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An open letter to friends and fellow activists
Jenni Williams, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA)
Bulawayo - March 21, 2004

An open letter to friends and fellow activists,

For the second year running I spent International Women's Day, 8th March in Police custody! Fortunately last year it was just a few hours before sanity prevailed and myself and the 18 other women were released. This year I was arrested on the eve and only made $ 10000 bail on the 9th March after spending over 48 hours in terrible conditions in Police cells. This was my eighth arrest and brings my tally to over 160 hours in Police custody since February 14, 2003. I am not ashamed at all and regard these hours as and investment in my future well being as a Zimbabwean. I find solace in the words of Ghandi "the real road to happiness lies in going to jail and undergoing suffering and privations there in the interest of one's country and religion".

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) was born as a national movement on that Valentines Day 2003. Over 78 of us were arrested in Harare and Bulawayo. That was my first arrest and I was honoured to be one of 48 women, 6 journalists and my teenage son who was watching the march from across the road. On that day I was charged under the repressive Public Order & Security Act (POSA) but was freed after signing a warn and cautioned statement. My WOZA sisters back home in Bulawayo fared worse and spent the night in custody and were only released under the pressure of our daybreak vigil outside the Police station. On Valentines Day we had marched in defiance of POSA calling on our brother and sisters to learn to love again and felt that we had a God given right to deliver this message to Zimbabweans who had seemingly forgotten how to love each other in all the chaos.

I am a founding member of WOZA, a civil disobedience movement for Zimbabwean community women who need to speak out and act to expose the current suffering they and their families are undergo as political leaders posture for power forgetting completely the people they should serve. We speak out and demonstrate peacefully, Ghandi and Martin Luther King style, despite POSA, Police and Politicians. I regard POSA as an attempt to stifle the nation of God's gift of speech and human association. Martin Luther King, Jnr said "One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law". That is why I and members of WOZA continue to march to demonstrate what we think of POSA.

I write this letter having spent the last 3 days in retreat and fasting to meditate on developments and strengthen my commitment the cause. I reflected long and hard on many issues, including my apparent notoriety due mainly to my street activism. Last year, I had been asked to speak at a local meeting. I was advised that Police clearance had been sought under POSA, but Police had declined to allow the event if "Jenni Williams" was one of the speakers. A local state newspaper had advised the "Jenni Williams" name could not be used in an advert. I was told that the offices of the organisation had been visited to search for me. Sadly, since that time I have received no further invitations to speak at this organisations events and whenever I meet the people associated, they recount their amazement at the Police reaction. Just this week someone elaborated further and told me that the Police called me a "Forbidden Person".

On the 7th March, WOZA was attending a National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) meeting whose agenda was elections for the Matabeleland officials. WOZA had elected to join NCA' s call for a new constitution and therefore attendance at this meeting was vital. Despite a caution from the MC that WOZA was not to 'disturb' his meeting, WOZA was graciously given a platform to read its position statement out and did so. We had already visited the NCA and advised them of our activity for 8th March and requested their support and endorsement. Dr Lovemore Madhuku, a brave champion of constitution reform and NCA Chairman addressed the meeting and gave a no holes barred call for activists to get out into the streets and be prepared to "die for a new constitution". I admired his courage in delivering his speech candidly to an audience with at least 4 state intelligence agents present. He has only just recovered from wounds inflicted by brutal Police who were prepared to "leave him for dead". During that meeting, one of my colleagues arrived and informed me that she had been followed from home by a plain-clothes intelligence agent. Two Riot Police men in their full riot kit were seen patrolling around and the MC announced their presence. It became apparent that the state agents in the meeting had been detailed to arrest my colleagues and myself before we left. We marvelled at this intelligence as we thought they had come to arrest Lovemore.

Perhaps we should have taken the tip off more seriously in light of our planned protest march the next day but we are in God's hands. We were fully prepared to be arrested in 'action' on International Women's Day, but not then. We decided to make an early exit and asked for some activist friends to escort us to the car. Three agreed to come with us but unfortunately as we reversed out of the parking, 2 Riot Policemen stopped us saying "Our boss wanted to speak to you at Bulawayo Central Police". Lawyers were contacted and we played for time fully expecting 'our comrades' in the meeting to come out and support us. Our friends who had escorted us informed us not to expect support as the meeting continued on undisturbed. Although Lovemore did do his best to get us lawyers. We eventually accepted our fate and followed the WOZA tradition of walking ourselves, under Police escort to jail.

We were initially charged with distributing our newsletter WOZA MOYA (come Holy Spirit), calling for a new constitution and Valentine Cards, which carry the message: "Our beloved Zimbabwe is crying. We must defend our right to love, and let love overcome hate." On arrival at Police Central, we did not see 'the boss'. We spent over an hour being verbally abused by Policemen. Our lawyer finally arrived and was advised that it was a Sunday and she should only make representations for us on Monday. My two colleagues, Magodonga Mahlangu and Patricia Khanye had never been arrested before and could not believe the flimsy charges. As we were led to the jail cell we knew in our hearts that those policemen were just out to suppress women's voices on their special day.

