Zimbabwe women, receiving rights award, speak out

AP News
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Posted: Nov 23, 2009 4:09 AM

After the beatings by President Robert Mugabe's policemen, the overcrowded, lice-ridden jail cells, the degradation of nightly strip-searches, Jenni Williams and Magondonga Mahlangu still cling to hope for Zimbabwe.

They talk of hope that the devastated country still may be able to write a homegrown constitution, which would lead to real elections and recovery from the depths that a decade of increasingly malign misrule has dug.

How can these women, together arrested more than 50 times for leading nonviolent protests against the Mugabe government, still think such things?

"Look," Williams says, flinging out her arms, "we're trying to be optimistic here!" Both women laugh.

The pair are co-founders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, whose acronym WOZA forms an Ndebele word that means "come forward." Behind Williams and Mahlangu around 70,000 Zimbabweans have signed on to do that. Like the founders, many have been beaten and worse; the two leaders say more than 3,000 have been arrested for demonstrating.

The women were interviewed in Washington in advance of Monday night's White House ceremony in which they are to receive the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award from President Barack Obama. Ethel Kennedy, widow of the assassinated senator, will attend.

An absolute for the demonstrations by WOZA and its newer male counterpart, MOZA, is nonviolence, the founders insist. No matter what, demonstrators are told, do not strike back.

Asked if the movement had been patterned after Mohandas Gandhi's, which ended the British Raj in India, Mahlangu said no, it was the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like King, Williams said, "We do it for social justice." And like King and his followers, they and theirs have paid heavily.

Williams and Mahlangu's latest struggle with Mugabe's judicial apparatus began a year ago. They had been attacked and jailed for leading a sit-in to demand food for hungry Zimbabweans and a power-sharing government between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai after the octogenarian president claimed victory in what many believe was a tainted election last year.

"What WOZA is doing is putting our lives on the line," Mahlangu said.

Williams and Mahlangu expect little from the Zimbabwe judicial system, although WOZA and other activists often have been supported by judges who ordered them to be released. Normally the government ignores judges' writs and releases activists only when it wants to, they said.

The government's purpose for prosecuting rights demonstrators is not for the public good, Williams said: "In Zimbabwe, prosecution is for persecution."

An Amnesty International researcher in London accused the Zimbabwean government of "using detention to frustrate the work of human rights defenders."

The government has been formed with Tsvangirai as prime minister, but Mugabe has remained the dominant figure.

Williams, 47, is the granddaughter of an Irish Republican Army fighter who gravitated to British-ruled Rhodesia and became the common-law husband of Ndebele tribeswoman Bahlezi Moyo, Williams' grandmother. She is the wife of an electrician and mother of three grown children, all of whom live in Britain.

Mahlangu is 35 and a one-time sports administrator in her native Matebeleland, the home of the Ndebele. She is smaller and more soft-spoken than her ebullient colleague.

The women formed their organization on Valentine's Day in 2002, after Mugabe claimed victory in an election that many considered fraudulent.

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is not the first organization to honor WOZA and the women who formed it. Among others that have are Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department, which awarded Williams an International Woman of Courage award in 2007.