Bulawayo members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) selected Friday 13th February 2015 to conduct their 13th Valentine’s Day procession. At 245pm, two processions began, one in 9th Avenue and one in 14th Avenue. Both processions had over 550 members taking part and marching through the city to the Mhlahlandlela Government Complex to hand over a petition to the resident minister.
The protest was conducted under the theme – Demanding Dignity – Demanding Women’s Empowerment! The protest followed a civic education programme covering the constitution clauses on the right to earn a living. Members’ demands were written on placards and contained in the Woza Moya newsletter being distributed along with the traditional red roses.
The demands included the creation of jobs, a halt on the relocation of informal traders from Bulawayo city centre and the urgent convening of a country wide consultation to map a collective way forward on how to revamp the economy putting women and youth at the centre of the economic empowerment action plan.
Both protest groups arrived undisturbed at the government complex after a 20 minute march. The police officers in the vehicles merely watched and followed. Upon arrival at the complex, the security guards immediately locked the gate barring the two members due to deliver the demand entry. Undeterred the peaceful members began their Mhlahlandlela programme, singing their composed songs stating their demands and putting across their views. As the final stage of the programme was coming to an end, 15 anti riot police officers who had been dropped off a distance away arrived where the singing and slogan chanting members were located.
They made to surround those by the gates and started to push them away with baton sticks. WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu both advised the police officers that the protest was now dispersing and asked them to allow for closing slogans for peaceful dispersing. Both were rudely told to shut up and get away, both were manhandled as they tried to stress that police officers were now causing disorder by prodding and threatening to beat members, by now many afraid and beginning to run away. The police officers continued to push the leaders and members down the road towards Herbert Chitepo Street.
As the front group reached this street, they made to turn left to go towards the bus terminus, anti riot officers ran and blocked them once again prodding and manhandling those trying to get to the terminus through this road. With no choice those in this forced procession, and then went towards 12th avenue hoping to once again take a route to the terminus, once again the police officers ran and blocked them. Now perplexed most members kept demanding where they should go and they were answered by baton sticks in the ribs or back respectively depending on which way they were facing.
A police twin cab showed up with an occupant obviously a high ranking officer, both Williams and Mahlangu went to ask him if he could make the orders clear but he ignored both with a stony demeanour. This officer was engaged repeatedly by WOZA leaders but he remained un-responsive and showed no obvious role as an officer sworn to uphold peace and order.
As the members now in some sort of a ‘forced procession’ continued to be shepherded out of town some police officers began to let on that they were pushing members to the industrial sites. Some police officers threatened that they were awaiting the arrival of a vehicle to take members to be dumped in Plumtree, a town 100 kilometres away. For several more city blocks the police officers blocked any exits, using baton sticks and threatening now numbering over 90 members. They refused to allow a slower pace or rest in the shade for anyone, even the elderly.
At the intersection of 15th avenue and H. Chitepo Street, the start of the industrial area, two members fainted. One member, Thabani Nyoni was beaten on her lower back and immediately fell down and was unconscious. The other member was quickly revived but Thabani spent over 10 minutes unconscious. When she came to she could not speak, an ambulance had to be called due to her condition. At this time some police officers had continued to push members for another 30 minutes deeper into the industrial area. Some members managed to stay behind with the unconscious members, until the ambulance had arrived and loaded up Thabani to take her to hospital.
After the ambulance left, 50 members marched back into the city in a final action of defiance exercising their right to protest. As they marched they sang ‘WOZA will never be killed’ right up to the bus terminus where they peacefully dispersed as had been the original plan. The police boss and 6 officers followed in the twin cab but made no further attempt to disrupt the march. As this final contingent came back through the route they had taken forced by police baton sticks, vendors and bystanders who had witnessed the first event clapped hands and ululated.
Five members had to receive medication for soft tissue bruising and Thabani was admitted to the emergency rooms and finally discharged two hours later.
WOZA leadership met on 16 February to discuss police behaviour during the protest. They resolved to write a formal letter of complaint to the police who did not follow their legal mandated procedure and allow member to peacefully disperse. Instead they used cruel , inhuman and degrading treatment forcing members out of town and using violent means to deprive them of their constitutional right to protest.