WOZA: the early days

As WOZA celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, amid continued trials and tribulations, there have been plenty of opportunities for founder, Jenni Williams, to reflect.

The Valentine’s Day protest that solidified WOZA’s vision.
The Valentine’s Day protest that solidified WOZA’s vision.

The last 10 years have not been easy, but an arduous journey. I remember well the early days of WOZA. I was on my way to a conference in Cape Town and got lost in OR Tambo airport enroute to the domestic terminal.

When I finally made it through security, I found a seat in the waiting room next to Sheba Dube Phiri. She and I got talking and realized that we were attending the same conference and she was there in her capacity as a Zimrights official. Our conversation continued for the next four days and out of it WOZA was birthed.

Recruitment drive

On our return to Zimbabwe, we began our work by getting Bulawayo-based civics to arrange a protest during the 16 days campaign. On December 3 we planned to march in the streets wearing black and banging pots.

The main issue that emerged from consultations was the lack of affordable sanitary pads, so that is what we protested against.

We had written a letter to the police to advise them of our protest and had traffic police assigned to escort us. Participation was disappointing and we soon realized that civics had a culture of campaigning for 16 days and would not sustain the movement we envisioned.

So began the recruitment of individual members and some serious consultation around what issues we would focus on and what our mandate should be. The Public Order Security Act was very effective and participants wanted to challenge its existence and work out how to highlight its injustice to all Zimbabweans.

Women were very vocal about how the heaviest burden was on their shoulders and they felt strongly that they needed to take the lead in holding leaders to account for the bad governance which was responsible for their suffering. These women said they were brave enough to defy POSA and show Zimbabweans a peaceful way of exposing injustice. They wanted to be a visible presence on the streets.

Those early meetings in the Methodist Church were life changing for me. Sheba and I had the idea, but it was the people who turned up to our meetings who really fleshed out our vision. With a clear mandate and strong values, we needed to begin work. We needed an activity that would bring all the components together: courage, visibility, love, creativity, female leadership and acting rather than complaining.

Message of love

One Saturday in January, I was parked in downtown Harare outside a shop window full of Valentine’s Day goods. The red roses and the message of love jumped out at me. Meetings were convened and the holding of a Valentine’s Day protest in Bulawayo was endorsed. We had to work quickly and so communications flew around by whatever means necessary, including an advert in the Daily News. We wrote to the Police and requested an escort, and they agreed.

Some Harare women heard about the protest and demanded we come to the capital to tell them all about our plan. Those 50 women demanded to be included and set out to mobilise a Harare Valentine’s Day protest.

Unfortunately, the next day we received a phone call from the police.They said they would not be able to escort us. The women wanted to go ahead and, in spite of threats from the police spokesperson, our march went ahead.

Badge of honour

For Sheba and me there was no going back. She led the Bulawayo demonstration and I led the Harare one. We were both arrested that day, she with 16others and me with 75, including my high school headmistress, Sister Catherine, and my 18-year-old son, Christopher. With these arrests a trend began – being arrested for peaceful protest became abadge of honour. From that early protest we also learnt one of the important lessons of strategic non-violence.

We had created a dilemma for our opponent: arrest us and you look bad, leave us to march and we provide citizens with an example of how peaceful protest is done. We also learnt the importance of publicity. It is not for the sake of making someone famous, but it is vital to expose injustices and to shine a spotlight on the protest as a way of protesting participants.

WOZA have come a long way since those two early protests, but the lessons learnt remain in practice today.

Life has changed irrevocably for me. I got hooked on the freedom of a peaceful protest and the feeling of being alive and whole. I am hooked on the protest songs and solidarity and sisterhood in police cells. I am hooked on love. If I don’t get regular doses of these things, I have withdrawal symptoms.

Post published in: Politics

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