All three of us feel frustrated at the lack of active support from the NCA activists and as Patricia told them - "one day it could be you and what would you want us to do." Not one came to visit us or bring us food in jail and not one of them came in solidarity to the court hearing.

I must mention another frustration in that, despite all these arrests, not one cleric has visited us or thought to bring us a cup of tea. Many of those that meet me in the streets bemoan that the situation is tough but do little else. Martin Luther King Jr wrote of the clerics of his time by saying, "How often the Church has had a high blood count of creeds and an anemia of deeds." I must however give thanks to one pastor who has given me hope. He performed the prayer service in Harare before the march and remained as observer throughout the march, praying and giving the WOZA women courage.

We shared our jail cell with 3 illegal foreign currency dealers (moneychangers) and other youngsters on various charges. At 4am, 5 prostitutes joined us bringing our total to 15 women. The first night we sang in protest at the lack of blankets refusing to be silenced. We had a jolly good time and built up a real sisterhood. It was great and my colleagues admitted that they had been afraid of jail and that they now knew it to be just fear of the unknown.

The next day, a businesswoman found herself in custody for suspected fraud. She stood at the door, reluctant to come in. Then she sat on the cement floor a distance from us. I got up to use the toilet, which is in view of all cellmates. This shocked the newcomer into saying, "so you just wee and we all watch", 'yes sister', I said and that broke the ice. Within 20 minutes she was singing and dancing with us, her woes and the filth surrounding us forgotten. Again we protested through song to the Policemen for blankets and water to drink. We were denied both. Some moneychangers in the next cell formed a chorus with us. When we went out for head counts which happens frequently, other prisoners kept asking me (the only white skinned person) what I had done and I replied that I am a women's rights activist charged under POSA.

This time, there was less abusive intimidation towards me personally by uniformed Police managing the cells. In previous times they have pointedly engaged me abusively and tried to intimidate me. From the first arrest of WOZA activists, we have accepted an additional task and phase in our civil disobedience and that is to engage every officer that we can. We call on their common sense to prevail and for them to admit that times are hard and we need to be allowed to speak out. We do this in a feminine and of late, I have found myself having moments when I pity a police officer that starts to provoke one of us. He gets it thick from at least 5 women, in concert and with high-pitched voices. I feel that this could be one of the reasons the Police sought to arrest a few of us beforehand as they know in the demo they will have to arrest over 20 women and then labour to process us all. They apparently don't like working late and being harangued.

On the Monday morning, as International Women's Day dawned we said a prayer for WOZA and especially the secondary leadership painstakingly trained for such a test. Police had hoped that our arrest would halt planned demonstrations by holding the leadership as 'hostages' in jail. We got quieter and prayed harder as the appointed times of the protest approached. Our silent prayer was that our arrest would not be in vain. We were prepared to face any charges and even spend a month in jail, if only the WOZA women continued their march. And March they did, all though Bulawayo, passing a block from the Police Station. In Harare too, women Marched and marched. No arrests or intimidation from Police. Our prayers were answered. The Police had tried to disable WOZA by arresting the leadership, but women amply demonstrated that WOZA is theirs and the issues are theirs. And so that International Women's Day afternoon Police began processing new charges - from distributing leaflets to encompass the demonstrations under a POSA section. The next day they failed to charge us under POSA and had to take us to court on lesser charges. These were, "Contravening Section 360 (2) (b) of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act as read with Section 7 (c) of the Miscellaneous Offences Act. The essence of the charge: Inciting other people to demonstrate and cause a public disorder and/or disturbance and/or nuisance. We posted bail and were remanded to this Tuesday, 23 March 2004 when our lawyers hope to get the charged dropped completely. I must say that I would much rather go to jail than pay a fine admitting to a guilt I do not feel.

I pay tribute to the organisations that stand alongside us as we perform this fight for freedom and conduct our form of national service. These include the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and Crisis Coalition who called for our release. Thank you also to international friends for their emails of support and care packages sent to us. We urge Women's Coalition to stand alongside us as we fight for an amplified women's voice within this current crisis. Their official 'silence' when WOZA women are arrested on flimsy charges is deafening! As an individual I call on fellow activists to not be scared away by state propaganda. By now all activists should know that the state would work day and night to create disunity. Stand alongside, support in anyway you can, without fear, any activist fighting for democracy and freedom. God himself will fortify you as he has always done throughout history when common citizens stand up for their God given rights.

United we stand, divided we fall. After all it is not just Jenni Williams, Patricia Khanye and Magodonga Mahlangu that were incarcerated, we were symbolic hostages for 54 percent of the population of Zimbabwean women crying to end the suffering and calling for their human rights to be upheld. Most of all, we called for love to overcome hate and dignity on International Women's Day. We must develop a culture wherein we cherish our champions. Will you attend the WOZA court hearing on 23 March? Will you bring us a cup of tea when we are imprisoned?

If you do, you will have understood that this is OUR collective struggle and together we will win freedom and equality but we must be prepared to endure suffering. Freedom does not come easy. We have to fight (albeit passively), for the right to be free!

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