Interviewed by Hilary Miller.
Editor’s note: Just a few years ago, Evan Mawarire (GS’18) was the pastor of a small church in Harare. Today, the Zimbabwe clergyman and democracy activist draws a global audience for empowering citizens to challenge the rampant corruption, injustice and poverty in his home country. Our conversation, underpinned by his message of inspiring positive change and national pride, touched on his personal story, the intersection of faith and advocacy, and how hope is the most powerful currency for activists in Zimbabwe and around the world in the fight for justice.
It’s been five years since you founded #ThisFlag Citizen’s Movement to challenge the corruption, injustice and poverty that has plagued Zimbabwe under former President Robert Mugabe. #ThisFlag is considered the most influential civilian-led political movement in Zimbabwe’s history and some have even compared it to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement. What do you make of the widespread resonance and influence of #ThisFlag? In what ways has the campaign evolved, and are you confronting the same issues under Mugabe’s successor—President Emerson Mnangawa?
The key thing in understanding the resonance of #ThisFlag at the time it began was that it came from a voice that was not an expected voice, or not a usual voice. This was not the voice of the opposition, because that is who has traditionally spoken out in Zimbabwe, and it was not the voice of the traditional civil society. This was just an ordinary voice. Also, it was the voice of a pastor, which meant that the issues we were challenging were communicated in a thoughtful, genuine way. So, because I was not a usual politician and I was not from the usual civil society, the authenticity of it made everyone feel like I was speaking truly on their behalf when I spoke out those first couple of times. I think that gave it that resonance, that people felt like, “here is a voice that is truly concerned about the things that we are going through.”
The movement has experienced a lot over the last couple of years because we’ve gone through a lot of challenges. We’ve been pushed back by the regime, or the regimes rather because we went directly from one dictatorship to the next dictatorship. I think the beauty of movements like #ThisFlag is that they don’t die when they are impacted by forces that set out to break them apart. In fact, what they actually do is multiply. So, over the last five years, the beauty and the joy of watching #ThisFlag be attacked by the regime is that it has only grown; it has become a multiplicity of voices. More people have stood up and started their own versions of #ThisFlag that are more specific. For example, there are versions that point to the constitution, some that address the regime’s corruption and others that specifically highlight the injustices felt by Zimbabweans. In that regard, compared to when we started, there are much more people today that speak out in Zimbabwe—either as individuals or as part of a grassroots movement—than we have ever had in the history of Zimbabwe, and I am really excited that this is a result of our hard work.
In terms of the issues we are confronting, it’s really sad, Hilary, to have to admit that we are confronting the exact same issues that compelled us to confront former President Robert Mugabe in 2016. Today, even though it’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa in place of Mugabe, the administration is the same. So, Mugabe the person may be gone but “Mugabeism”is very much alive and has literally been taken to the next level by his proteges. The corruption is still deep. The injustice, the brutality has become even more pronounced over the last couple of years. Emmerson Mnangagwa not only abducted and jailed people, but people have been shot in public by the military—which was a rare occurrence even under Mugabe. So, it’s the same issues, but sadly they have been intensified.
Could you share some of the specific issues back in 2016 that prompted you to initially make the #ThisFlag video that ultimately went viral? What are some of the grievances or rights abuses, other than the regime’s corruption and brutality, faced by ordinary Zimbabweans?
I think at the root of the injustice, brutality, and the corruption in Zimbabwe is really a mafia-type organization called ZANU–PF, which has been the so-called “ruling party” since independence. This is a group of people, rather criminals, who are enriching themselves off the natural resources of the nation of Zimbabwe. Enriching themselves off the backs of the poor people of Zimbabwe. It’s a clique of people who keep each other in power so that they can benefit personally from the billions of dollars that have been siphoned from Zimbabwe. Billions of dollars that have been stolen from public funds from the coffers.
