Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Zimbabwean activist refuses to bend under Mugabe’s rule

Jenni Williams has no love for Robert Mugabe.

The protests that Ms. Williams has organized against the policies of Zimbabwe’s megalomaniac President have landed her behind bars “37 or 38 times, it’s difficult to keep track,” she said with a quick smile during an interview Tuesday at the Ottawa headquarters of Amnesty International.

As the founder of the underground group Women of Zimbabwe Arise, Ms. Williams holds Mr. Mugabe “directly accountable” for the repressive laws and the desperate poverty that mark life in her East African country. “Mugabe is also directly accountable for the violence he perpetrates on the nation,” she said. “He even brags about it. He said, ‘I have degrees in violence.’”

But the 49-year-old activist also fears what could come next.

Mr. Mugabe, who has held power for more than three decades, is 87years old and there are persistent rumours that his health is failing. He has not named a successor. And if that does not happen, “we may have a civil war in Zimbabwe. It’s a reality,” Ms. Williams said. “It frightens me terribly.”

Already there are others within Mr. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party who are positioning themselves to become leader when the job becomes vacant.

“They have these youth that they have propagandized and quite often they are high on drugs and they [the political leaders] will use this youth militia to put fear in the nation,” Ms. Williams said. There are also allegations that a recently discovered diamond field is being used to enhance the military capabilities of the presidential hopefuls.

“It’s warlordism being put in place in case he doesn’t name a successor,” she said. “Then they will have to fight it out to see who wins.”

Gun battles would be waged in the streets of a country already crippled by hunger, poverty and violence, Ms. Williams said.

If that happens, her own grown children and her husband would be safe. They have all moved to Britain. But Ms. Williams refuses to leave the place where she was born.

Despite her numerous arrests, she is in Canada only to deliver a speech to mark Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary and will return to Zimbabwe when the brief visit ends. She credits the work of the international human rights group for the fact that she and her colleagues are still alive.

Ms. Williams is of mixed race – her maternal grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Army who married an African. Her father was black.

She ran a public-relations company until 2000 when the reforms of Mr. Mugabe removed white farmers from their land. The police harassment that followed made it impossible for her to continue in business. At the same time, repressive laws were being enacted, violence was increasing, and 98 per cent of Zimbabweans could not find jobs.

“So we found like-minded women and we started to consult and discuss what could be done,” she said. “We felt that, as women, if we don’t speak out, if we just sit in our homes crying and doing nothing, life is going to pass us by and it’s going to get worse. We said let’s go out in the street, do something non-violent, do something to hold our government accountable.”

The result has been nine years of peaceful protests – and nine years of arrests and abductions and torture. But the organization now has 80,000 members and is a force to be reckoned with.

There is some hope that the country’s new constitution will bring in the kinds of checks and balances that will make Mr. Mugabe’s successor more accountable, Ms. Williams said.

But there will be a long period of uncertainty until the new president is in place. And if the situation gets worse, Ms. Williams said she will not leave.

“I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else,” she said. “If it descends into civil war, I am there to make it better.”

No comments: