BOSTON — President Barack Obama denounced President Robert Mugabe as a "dictator" and said the 85-year-old leader is on the wrong side of history. The U.S. president made the comments when he gave a human rights award to a group of Zimbabwean women activists Monday.
Obama praised the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) for leading more than 100 street demonstrations to protest the Mugabe regime and to demand a return to democracy. WOZA's leaders, Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, have each been jailed more than 30 times, beaten and spent weeks in Zimbabwe's cells.
"Each time they see Magodonga beaten back, beaten black and blue during one protest, only to get right back up and lead another, singing freedom songs at the top of her lungs in full view of security forces, the threat of a policeman's baton loses some of its power," said Obama.
"By her example, Magadonga and the women of WOZA have shown the people of Zimbawe that they can undermine their oppressors' power, that they can sap a dictator's strength with their own," said Obama.
Although the Mugabe regime bans public demonstrations WOZA has led numerous protests. On Mother's Day and Valentine's Day the WOZA women have been beaten with batons and arrested for attempting to hand out roses and messages of peace.
“History has a clear direction and it is not the way of those who arrest women and babies for singing in the streets,” said Obama. “It is not the way of those who starve and silence their own people, who cling to power by the threat of force.”
Obama also denounced Mugabe's past human rights abuses. He noted that Mahlangu, as a young girl in the 1980s, witnessed the Matabeleland massacres, which Obama described as “the systematic murder of many thousands of people, including her uncle and several cousins, many of whom were buried in mass graves they’d been forced to dig themselves.”
Though part of a power-sharing government since February, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have continued to use state security forces to arrest and jail rival politicians and party workers, human rights lawyers and civic leaders.
Neighboring heads of state, worried that the power-sharing government led by Mugabe and his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, will crumble, have insisted the men settle their differences in the coming weeks, but so far Mugabe has been adamant that he will continue to rule as he sees fit.
The United States has limited political leverage in southern Africa, but Obama has repeatedly spoken out about Mugabe’s misrule — notably when he welcomed Tsvangirai to the White House in June, when he addressed the Ghanaian Parliament in July.
At the ceremony in the East Room Monday, the WOZA women were awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
It was the first time in the award’s 24-year history that Senator Edward Kennedy did not present the honor in memory of his brother. “Ted knew that Bobby’s legacy wasn’t a devotion to one particular cause, or a faith in a certain ideology — but rather, a sensibility,” Obama said. “A belief that in this world, there is right and there is wrong, and it is our job to build our laws and our lives around recognizing the difference.”
"The organization's name, WOZA — which means 'come forward' — has become its impact — its impact has been even more as people know of the violence that they face, and more people have come forward to join them," said Obama.
The event was sponsored by the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center).
WOZA is a grassroots movement working to empower Zimbabwean women from all walks of life to mobilize and take non-violent action against injustice. WOZA's members stand up for human rights and speak up about the worsening economic, social and political conditions in Zimbabwe at great personal risk.
"Arrests do not deter us because WOZA has empowered us to believe that we deserve better. We deserve to have a roof over our head, food in our stomachs, our children in schools and the nation working," said Mahlangu, in an interview with GlobalPost. "We deserve to live in dignity and free from fear; and it is our right to have our voices heard and respected. That is why I joined WOZA. While Mugabe boasts of having degrees in violence, I and 75,000 WOZA members who stand beside me, have degrees in non-violence."
Mahlangu emphasized that "no resolution to Zimbabwe's crisis has come from the power-sharing government. We are still experiencing repression, people are still hungry."
WOZA co-founder Jenni Williams said the women "are not fighting a revolution in Zimbabwe, we are leading an evolution. And civic education is our tool to evolve the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans to build a strong, new, African democracy where respect, tolerance and accountability are key."
Williams said to Obama: "You know how invaluable community mobilizing can be. We have learnt that knocking on doors, talking with and listening to people is the way we can rebuild our nation. We call on you, to support community mobilizers who are organized to empower Zimbabweans to deliver change from the ground up."
Mahlangu and Williams lead WOZA protests with their signature style of peaceful, yet relentless actions. They lead campaigns to call attention to domestic violence, the rights to food and education for children, and the rights to participation and association.
"As of today, the RFK Center and all of us in this room are watching and galvanizing support for the women of WOZA," said Kerry Kennedy. "We will investigate, advocate and educate on the issues WOZA confronts. We will stand with the women of WOZA as they speak truth to power."