In 2008, Zimbabwe had a catastrophic economic collapse, a very low point in which millions of people including myself and my own parents lost their life savings. My parents were retired and lost everything. So, at the root of all of these things that are happening in Zimbabwe is this selfish group of people who now, of course, are being led by the military which, by the way, was a key component to removing Robert Mugabe. So, there’s a lot at the root of Zimbabweans’ collective grievance, namely the regime’s greed and access to the wealth of the nation for personal gain.
Since taking office in 2017, President Mnangagwa has repeatedly stated his commitments to human rights reforms but remains highly intolerant of basic rights, peaceful dissent, and free expression. You’ve continued to speak out against the Mnangagwa regime, in particular by putting a spotlight on prominent victims: journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition leaders Fadzai Mahere and Job Sikhala. What do you want our readers to know about their plight?
The dictatorship of Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took over from Robert Mugabe, has perfected the art of victimizing, has perfected the art of criminalizing things that are supposed to be constitutional or, should I say, things that our constitution actually allows you to do as a citizen of our nation. That’s what we are seeing in the victims you’ve mentioned.
Hopewell Chin’ono—a journalist that has become a powerful voice in recent months has really been thrust into the spotlight. He’s been advocating for years as a journalist but the last year has really accentuated work. Fadzai Mahere is the spokesperson for the leading opposition party in Zimbabwe. Job Sikhala, also part of the opposition. Alan Moyo is a young voice, a student voice that is speaking truth to power. And there are so many others whose names are not mentioned because they are not known.
These are people who represent the spirit of Zimbabweans to never give up in speaking truth to power. This is what they represent. What Hopewell has done over the last couple of months is calling out specific names for their actual acts of corruption. People like Fadzai Mahere have begun to speak about injustice and brutality openly. People like Job Sikhala are doing the same. And right now, the system is putting the magnifying glass on them to make them feel the heat. The regime has done this before to try and make an example of public figures so that everyone else is afraid.
I think the reason that they have been jailed is more than just that they are critical of the government; the reason they have been jailed is to shut everyone else up. They have been repeatedly denied bail, which they are supposed to get according to our constitution. The government is trying to weaponize our prisons and use the justice system to expose these courageous activists to the coronavirus. Fadzai Mahere, who was granted bail recently, tested positive for COVID after leaving jail. Hopewell Chin’ono is still in jail, and so is Job Sikhala and so is Alan Moy, and of course, the conditions in jail are not at all humane. I have been there many times over the last couple of years. Their plight is really the plight of the ordinary person in Zimbabwe. What is happening to these people is what is happening to every Zimbabwean even if they may not be in physical jail. They have been muzzled, they are not allowed to speak, they have been threatened with physical violence and taken to court, they have been threatened with going to prison and their lives have been put at risk for doing what our constitution allows us to do. And that is wrong.
You emerged as a leading pro-democracy voice by posting a Facebook video draped in Zimbabwe’s flag and speaking out about the economic hardships and hopelessness faced by many Zimbabweans. At the time, you were the head of a small church in Harare with a small audience. Was your intention for the video to go viral? What role has social media played in delivering your message to the world since then?
At the time of recording that video, the intention was not at all to go viral. I was a pastor of a small church and fully intended on pastoring that church. I think, at that point, what I was airing was a personal frustration. I really was not trying to communicate a national position because I was not a national leader. I was speaking just as an individual. And I think that is what resonated with everyone else, because it spoke to where they were as individuals, and it spoke about the kind of life that they were living day-to-day.The idea was just to express my frustration with where I was personally, and hopefully to begin a discussion with my own circle of friends to say, “look, this is what I am going through. Are you going through the same thing? These are my thoughts about what I am going through. What are your thoughts?”
