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Zimbabwe Activists Won't Back Down To Mugabe


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we keep hearing about the trouble kids can get into and cause with their online identities, but new research suggests that there are some advantages, too, and we will talk about that in our new miniseries, Social Me, and we'll start that series in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to hear about Zimbabwe, which is heading toward elections in the next few months. Longtime president Robert Mugabe, at 88 years old, has held power there for more than three decades. Critics blame him for the country's economic meltdown and decades of political violence, but Mugabe is eying yet another term in office and, despite a much-heralded power sharing agreement with a former opposition leader, activists say the abuses of civil society and human rights activists continues.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we caught up with Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams from the Zimbabwean grassroots movement Women of Zimbabwe Arise, or WOZA. They were in Washington for a brief visit with other activists and they are with us now.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us on your very short trip...

MAGODONGA MAHLANGU: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: the United States.

JENNI WILLIAMS: Hello. Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: We know that, you know, Zimbabwe or Mr. Mugabe was supposed to have entered into a power-sharing arrangement after the last election. He was supposed to be working with, you know, the opposition groups. They were supposed to have been brought into the government, and yet we hear that the, you know, acts of reprisal against political opponents, the censorship and all of these - all of the same things that we've been hearing all along are still going on.

Jenni, could you talk a little bit about the conditions that a group like yours faces in trying to do your work?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, being a human rights defender is putting yourself at severe risk of arrests, torture, abduction and not only as human rights defenders do we face that, but in the normal, average daily life of a Zimbabwean, you can get arrested. They are criminalizing defending human rights. They're criminalizing just merely being an informal trader trying to eke a living with over 90 - 80 percent unemployment.

And so, every day in Zimbabwe, everyone faces this barrage of persecution and it's hell.

MARTIN: Magodonga, I understand that, between the two of you, between you and Jenni, that you've been arrested nearly 100 times. Is that so? On what grounds?

MAHLANGU: Yes, that's true. We have been arrested over 100 times between the two of us for merely speaking out, for merely saying that you want bread. You want water. My first arrest was that I sang discordantly and I was arrested for that.

MARTIN: Did I hear that right? Singing discordantly?


MARTIN: You were arrested for singing discordantly?

MAHLANGU: Yeah. It was a...

MARTIN: That's a charge?

MAHLANGU: Yeah. It was a hymn from the Bible, a religious song.

MARTIN: Jenni, do I have it right that - is it that you were once arrested for selling jam? Is that right? Or the two of you were?

WILLIAMS: Oh, no. She was the one arrested...

MARTIN: She was arrested?

WILLIAMS: ...for selling the jam.

MARTIN: You were selling jam.

WILLIAMS: And I was also singing with her, but I wasn't singing discordantly.

MARTIN: Oh, you weren't singing discordantly?

MAHLANGU: Well, I think she got arrested, also, so it didn't matter.


MARTIN: You can laugh about it. That's...

WILLIAMS: We can laugh about it because, otherwise, we'd cry.

MAHLANGU: And this is how we survive, by laughing at these things.

WILLIAMS: But, you know, the fact that, not only were we arrested, but then we were taken into the most horrific conditions and kept in custody for over 48 hours. We were arrested as a preventative measure so that we wouldn't be part of a International Women's Day demonstration, which we then, in the prison cell in Bulawayo, listened to our colleagues go ahead with the demonstration outside, and had a little bit of fun, at least, singing the songs that we would have been singing if we'd have been out of custody. And the victory was that our colleagues went ahead with the protest.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, Jenni? Forgive me, but what were the conditions there? What have been the conditions there?

WILLIAMS: Well, I'll never forget that, for me, that was the 13th or 14th arrest. For Magodonga, it was the very first time and I had actually told her that dirt is warm, Magodonga, so be brave if you're going to get arrested. And I remember the cell is actually just like a three by five. There's the filth. The toilets are overflowing. They stink. They never flush. There are blankets, but if you use the blankets, you must fight with the lice to keep warm.

