Evan Mawarire is a Zimbabwean pastor and activist. In 2016, a video he recorded, entitled “This Flag,” inspired tens of thousands of Zimbabweans to protest against the Robert Mugabe regime, leading to Mugabe’s resignation in 2017. Mawarire has since led a series of protests calling for government accountability and an end to corruption, and has been arrested multiple times in retaliation. The Journal spoke with Pastor Mawarire about this experience, and what it will take to break the cycle of corruption.
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What was it like to grow up under the rule of Robert Mugabe?
Evan Mawarire (EM): Growing up under Robert Mugabe meant living under a constant sense of fear. There’s no other way to explain it. Ask anyone who grew up during the era. As a Zimbabwean, one of the things that defined us was being afraid of the state. My parents warned us growing up that you don’t cross Robert Mugabe, you don’t get involved in politics. This fear was constantly passed down from one generation to the next. There were stories of political opponents who had stood up against Mugabe who had literally just vanished. Many were tortured as well. So growing up under Robert Mugabe, you were taught to just leave politics alone.
There was never a time when Robert Mugabe was a genuine leader. He started killing people in 1982, literally two years after independence. Growing up in Zimbabwe, you are fed propaganda about Robert Mugabe the savior, Robert Mugabe the liberator, the great leader. And it didn’t help that at the time nations like England would also put Robert Mugabe on a pedestal. He was knighted by The Queen. He received accolades from the international community. It was hard to see through all of that. But this man, since he gained power, did not stop trying to eradicate opponents. He wanted to try to make sure that he would rule Zimbabwe completely until he died. I know a lot of Zimbabweans struggle when they travel abroad and hear glowing remarks about Robert Mugabe. You yourself wonder whether they are speaking of the same Robert Mugabe that you lived under. Up until the day he died the debate over his legacy was still raging. But when you look back, it’s not hard to see that Robert Mugabe’s brutality started on day one.
JIA: In 2016, you recorded your first #ThisFlag video, in which you decried the state of Zimbabwe under Mugabe. What inspired you to record that video, and why do you think it resonated with so many people?
EM: It was less inspiration and more frustration. It was 19 April 2016, one day after Zimbabwe’s Independence Day. I’m sitting in my small church hall and I’m thinking to myself, “Why am I failing to put food on the table for my family? Why am I failing to pay school fees for my family? I’m a Zimbabwean in a free Zimbabwe, but I have little to show for it.” I’m sitting there thinking that, as a 39-year-old who is fully capable and decently educated, the only reason why I am in this mess is because this country, led by this government, led by this party, led by this man, has destroyed every- thing. When I did that video, what drove me was frustration. It was anger. I was really ranting more than I was trying to inspire people.
In the video, I speak about Zimbabwe and its national flag. In primary school we are taught that every color means something. The green stands for the agricultural backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy. The yellow stands for the richness of the minerals that are deposited in Zimbabwe, from gold to platinum to lithium to chrome to diamonds. The red stands for the blood that was shed during the liberation struggle. The black stands for the Black majority who are now controllers of their own destiny and rule their own country.
In that video I talk about how everything this flag stands for has been violated. What the flag stands for and the state of the nation are worlds apart. The reason Zimbabweans are suffering is because we haven’t stood up for reclaiming the promise. In the video I say, “Every time this flag is flying it’s begging for you to say something. It’s begging for you to get involved so that it can return to being the truth about the promise that it has for every Zimbabwean.”
And in terms of resonance, I think people identified with the frustration. I think people identified with the sense of loving Zimbabwe and yet hating what it has become. A lot of people identified with the sense of having their dreams stolen by their own country. Having their opportunities crushed by their own country. I think the resonance came from the fact that people were watching someone who is as ordinary as they are, someone who does not have any political history. This is someone who is an unknown—nobody knew who I was at this time. A lot of people that were suffering in silence who were unnoticed, who were unknown, felt, “This person is representing my issues.”
JIA: How does being a pastor inform your approach to activism? Did your faith drive this protest?
EM: It’s impossible to separate my faith from my protest action because that is what drives my stance of nonviolence, my stance of speaking truth to power without having to insult or purvey bloodshed. The values of justice, fairness, compassion, freedom are, for me, Christian values. In the past few years, I have faced difficult moments of physical abuse at the hands of state actors. The ability to weather those storms, comes from my faith. I think it has played a large role in keeping me focused, even, keeping me alive.
I’ll go back to the issue of resonance. I think there were a lot of people who listened to me because I am a pastor. Zimbabwe is a very Christian nation, and I think people understood that I spoke from a place of peace and compassion rather than ambition.
JIA: You were first arrested in July 2016 and charged with attempting to overthrow the government. What was that experience like?
EM: Prior to that arrest, I had only ever brushed with the law over a parking ticket, which got resolved. To jump from a parking fine to being charged with attempting to overthrow the government—how do you even wrap your mind around that? I was far from attempting to overthrow the government. In fact, when #ThisFlag protest began, not once did we say, “Mugabe must go.” We were focusing on the issues of corruption, injustice, and poverty. But the government was rattled.
Remember I told you about how we grew up in a society of fear? How we grew up being told about how Mugabe’s political opponents are treated? All of that comes back running to you when you are arrested. You think, “Okay, this is it now. You are going to get tortured. You are going to get abused. You may never be seen or heard from again. Or you’re going to end up in a jail where they lock you up and throw the key away.” That’s the mental experience.
