From Underground, Leading a March for Democracy
HARARE, Zimbabwe – JENNI WILLIAMS, Zimbabwe’s hell-raising practitioner of nonviolent civil disobedience, was hauled from a Bulawayo jail cell during one of the first of her 33 arrests for leading street protests for social justice during the past five years of President Robert Mugabe’s rule.
In a tiny office, she accused the baton-wielding police of assaulting her. When officers tauntingly told her she was a liar, she turned around, dropped her pants and showed them the bruises on her backside, recalled her lawyer, Perpetua Dube, who was watching.
“You can’t bare your bottom to me!” one of the officers shouted, threatening to charge her with indecent exposure.
Mrs. Williams, a spitfire rebel with an appreciation of the absurd, subsequently described herself in an e-mail message to friends as sitting on the softest cushions she could find and “giggling in between wincing in pain.”
As of Thursday, she was back in a Bulawayo jail cell — this time for leading a sit-in on the grounds of government offices to demand food for the starving and the immediate formation of a power-sharing government with the opposition.
During years when millions of her compatriots fled abroad to escape hardship and repression — among them her mother, husband and three children, now in their 20s — Mrs. Williams, 46, a stocky high school dropout with a gift for grassroots organizing, has lived underground in Zimbabwe, moving from safe house to safe house as she and her colleagues have built a formidable protest movement among the church women of Harare and Bulawayo, the two largest cities.
“Zimbabwe is my home, so why should I go?” she asked. “We have made a pact as a family. I am supposed to prepare Zimbabwe so everyone can come home.”
Dozens of times, she has led seamstresses and maids, vegetable sellers and hairdressers onto the streets in Zimbabwe’s struggle for democracy. They sing gospel songs, carry brooms to figuratively sweep the government clean and bang on pots empty of food.
On May 28, Mrs. Williams and 13 other marchers were arrested in the capital, Harare, as they demanded an end to political violence. Mr. Mugabe’s enforcers were then engaged in systematically beating thousands of the opposition’s supporters before a June presidential runoff that pitted him against the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
The police said Mrs. Williams and her fellow protesters promoted violence by handing out fliers that accused Mr. Mugabe of “unleashing violence on voters.”
AND Mrs. Williams, listed as accused No. 1, faces an additional charge of causing disaffection among security forces, punishable by up to 25 years in prison. In a newsletter, the organization she leads — Women of Zimbabwe Arise!, known as Woza — said it told soldiers and police officers to refrain from beating people, a statement the police charged was “likely to induce the members to withhold their services or to commit breaches” of discipline.
“Hear us loud and clear — your leaders may get generous retirement packages, but you will be left to face the justice of the law and the anger of the people,” the newsletter warned.
Mrs. Williams and her fellow leader, Magodonga Mahlangu, 35, were held at the Chikurubi prison in Harare for 37 days and released only after the now-discredited runoff was over. In court papers, the police singled out Mrs. Williams as a leader of great influence.
“She has got many sympathizers all over the country,” the police said in arguing against bail. “If accused is released, she is likely to go into hiding.”
And that, of course, is exactly what she did.
“If we force Mugabe out, it will be the women who are his undoing,” said John Worswick, a ruddy-faced farmer driven from his land in the country’s chaotic land reform program who now leads Justice for Agriculture, an alliance of displaced commercial farmers and farm workers. They are the ones with the mettle for this, he said. “Jenni’s rattled Mugabe more than anyone else.”
Mrs. Williams’s troublemaking lineage stretches back to her grandfather, an Irish Republican Army man. He left County Armagh and wound up a gold prospector in the British colony of southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He took as his common-law wife an Ndebele woman, Bahlezi Moyo, who became the family matriarch and bore him three children, among them Margaret, Jenni’s mother.
Margaret Daunt’s husband, a mechanic, was an absent father, so she raised her own family of seven on what she earned working in hospitals and hotels. Now 74 and living in London, she recalls that when she was at work, Jenni was “a little mother cat” to her siblings and quit convent school to help pay their school fees.
“A cheeky little devil, she was,” Mrs. Daunt said. “When she was younger, if anyone crossed her path, like her sisters or brothers, she had a ferocious Irish temper. I don’t know how the police have arrested her without her lashing back. She’s vowed this nonviolence thing.”
Mrs. Williams, a small-time businesswoman married to an electrician, fell into politics with the onset of Zimbabwe’s political crisis in 2000. After a referendum to give Mr. Mugabe greater executive powers was defeated with financial support from white farmers, he encouraged veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation war to invade large white-owned farms, setting off a collapse of the country’s agricultural economy. Mr. Mugabe has been in office since 1980.
Mrs. Williams, doing public relations for the Commercial Farmers Union, began speaking out about the human rights abuses, as well as the fact that many of the choice farms were being given to Mr. Mugabe’s cronies.
In 2002, a year in which Mr. Mugabe defeated Mr. Tsvangirai in an election many independent observers believe was stolen, Mrs. Williams helped found Woza. The movement was nurtured in the sanctuary of churches — Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and Apostolic.
“The men had failed us,” said Ms. Mahlangu. “The solutions discussed weren’t bread-and-butter issues, just power.”
In the years since, Woza’s leaders have followed a cardinal rule: they put their own bodies on the line, a risk Mrs. Williams says the leaders of Zimbabwe’s political opposition have too often failed to take.
“We will not tell someone to do what we are not willing to do ourselves,” she said.
Raymond Majongwe, a teachers union leader, recalled being in a Harare jail for five days as Mrs. Williams and other Woza women sang rowdily in their cells.
“It was electric, it was exciting to have Jenni in the cells,” he said. “If you are arrested with Jenni Williams, you will have a very good time. She will not back down.”
EACH time she marches, Mrs. Williams said, she subdues her fear, and the jackhammer pounding of her heart, with deep breathing.
So far, about 2,500 of Woza’s 60,000 members have braved the country’s fetid, overcrowded jails, but Mrs. Williams said many more must join them. “Removing a dictator from power is a numbers game,” she said. The brutal political season that just passed has chilled many.
At a recent underground meeting of 200 Woza members in a Harare church, women, many nursing babies, confessed to their raw fear. One by one, they rose to narrate the May protest that landed Mrs. Williams, whom they call Ma Moyo, in jail.
“We saw the riot police in their cars.”
“I heard the policeman saying, ‘Beat them,’ and I fled.”
“When I saw Ma Moyo getting in the police car, I thought about when I was beaten before and I turned and ran.”
Some leaders who spent weeks in the Chikurubi prison rose to scold the women who had escaped rather than face arrest.
Mrs. Williams, dressed in a bright red T-shirt and floppy hat, spoke last and jauntily, trying to build their courage.
“We came out of Chikurubi and we still had our arms and we still had our. …” and she slapped her own broad rump to gales of laughter. Source: New York Times