These kinds of discussions in Zimbabwe had never been allowed in the public space. Zimbabweans did not speak openly about politics or what was affecting us socio-economically because, under Robert Mugabe, it was forbidden. It still is forbidden even though people still speak about it in hushed tones. The secret police in Zimbabwe, which is the central intelligence organization, had become—and still is, at this point—one of those organizations that follows you, listens to you, and if you criticize the economy or politics, you will draw their attention. That was not my goal. I had a small family of two young children and my wife was pregnant. I wasn’t looking for trouble. I was not looking to go viral.
But, when you look at what social media has done for us, you begin to see why it became viral. Social media has allowed for ordinary voices in Zimbabwe to become part of a discussion that was only for the exclusive few. It has allowed for ordinary people to tell their own stories rather than wait for the state-controlled newspaper to tell the story of what is happening in the country. Now we don’t have to wait for the newspaper to tell us their truth. We all have our own truth and lived experience of life in Zimbabwe that we can tell, and we can tell immediately. What social media has done is grow the space where citizens can speak, where citizens can participate.
Even if that space has been shrunk by the government, Zimbabweans can still speak. We can have meetings about the problems we are facing and build solutions to fix them. These are amazing wins for the ordinary person, the person who had been disenfranchised and excluded. This is an amazing power to have when you’ve never had it before—for your voice to be heard, for you to say something and, in an instant, it goes around the world and ignites conversation.
What made you feel the need to air your grievances in 2016 as opposed to 2008 when you described feeling a similar type of desperation amid the financial crisis, and seeing your community and your parents suffer. What was it about 2016 that made you want to post the video?
There is a point when you start to realize that you’ve done all you can to live a dignified life. There is a point when you start to realize that you have minded your own business enough, and that is no longer solving your problems. I think this is the point that I got to. 2008 was a disaster and many of us did not know what to do. Robert Mugabe’s regime was at its strongest at that time. If you will remember, we had just come out of an election in 2008 that was probably the most brutal election. Robert Mugabe had lost that election. But, the military supported him which consequently secured his power. And so, it was a time when fear was also at its peak in Zimbabwe.
But, when we got to 2016, we began to see the cycle of 2008 begin to happen again. In 2016, a main part of the campaign was driving the citizens to reject a new currency the government was introducing, which they had done in 2008 when we saw the economic collapse. We saw that this was happening again, Hilary, and to be honest, I was thinking to myself, “how is it possible that one person can go through a catastrophic financial collapse twice in one lifetime?” I remember saying this to my wife and my late Dad, and they challenged me for putting up a few more videos. They said, “listen you can’t continue to do this. These people will kill you.” And I said to both of them, “Dad, these people stole grandpa’s dream, they destroyed his life. They destroyed your life and stole your dreams. They destroyed my life and stole my dreams, and I’m 39. And now, they want to take my children’s lives and their dreams. Four generations! One of us must say something about it.”
This is the thing that I think people who live in dictatorships long for, they are looking for a way and a place to be able to say, “I’ve had enough!” And I found an incredible outlet by posting the video on Facebook, even though I was convinced nobody would hear me, because that was the culture in Zimbabwe: to ignore voices that were critical of the government, lone voices that were critical of the government.
A good example of that was in March of 2015. A young journalist named Itai Dzamara would stand in the city square with a big placard that said “failed Robert Mugabe must go.” That was a gutsy move. If anyone has ever inspired an amazing campaign, it was Itai. Much, much braver than me. I started off with a video in the comfort of my home. Itai was opposite the parliament buildings with his placard. Within a couple of weeks, Itai was snatched from a barbershop where he was receiving a haircut and, to this day, nobody knows where he is. The man is missing, leaving behind his wife and children.
At the time, I specifically remember thinking that if it was Itai last year, then it could be me this year. For me, this was a breaking point. I was about to turn 40 and I had not been able to be prosperous, to live freely in my country. Wherever we go as Zimbabweans, we are a laughing stock, even within our own continent of Africa. So much of my frustration was rooted in questions of identity. How can we be an embarrassment to the rest of the world? Are we not a people? Do we not have voices? Are we not concerned about our future enough that we won’t put ourselves on the line today? All of these issues compelled me to speak out, so I did.
