I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to fright me, if they could; but I will not stir from this place, do what they can. I will walk up and down here and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.” [Bottom, one of the characters in ‘A Midnight Summer’s Madness’, William Shakespeare.
I imagine these are the words that each of the members of the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) repeats to herself every time she takes to the street, knowing full well that the day will end with her thrown in some dirty cell of one or the other of Zimbabwe’s remand prisons. These women are unstoppable. They have been heavily assaulted by the police, arrested and detained in terrible conditions (some with their children), but they do not give up. They have been threatened with death, stalked and placed under surveillance and some have been kidnapped but they continue their fight.
Their leaders, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu have been held in prison the longest times. Jenni has spent more than 20 days in prison at a time and each time she has been released after the state case has been dismissed for lack of evidence in the courts and at times she has been released without charge. For their courage, Jenni and Magodonga and WOZA have won many awards. In 2007 Jennie received the Women of Courage Award from the US State of Department. In 2008 WOZA became the recipient of the Amnesty International Human Rights Award, awarded by the German Section of Amnesty International. In 2009, WOZA won the Annual John F Kennedy Human Rights Award. In 2011, Jennie won the French National Order of Merit. If ever I have seen a stubborn group of women, then these women top them all.
Flirting with danger, they challenge a despotic regime, a ruthless security sector defending an ungrateful nation full of cowards (Zimbabweans like calling their passivity peacefulness.
These women are freedom fighters, struggling to realise social justice in Zimbabwe. The issues they raise target the basics of life including access to clean and safe water, adequate food in reliable quantities and nutritional value, supply of electricity, access to affordable schooling, access to medical care and medical supplies, proper housing, and proper sanitation. That is why their leading mantra is “Bread and Roses;” a fight for the basic but a fight done in love, with love, out of love.
Their strategy; street protests, has earned them labels such as ‘idle prostitutes’ ‘imbeciles’ ‘useless noisemakers’ and ‘professional demonstrators’ among many other disparaging terms.
Yes, onlookers (who do not apply their minds to the whys of what WOZA women do) may see it this way. However my experience in Tahrir Square, being part of the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring, taught me that it is through the efforts of groups such as WOZA that networks of resistance are developed. It is through their sporadic efforts as little pockets of disaffection that one day a Revolution can arise. After all if a government is not for the people, of the people and by the people, from whence does it derive its legitimacy?
Why do you think WOZA women are constantly silenced? Why do you think they are always harassed? Why is it their leaders are always incarcerated. I salute these women of courage. It is such a shame that their bravery and amazing contributions are more appreciated by the outside world than by Zimbabweans whose interests they serve. Let’s be honest, if today WOZA demonstrates against power cuts and the government concedes that power cuts shall be consistently done in accordance with a reliable timetable which communities can work around, would the whole nation not have benefited? If they deliver a petition to Parliament against school fees hikes and government then passes a school fees reduction memo, would the whole nation not have benefited? If they march to the police headquarters demanding that the police desist from assaulting protestors or throwing tear gas their way and the police concedes, would that not be a victory to freedom of association and assembly?
This is what WOZA women do, and of course due to the political climate, they have not yielded much success. This does not make their work worthless. Trust me, those sitting in their high seats of (stolen) leadership know what I know, that these women are raising issues that, if the nation were intelligent (or is it brave) enough to support could result in a complete social, political and economic transformation. Remember it was the bread riots that sparked off the French Revolution in the 18th Century. Also remember that it was a single man, Mohammed Bouazzizi’s act of self-immolation against the destruction of his fruit stall and source of livelihood that began the Tunisian Revolution which inspired the Arab Spring in the 21st Century. So let us not undermine and undervalue the work that WOZA women do when they raise bread and butter issues.