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Interview with WOZA founder Jenni Williams

Daniel PelzJuly 2, 2014

Jenni Williams is a human rights activist and founder of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). A vocal critic of President Robert Mugabe, she is one of many prominent guests at DW's Global Media Forum.

Jenni Williams with a DW microphone
WOZA founder Jenni Williams at the 2014 Global Media Forum in Bonn, GermanyImage: DW/V. Engels

DW: You said that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has called for protests against the government of President Robert Mugabe. Do you think these protests will really take place and, if so, will they really change anything?

Jenni Williams: First of all I must correct you. When you say 'MDC', there are so many different MDCs. I think the call was directly made by Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC-T. I believe, because of his track record of calling for protests, that it is just a call for publicity so that journalists like you will maybe write about him and maybe give him a little bit more prominence. But on the ground, if there was something happening, I would have heard about it.

What does it mean for your work as a civil society activist that there is not a strong opposition party in parliament?

WOZA was formed in 2002, at a time when the MDC was really in its infancy, and we formed WOZA to give women a voice to speak out amongst a very polarized political environment. So for us it's not about who is in power, it's about our voices and our issues. So, yes, as a Zimbabwean I feel that we should have democracy, there should be additional parties, strong opposition. But in terms of the work WOZA does, we will speak to a policy maker, no matter which party he belongs to.

But wouldn't it make your work easier if you had a strong, unofficial representation in parliament through a party that really champions human rights?

I am not represented by a party. I am represented by choosing a member of parliament or a counsellor as an individual voter. And the track record of the opposition that we found is that, even if they have a majority in parliament (and the MDC once had a majority) they don't do anything. There are unjust laws that they have signed. So, unfortunately in my living memory, and for many people of my age group, opposition politics is not yet strong. There was, way back, someone who could have done something better, and that is the late Joshua Nkomo, because he was a pure nationalist. Someone like that - maybe - could have made a difference.

You yourself have organized protests but we have never seen large-scale protests with the whole country being shut down. Why is it so hard to mobilize people in Zimbabwe to take to the streets and force the government out?

It's a matter of numbers and it's a matter of a culture of fear. It's also a matter of the framework under which citizens regard their citizenship and their power. We are coming from colonialism, we are coming from patriarchy, we are coming from a climate where we expect our chiefs, our headmen, to tell us what to do. We haven't yet understood our power and use it collectively. But also, I think you must understand that the world looks at numbers of people in the street as a way to bring about regime change. In WOZA , we have over 85,000 members. In a period of two to three weeks, we can consult 10,000 people and get their views and mobilize them. That work is vital - and journalists must start to look at that work.

At the moment, there is no strong opposition party in Zimbabwe. The MDC, as you mentioned, has split into different camps. Do you see any chance for a strong and united opposition in the near future?

I don't, but, you know, we focus on the opposition and we say they have divided themselves into camps - but look what is happening in the ruling party ZANU-PF. It is splintering into many, many different camps itself, at different levels of the structure. In 2013 we were conducting a massive protest about the new constitution and there were so many different factions of the anti-riot police that you could see that these police who stopped us at this corner belonged to a different faction from those at that corner. And that is how the ruling party factionalism has gone down to different levels within the military. It is important to look at that because it means the dictatorship in the ruling party is unbundling, as much as it is unbundling in the opposition. That's good news!

But is it really a threat to President Mugabe or is it that people are trying to bring themselves into a good position to succeed him one day?

It is a fight for succession, I think that is the bottom line. People feel that Mugabe is now very old, he's 90. He's going to Indonesia every two weeks for medical treatment. So I think they are thinking that their time is near. And so there is a lot of fighting for succession. We don't know whether it will bring something better but in my understanding of supreme beings, supreme dictators - like the picture the world and Zimbabwe has of this all powerful Robert Mugabe - when his time ends, people will heave a sigh of relief, I will heave a sigh of relief, and say "OK, now who's coming and what can we do to make them accountable?"

Jenni Williams is the founder and national coordinator of WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise.) She has organized numerous peaceful protests to demand social and political reforms.

Interview: Daniel Pelz