Michael Gerson

But despite these challenges, says Mahlangu, "tens of thousands of women get up, sometimes at 3 a.m., to fit in activism." It is an underground movement. The women do not use cell phones or e-mails, which can be traced and monitored. Resistance spreads by word of mouth. Workshops are conducted to prepare women what lies ahead -- the process of booking and photographing, the rights they can demand. The organization tries to secure a lawyer for a woman within an hour of her arrest, provides a doctor if she is beaten, looks after her family while she is incarcerated. Women know they are not alone.

This solidarity is striking. Williams tells the story of a recent arrest: "The police officer tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Jennifer, you are arrested.' As I was taken, the other women started to come along with me. The policeman said, 'No, only Jennifer.' But the women said, 'No, these are our rights too.'" Protesters filled the police van, then others walked to the police station and were beaten while handing themselves in. Eventually 49 women entered custody along with Williams. In light of such fearlessness, it is Mugabe who should fear.

These women activists espouse no grand theory of social change. They are simply determined to hold government accountable at every level. "If your sewage system has failed," says Williams, "go and see your (local official). You may get arrested. But do you really want to live in that stink?" This is the deepest meaning of democracy, even more than putting an "X" on a ballot -- a stubborn refusal to live in the stink.

When I asked her motivations, Mahlangu responded that she was determined to "live truthfully." It echoes the words of another dissident, Vaclav Havel, who said that "a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters."

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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