments and shoes when in custody and other structural privacy issues for toilets in cells. Impact again for all women in custody at the prison.
This case has set a precedent for many others to cite. We will also use our own case to challenge poor conditions during our recent arrest to mount a legal challenge.
SN: Your critics say you only protest to attract donor funding, what is your reaction to such criticism?
JW: This question indicates a lack of understanding of the importance of democracy and the right to protest as an accountability tool. Donor funding can never deliver freedom. Donor funding can never pay anyone for the sacrifices of beatings, torture, arrests and detention.
How does one put a cost on over 65 arrests and detentions in filthy cells? How could I or anyone expect to be paid for the equivalent of one year of my life spent in custody?
How can someone ever repay my mother or husband for the worry they suffer when I am inside? But most importantly, no donor is around long enough or will enjoy the fruits of the nonviolent struggle I am a part of.
Funding is important for some of the work we do and we have need for funding without any strings attached.
However, no donor has or will ever dictate what issues we act on as those issues are 100% owned by those who feel which part of their foot is being pinched by their shoe.
I challenge these people to come join me in a protest so they can experience it first-hand.
SN: Besides public protests, what does Woza do to bring about change in Zimbabwe?
JW: Lobby and advocacy campaigns on the issues from members submitted during consultation meetings or in reporting.
Woza also have a comprehensive civic education training focus on how to plan and execute nonviolent activities, how to overcome fear, women’s and children’s rights, amongst other work.
We also conduct many levels of engagement with policy makers on issues of concern to drive change.
We don’t just go into the street, we train people, plan with them help them understand how to remain non-violent and overcome fear when in a protest. Those not prepared to come into protest also participate at their level of confidence. There is a space for participation for all.
SN: As a protest movement based in Bulawayo, do you feel you are as effective as those in Harare?
JW: The fact of this question indicates the conditioning we have as Zimbabweans. But I will respond to it.
From the beginning, Harare people demanded to participate and Woza has a wide membership in Harare, Chitungwiza and peri-urban surroundings.
We have strong activists who march to Parliament and deliver messages directly. With this structure on the ground and in the trenches, we are as strong as any organisation in Harare.
However, we work in an environment where power is not devolved both in state and non-state actors and so access to policy makers and international community may be affected by our location.
But personally, with the attitudes I see from those in the capital and the harsh factionalism, I don’t think Woza would be the strong organisation it is today had we been headquartered in Harare.
SN: In your opinion, what should protest groups, civil society and opposition parties do to bring about change in Zimbabwe?
JW: I do feel there is a selfish tendency and too much focus on political power and positions.
We should put those aside, get back into community work and build a collective movement for a Zimbabwe we can be proud of.
I feel that people in communities are undervalued by people in power who take them for granted. I am always impressed with the clarity of vision of the communities I visit.
People know what they want and can take the lead. We need a servant leadership if we are to succeed to pulling Zimbabwe out of the hell it is in.
SN: Have you ever considered joining politics as a way of achieving your objectives?
JW: My maternal and paternal grandparents were involved in political organisations— Irish Republic Army (IRA): Raymond McConville and the late Sikhwili Khohli Moyo (Zapu).
McConville left Ireland when the IRA transitioned into a military wing as he preferred a non-violent solution to Irish Independence. Late grand uncle Sikwili was one of the first people to bring the armed struggle to Matabeleland South, but I belong to a different generation and not for a moment have I considered going into politics.
I love being a human rights defender, demanding something better for my kids and Zimbabweans as a whole. I am a non-violent direct action activist through and through. Perhaps I was born one due to my mixed blood.
SN: Others feel that the opposition to Mugabe and Zanu PF rule is too fragmented to bring about meaningful change. What is your response to that?
JW: That has been the case but more and more people are realising the crisis is now in their houses and they have to do something. I believe there has to be collective action, but it must be based on principles and not positions or political ideology.
I try in my own way to build collective work but it is not easy when there has been such a lot of people scrambling onto the gravy train.
SN: How many times have you been arrested for staging protests and what does that do to your resolve to bring about change in the country?
JW: Over 65 arrests I think. I am losing count. When you present yourself in protest mode, you offer the regime or its police an option — allow me to make my point and we can both win a changed condition or beat and arrest me and you look bad, giving me the moral high ground.
This is why non-violent protest is so powerful when conducted correctly, it presents a dilemma to the state.
It is said arrests and detentions radicalise people. I am not a psychologist, but I do know that once arrested and detained, you know all about it so don’t fear it anymore, so you become stronger inside yourself.
I also have seen how successful our protests are and how many people have changed when they can march and express themselves. I have also seen how vicious police officers can be humanised when they are spoken to about the situation.
Being in this position has made me a better person able to stand up for my rights and others’ rights. I now know who I am and what I want. I found my confidence and dignity in myself in the struggle.
SN: In your years as an activist, have you seen any changes in the way police and judicial officers treat Woza or any other protestor?
JW: Most definitely, police officers know that the Woza slogan —the love sign — means that we will not be violent with them but will stand up for our rights.
As such, they do treat us differently. Within the last few years, 2003 to 2012 were very hard years with constant arrests and persecution.
Judicial officers are also aware of our constitutional challenges so they factor this in their rulings and in the way they handle our cases. Just an example, all those arrested on July 6 were not remanded and when granted they were made to pay bail.
On our recent arrest, the 10 Woza members came out on free bail, which was unopposed. There is a difference and it could be connected with the issues we march for — socio economic in nature and not politically driven.
However, at a higher intelligence level we still suffer persecution. My passport is tagged as if I am a common convicted criminal and there are many other consequences that we suffer if we have to interact with police or civil servants.
Suspected plain clothed police officers raided my home when I was on a “hit list”. They took my stove, TV set and other household property, but when I went to report the case, instead of police officers investigating, they wanted to arrest me. I never got my property back.
SN: Please take us through your experience at the hands of the police after you were arrested on August 6 at Queens Sports Club where Zimbabwe was playing New Zealand?
JW: Heavy police presence and refusal to allow anyone standing at the gate made us re-strategise to march towards the gate. We were about 40 members marching towards the gate at Queens Club to pay with our bond notes. There were five riot police and one stepped to me and whispered in my ear, “please Jenni go home, today is not your day”. I ignored him and we all started jogging past them to the gate.
At the gate there were eight or nine police officers, one of who has arrested me previously.
He poked me in the back with a baton stick as I was singing in front of protestors.
I turned around to tell him to stop using force and was suddenly surrounded by the rest of the police officers. I do not know whether they were running away from approaching riot police on horseback or if they wanted to arrest me or protect me from the horses.
The horses galloped by chasing all my colleagues and I was left alone by the gate.
I then staged a sit-in and for the most part they ignored me, until police bosses — uniformed and plain-clothed — came and asked me to stand up.
I asked for assurances from them that I would be allowed to pay and watch cricket and they declined and moved away.