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Zimbabwe: Activist using protest PR to change the world
Wilson Johwa, Inter Press Service (IPS)
December 06, 2003

Jenni WilliamsBULAWAYO, Zimbabwe -- The demonstration was brutally put down. Police lashed out, their blows temporarily paralyzing slower protesters who couldn’t escape the random thrashing.

Women were among those badly beaten during a demonstration held in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city of Bulawayo on Wednesday. Some were mid-afternoon shoppers who had been scuttling between stores, searching for scarce commodities like bread to take home to their families. Several were unaware of the protest until it was too late, and they were caught on the wrong side of the police cordon.

A number of other women, however, were there for a reason -- including Jenni Williams, head of the pressure group Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza). Five additional members of Woza protested alongside her -- pounding pots and pans to drive home the point that women in the country have nothing to cook. Williams was later arrested, together with another Woza demonstrator.

The group also took part in the November 18 mass action organized by the federation of trade unions to press for tax relief and a halt to Zimbabwe’s economic deterioration.

"The moment I will treasure is when I walked down Herbert Chitepo [Street] in handcuffs, telling people I was arrested for fighting for our rights," Williams recalls. "People started chanting and would not allow me to be taken into Drill Hall [a police station]."

In Zimbabwe’s stifling political climate, daring to dissent often has grave consequences.

Yet it is in this same atmosphere that Williams is fast acquiring a reputation for chutzpah, as she campaigns in favor of a new democratic order in the country.

During the past three years, Zimbabweans have watched helplessly as President Robert Mugabe’s government, which brought liberation from colonial rule, whittled away their rights. Top officials have cocooned themselves in privilege, corruption and unaccountability.

The opposition has been no match for the authorities’ show of force. Attempts at mass action are paralyzed by fear of reprisals. The few acts of civil disobedience that do take place are ruthlessly crushed by the riot police -- the notorious "black boots".

Nonetheless, Williams believes that last month’s demonstration was a turning point, particularly in Bulawayo -- where people overcame their fear and turned out in large numbers.

"We have to tell the leaders what we want," she says. "It’s time for Zimbabweans to understand what democracy is and take our power back."

A public relations consultant-turned-activist, Williams’s reputation for feistiness dates back to 2001 when she controversially spoke for the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents Zimbabwe’s dispossessed white farmers.

"Normally PR [public relations] practitioners work behind the scenes," she says. "But after the presidential elections in 2002 I had to take a frontline position to counter government propaganda on land, because the farmers were too scared to take that role."

In June last year, the government tightened its land legislation, resulting in the eviction of more farmers. A new group was formed, Justice for Agriculture (JAG), which shifted the focus away from the Commercial Farmers Union.

Teaming up with people who believed in "protest PR", Williams was amongst the first to join JAG. She says the combative group managed to articulate issues effectively at a time when agriculture had been criminalized, and more than 200 farmers arrested.

But the mother of three did not stay with JAG long. She says she left because the organization failed to deracialize farming.

"We were spending far too much time telling the white farmers’ stories, and for me it became obvious that unless we looked at the bigger democracy issues nothing would be solved."

At about that time, Williams, who is of mixed race but had passed for white, decided to make her background public.

"I chose that time because that was when my three kids were leaving home."

Along with six siblings, she was raised on a farm that now belongs to an uncle who has had to contend with land invaders, most of whom are relatives.

"I no longer see my mixed blood and upbringing as a deficiency, I see only that I am the best of both worlds," she says.

In 2002, Williams was nominated for the prestigious annual Communicator of the Year award for speaking on behalf of commercial farming.

But her willingness to take PR into the realm of activism returned to haunt her. The sponsor of the award, British American Tobacco Zimbabwe, opposed her nomination -- then withheld funds for the event after failing to have her withdrawn from competition. For the first time in 22 years, the awards did not take place.

Williams argued that as a professional communicator she should be judged separately from the product, or message, she delivered. She also seized the winner’s trophy, which resulted in her being threatened with arrest, for theft. The trophy was later returned.

Woza first nailed its colors to the wall last year, when it organized a Valentine’s Day march. More than 70 women were arrested for handing out flowers in a "no-to-violence-yes-to-love" campaign.

Since then it has staged several protest actions, including a demonstration in June against the repressive Public Order and Security Act. This law restricts freedom of assembly, criticizing the government and president -- and engaging in or organizing acts of civil disobedience. A case against Williams and 47 other members of Woza is still pending in the courts, concerning this march.

However, Williams has her share of critics, not least some of Woza’s founders who feel the activist has turned the group into a personal enterprise that she runs unchallenged.

They also accuse her of being pre-occupied with ad hoc demonstrations at the expense of a more holistic fight for the rights of Woza members, most of whom are black, working-class women.

Standing in a parking lot outside the city’s main police station a day after this week’s protest, Woza member Magodonga Mahlangu saw things differently.

She said that since its inception the organization had consciously set out to demand space for voiceless women through street action, as no other women’s group was doing.

Close by, in between answering callers’ inquiries, Patricia Khanye -- also a member of Woza -- described Williams as an "extraordinary human being" unafraid of being in the line of police fire.

"In this country there is nothing for which you won’t be arrested for anywhere," Khanye added. "There is no rule of law in Zimbabwe."

From her place in the cells, Williams would no doubt have agreed. -- IPS

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