As a pastor, in what ways do you draw upon faith in your activism? Does your religiosity impact your view of justice?
For a long time, I had been taught that there is no place for activism or even defending human rights for the church, the pastor or the Christian. Our place was on Sunday, and our book was the Bible. That’s where it ended. In fact, Robert Mugabe was famous for saying to pastors that those who step into the political arena are overstepping their boundaries. I knew that could never apply to me. My faith is my activism. I say this because, as a Christian, Christianity is based on the values of justice, the values of transparency, the values of servant leadership, the values of compassion. Those values mean that you can not ignore what your community is going through. If those values are violated, then your job is not just to go and feed the poor because that is what we are expected to do, and we do it. Your job is not just to go and encourage those who have a sense of fear, which we do. But, your job is also to confront the perpetrators of injustice. These are the examples of the characters in the Bible. From the book of Genesis to the last book of Revelation, the men and women recorded boldly stand up against authorities who are brutal, authorities who are immoral, authorities who destroy the lives of other people, and they confront them. As a pastor, I am a speaker of truth and a seeker of justice. That is what my faith encourages me to do.
You were imprisoned in 2016, 2017, and 2019 on fake treason charges and faced torture in a maximum-security prison. Was there any profound moment during your detention?
You are asking a question about a very low point and a very high point in my life over the last couple of years, especially when we talk about my activism. I was jailed a number of times from 2016 up until the end of 2019. I think I was jailed about 6 times, 2 of those times were in the maximum-security prison Chikurubi. The rest of the time I was held in police jail cells or in remand prison. The conditions in those prisons are horrible, they are disgusting, terrible. The interrogations and the torture that I was subjected to was terrible. Whenever I think about those times, I think it was the stripping away of my dignity as a person that stands out the most, because that is what the system seeks to do when they throw you in the maximum-security prison. They try to break your spirit, and they try to make you regret doing what you did and to come out of prison feeling like you are less of a human because of the brutal treatment you were given. Some of that treatment is still very difficult for me to talk about publicly. But, together with that are some very inspiring moments.
One of those moments came in the form of meeting a young prisoner who found me maybe the second or third day that I was in the maximum-security prison. I was feeling depressed, I was scared, I was regretting being there, and this young man came to me and said, “I want to encourage you, pastor, to listen to the stories of the people who are in this prison with you, instead of sitting here feeling dejected, these men here have stories to tell. And when you understand how broken they are, when you understand what they have lost, perhaps you will understand what our nation has lost. Perhaps you will understand what kind of a nation we live in.” It was the first time I began to understand that the prison system in Zimbabwe really is the true picture of what the whole nation looks like. What happens to our prisoners is what is happening to everyone else. This young man continued, “Pastor, do me a favor and ignore the walls that you see. Ignore these high walls, because if you don’t, you are going to end up serving two sentences. You will serve the physical sentence and you will serve a mental sentence as well. But if you are able to ignore this wall and meet these men daily that are here and speak with them and hear their stories and dreams and encourage them, when you leave, you will be freer than those who are free. When you leave, there will no longer be a jail that can threaten you to stop you from doing what you are doing.” That moment from a young man who was in jail accused of armed robbery gave me a new lease on life.
I had been arrested at the airport and thrown into prison at that particular time, and when I got out on bail about three weeks later and left prison, I had a sense that even if I may die doing this, I had purpose. I was going to make a difference in someone’s life. And if it means going to jail or if it means being locked up, it’s a small price to pay compared for giving a voice to the people of Zimbabwe.
You recently tweeted “the brutal, corrupt dictatorship of the Mnangagwa regime in Zimbabwe will never win the hearts and minds of our people. No matter how much pain they inflict, our hope for a free nation will not fade.” How do you maintain that hope despite the persistence of rights violations in Zimbabwe? What message of hope do you have for dissidents and pro-democracy activists in other countries standing up to brutal regimes?
