They have been arrested many times; they are considered dangerous to public order. Their crime is defending women and the lowly’s rights. Jennifer Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu talk about their social engagement in Zimbabwe.
Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe. It has always been the epicentre of protests against Robert Mugabe’s regime.
Jennifer Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu met for the first time in a church; it was the only place the police were not patrolling. Since then, they have shared the same commitment: giving dignity and voice to Zimbabwean women. In 2003 they founded the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), an activist organization, whose membership is now estimated at 85,000 men and women across the country.
“It all started – Jennifer Williams recalls – when we decided to oppose president Mugabe’s political repression and mobilize ordinary women to have their voices heard. Inspired by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, WOZA espouses a commitment to non-violent civil disobedience”.
Jennifer Williams is the daughter of an Irish man, while her mother is from the Ndebele tribe; she is married and has three children. “I got my passion for justice from my mother”, she says smiling. Ms. Williams has been arrested 57 times and has appeared already 7 times before the court.
Magodonga Mahlangu is from the Ndebele tribe, the second largest ethnic group in the country. “Many of my neighbors went missing”, she recalls. “I could not understand why, at the very beginning, then I felt I had to do something. I could not stay just watching”. She has been arrested over 30 times for speaking out for human rights. She has experienced the harshness of prison.
Ms. Williams and WOZA’s activists often quote Nelson Mandela’ s phrase, ‘Amadelakufa!’, a Zulu word which means ‘Death, Defiance!’, and was said by former African National Congress leader during the Rivonia trial in 1964, when Mandela and other ANC representatives were sentenced to life in prison charged with sabotage. “During my lifetime”, said Mandela on that occasion, speaking at the dock of the court, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
Ms. Williams says, “We act inspired by Mandela’s words. We believe in the power of love, which is in contrast with the love of power. Love cannot be ambition. Politicians love power. Ours, instead, is enduring love, we are ready to sacrifice ourselves like a mother who gives her life for her child. Women create life, not violence or death”.
WOZA’s case also demonstrates the importance of creating networks and coalitions among civil society for the success of social movements. Thanks to the building of a well organized network, the movement leaders are able to consult with the activist base and to mobilize 10,000 people in just a few hours. When asked if men too take part to the group activities, Ms. Mahalangu replies: “In 2006, men asked to join our initiatives. We were reluctant to accept them in our organization at the beginning, since men are used to react violently to provocations while WOZA is based on the principle of nonviolence. However, we have noticed that, over time, men have discovered the strength of non-violence; besides during these years of activity we have noticed that their presence in the organization is very important to make the other men of the community aware of women‘s rights and general social issues. “Men currently account for about 10 percent of WOZA‘s members. This year the movement has focused its attention on two major issues: education and health. “Many have fought for the independence of Zimbabwe – underlines Ms. Mahlangu – they have fought for a country supposed to guarantee basic rights, such as education and free health care for everybody. In 1990, ten years after independence, Zimbabwe was among the countries with the highest level of education. Nowadays, the situation is very different. Some low-paid teachers are reported to have asked for some extra pay from students’ parents. Those children, whose parents cannot afford to pay teachers extra money, are often forced to drop out of school. Zimbabwe, a country with such vast natural resources and fabulous diamond deposits, is unable to provide basic services to its own people: it is absurd”. Ms.Willliams tells us about the dramatic deterioration of Zimbabwe’ s health-care system. “When a woman goes to hospital to give birth – she says – she is supposed to carry water, blankets, medicines with her … There are not even disinfectants.. not to mention the shortage of hospital beds. And in the meantime, many of our most talented nurses leave for South Africa or England”.
Have faith and don’t give up!
Jennifer Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu are believers. Ms. Mahlangu says that her life is based on two pillars, WOZA and the Church. “I feel deeply involved in both”, she stresses. “I have always tried to combine my commitment to human rights with my Catholic faith”.
Referring to Noah, Ms. Mahlangu says: “He warned people of the impending deluge. Noah believed God’s warning. He believed God’s Word. He found a solution, the building of an ark, and took action. This is what faith is for me. Believing and taking action”.
We also have moments of discouragement during our activity in WOZA. “It is during our dark moments that faith gives us strength, – says Ms. Mahlangu – faith is continually asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten our struggle. WOZA has become a platform to express political goals. I was glad to hear that some people operating in WOZA have rediscovered their faith, since our commitment to serve others makes sense especially if you believe in certain values”.
Jennifer Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu hope to spread the voice of WOZA in every corner of the country. They are not afraid of consequences. “When someone warns us to be more cautious – says Jennifer Williams – we answer that we cannot stop speaking out. Denouncing injustice makes us free and hopeful for a different Zimbabwe”. (Rafael Armada)