And I remember she stood by the door and I walked in and I just laid down because I'd been used to it now, and dirt's warm, anyway. And she just looked at me and she said, oh, no. You're lying there amongst the dirt. And I said, OK. Well, just carry on sitting at the door if you'd like and, eventually, she crept over and she sat down on the cement and, eventually, she was covering up with a blanket herself.

And you're like that for 48 hours. You're not allowed to change. You're not allowed to dress. We are constantly harassed with insults by prison police officers, plainclothes and uniformed. We are called prostitutes just for defending our rights. I am often insulted because of the color of my skin, even though I'm of mixed race, and we just know that for 48 hours we'll be at the total mercy of these people.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask if you feel forgotten by the rest of the world? I mean, it is, I believe, fair to say that, you know, Zimbabwe, at times, has been very much on the agenda of the international media, but really less so, I think it's fair to say, in recent years. Do you feel forgotten? Magodonga, do you wish to answer that? Do you feel that anyone else is paying attention?

MAHLANGU: Yeah. Most of the times, we feel that we are not a priority and then we get forgotten. For instance, right now, all the attention now will be on Kenya because Kenya is going ahead with their election before us.

WILLIAMS: But we're also forgotten because...

MARTIN: Jenni.

WILLIAMS: ...we are women. You know, we are a majority in Zimbabwe, 52 percent of the population.

MARTIN: Is that so? Fifty-two percent of the population is female?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, we are also probably even more than that because most men find it easier to escape to other countries and travel abroad. They have more opportunities. We are forgotten because we are women. We are forgotten in society because we are perceived to be second class citizens who shouldn't have a voice.

MARTIN: And, WOZA. Tell me about this group, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, WOZA. You held your first protest on Valentine's Day in 2003. Tell me about how this organization came about - and "woza" has a meaning in Ndebele. Right?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. It means come forward. And we use it because we feel that, woman, it's time for you to come forward, take your place and do the work that you should do to show Zimbabweans a nonviolent method of holding your government accountable, a way that we can have a combined, collective voice and bring the discourse away from politics and political power and onto the issues that are important to everyday Zimbabweans. Do we have water? Do we have electricity? Can we get our children educated as a promise of the liberation war for free primary education, and can we feel that we have a voice around bringing our new constitution?

And we march in the streets of Zimbabwe peacefully, singing our songs and holding our placards and demanding that, that right to protest, that right to occupy our streets. It's just incredible.

MARTIN: How are people earning a living? How are people just living day to day?

WILLIAMS: By the grace of God, by the ability to maybe buy some tomatoes in the market and, if you are brave enough, you'll manage to sell those and eke a little bit of living. We no longer talk of having three meals a day. It's, if you can afford it, how do you have one meal a day to just keep that hunger at bay?

And don't forget that we have a massive pandemic. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is taking people. I've lost so many of my comrades in WOZA over these years. It's just a recipe for disaster in Zimbabwe.

MARTIN: What keeps you going?

MAHLANGU: Well, what keeps me going and what keeps us all as women going is that, for once in our lives in the history of Zimbabwe, we managed to create a platform where we speak with one voice, looking at the needs of a woman, an ordinary person, without looking at which political party we come from. It's in our hands. We feel that we've empowered ourselves to speak with one voice as women of the nation.

MARTIN: Jenni, what about you?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, there's an addictive thing about freedom. When we organize our protests and we defy all the unjust laws that are in place and we are in the street holding our placards and marching, we feel like complete, whole citizens and that freedom that we make and demand is so contagious and that makes us feel whole. It makes us feel relevant. Our children see us marching and they realize that freedom is what you demand, what you make of it.

And what also is exciting for us is to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama and see that a community organizer is being inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America. Hey, wow. That's just incredible, and someone who comes from a marginalized space in society of mixed race - those are the opportunities that we think shouldn't only belong to Americans. They should belong to Zimbabweans.

MARTIN: Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu are with the activist movement WOZA, or Women of Zimbabwe Arise. We were able to catch up with them on a very brief trip to Washington, D.C., so we are thankful that we had the opportunity to visit with them while they were here. Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu with WOZA, or Women of Zimbabwe Arise. They were here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for having us.

MAHLANGU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.