I think that maintaining hope, Hllary, has more to do with understanding that while we may not be where we want to be, we are not where we used to be. Maintaining hope means that we understand that the work that we have done, no matter how small—even if it is just the young person who has gotten involved in a solo protest in their neighborhood, or the young woman who posted a video criticizing the way the government has handled something, those are wins that should inspire us. So, we may not have the full victory of a completely changed Zimbabwe, but we definitely have got a lot more space than we had before. And that gives us hope. The regime wants us to believe that it is impossible to question them.
The regime, and all dictatorships and oppressors, want us to believe that we are too small to be heard, that we are too small to push them in any direction, and that is what fuels what we do. The sense that Goliath stands before David and says, “you will never, ever move me,” is what actually fuels David to say, “because of that, I am going to throw what I have.” In the case of David in the Bible, he had a sling and a stone, very basic things. And he is fighting against this giant of a man who has been a warrior for years. It is the same thing with our activism, particularly in Africa. We are people that are not as well-resourced compared to the government. We are just ordinary people who have no idea how to run a government. All we want is to live our lives. But, what we have is our voices, our hopes and aspirations, and those things fuel us. Now there are people who have fought this battle and walked this walk before we did years before, and we stand on their shoulders. Our excitement, Hilary, is that there is a generation that is going to thank us and stand on our shoulders and take it further. That is why we must do what we do, because if we are missing or if we stop, then the next generation is going to have to start where we started. They need to be further than we have been.
How can democracies pressure President Mnangagwa and other ruthless regimes to uphold human rights, or show support for pro-democracy movements?
It is extremely important that governments watching Zimbabwe are openly critical of blatant human rights abuses, of blatant manipulation of democratic processes. One of the problems that we have faced in Africa is that other African governments do not speak up when their fellow leaders across the continent are oppressing their citizens. They keep quiet. The African Union must be the first one to criticize when people are shot in Uganda, or when journalists are jailed in Zimbabwe. Why are they either the last one to speak or they never speak at all? Government and continental bodies have to realize that African lives matter to Africans. They must speak up.
It is this lack of solidarity with people, not with fellow liberation movements or governments, but with the people of Africa that is bringing together young people across the continent. You are going to see this wave grow in the coming years. There will be another Evan Mawarire in Zambia, there will be another Evan Mawarire in South Africa, in Nigeria, in Kenya, in Uganda. Young people across the continent, who make up the majority of the population, are so tired of being taken for granted, of their futures being robbed. Governments have got to keep applying pressure, keep calling Mnangagwa out, keep calling Museveni out, keep calling Magufuli out. And do so directly. The people that suffer here are us, in Africa, and so it is important that the dignity of life is protected by being able to confront with truth the ones who oppress.
This year we are delighted to have you speak at the 13th annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. You also spoke at the 2018 Summit. What does having this platform mean to you and other activists for putting a global spotlight on pressing human rights issues?
This platform, for me, as an activist, is like having a bullhorn in your hand. It is one thing to fight or to speak on the ground. It is another thing to have that voice amplified. This is what the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy has been for me. In 2018, the Summit was able to amplify the message that we had about Zimbabwe and its future. It was at that Summit that I declared: “Zimbabwe is open for business, but is Zimbabwe open for justice? Is Zimbabwe open for freedom?” That was at the beginning of the new regime of Emmerson Mnangagwa. A year later, I ended up in prison because of his regime and the Summit had allowed me to sound an alarm about what was coming in the future. The Summit had allowed me to call the eyes of the world to look at Zimbabwe, and that’s what platforms like this one do for ordinary activists, for small activists. The Geneva Summit has enabled for movements like #ThisFlag to grow, to take their message to the next level. More importantly, the Summit inspires many across the world to learn, to observe and then to reproduce that activism in their own regions with the hope of making a difference.