The reality was not far from that, unfortunately. The abuse began right away. The intimidation—the psychological pressure on me to break my spirit was immense. That first arrest, I was only in the police cells for two nights and then the people gathered at the courts demanding my release and it became a bit of a security risk so they had to let me go. That’s when we escaped the country. But in subsequent arrests I was taken to the Chikurubi maximum security prison. That’s where you begin to see the brutality, you begin to see the abuse that happens to other prisoners, the beatings that would take place. The solitary confinements. The threats to be murdered whilst you’re inside. You go for days without eating because you’re afraid that poison is going to be put in your food. Whenever your family brings you any food you distribute it amongst a few trusted prisoner friends hoping that they become a security shield around you. Guards force a whole baton stick into your rectum. There are moments which are still very difficult for me to talk about. But what kept me going was thinking there are people who actually went through worse and never got out to tell the story.
JIA: How did you find the strength to return to Zimbabwe and continue fighting knowing what would await you if you got arrested again?
EM: I had been in exile for six months when I decided to return to Zimbabwe, where I was a wanted man. I left my family in exile. I didn’t know whether I would get arrested or not. I was arrested on arrival at Harare International Airport, on 1 February 2017.
People ask me, why did I go back? First of all, I believe that I am an upright citizen. I had done nothing wrong. I had done what our Constitution allowed me to do, which was to protest, to challenge government policy. Part of why I went back is that I was intent on proving that I was not a criminal. I left Zimbabwe under the cover of darkness in the most dramatic escape that you could have imagined. I thought I was in a Jason Bourne movie at one point, as I crossed the border and got out of Zimbabwe. So I felt it important to show that I am a law-abiding citizen. Robert Mugabe actually made a speech about me whilst I was in exile. He said that people like Evan Mawarire have no place in Zimbabwe. That actually birthed something in me. I said, “No, you cannot ban me from Zimbabwe. That’s my country. I was born there.”
The second, and most important, reason for going back was that as young Zimbabweans all we had ever seen political opponents do [was] run away. I felt I needed to start a new narrative about courageous Zimbabweans who came back to face the regime. Who came back to stand for truth and for justice and for freedom and for fairness and for compassion. Who came back to say, “I am not here as an enemy. I am here as a friend of this nation. I’m here as a patriotic Zimbabwean.” That was my goal.
It works very well as an ideal, I learned. I was immediately thrown into prison. I will admit that the moment I was thrown into Chikurubi maximum security prison I regretted leaving my family in exile and jumping on the plane to get to Zimbabwe. After that, I spent the entire year unable to leave Zimbabwe because they had taken my passport and were using the title deeds to my mom and dad’s house as surety that I would not escape. During that time, that sense of, “I’m glad I came back,” returned because I felt that I had begun the journey of rebuilding a new bold citizen.
JIA: You mentioned that originally the protests were for reform, not regime change. What caused it to become a movement to remove Mugabe? Why do you think it was successful in doing so?
EM: When we started out #ThisFlag movement, we were calling for an end to corruption, injustice, and poverty. We were very careful not to start immediately by calling for Robert Mugabe to go because we knew that would bring a backlash immediately. Our catchphrase became, “If we cannot cause the politician to change, then we must inspire the citizen to be bold.” We were focused about building a new type of citizen who was not passive, who was not apathetic, who engaged with issues at a national level.
But the ruling party, The Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) was going through power struggles at the same time. As a citizenry, we saw a choice to either sit this out and let ZANU-PF build whatever they want, or to push for a fresh start. My call to Zimbabweans was, “Don’t be left sitting back; let’s have a voice.” We called for Mugabe to step down and we called for people to march on the streets. Everybody got involved. Opposition politicians got involved. Civil servants got involved. We all had that hope that something different would happen after Robert Mugabe, something that included everybody.
JIA: How did you feel when you received the news that Mugabe was stepping down? And how did you feel when you found out that Emmerson Mnangagwa would be replacing him?
EM: Hearing that Robert Mugabe had resigned remains one of those feelings that is difficult to put into words. So many days we had protested and expected he would resign, and he didn’t resign. When I received the news, I had just returned from a protest. I was tired physically and I was tired men- tally. When they announced that he had resigned, I remember sitting down and hearing the car horns blaring outside my house. It was just madness. Everyone was excited. I sat down and started weeping. I cried like a baby because what we had thought was impossible had just happened. It was embedded in our hearts that we would never see Mugabe go.
Finding out that Emmerson Mnangagwa would be taking over brought an equal sense of fear because of his role in propping up the Mugabe regime. He was the minister of justice the day that I was arrested. He was the minister of state security back in the 1980s when people were murdered in the south of the country. Essentially, this was a man who knew where the skeletons were hidden. That struck fear in our hearts. If we are being honest, I think most Zimbabweans felt so much hope at Mugabe leaving that we disregarded what it meant to have Mnangagwa replace him. Of course, it didn’t take long for our fears about him to be confirmed. The August 2018 election was marred with inconsistencies. We protested, saying it was a stolen election. The first thing Emmerson Mnangagwa did was deploy the military on the streets and open fire on the protesters. This was the beginning of Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidency. It started off with bloodshed. What Mugabe had done in secret, Emmerson Mnangagwa was doing openly, and this has continued. The past three or four weeks have seen arrests of journalists who were uncovering corruption, the arrests of activists who had been peacefully protesting. It is unbelievable where Zimbabwe is right now.
JIA: If you could return to the moment Mugabe resigned, how would you approach the situation differently, knowing how things have turned out?
EM: It’s important to understand why we behaved the way we did during that time. We were saying, “Let’s give it a chance. Let’s hope for something better.” This comes from years of brutality and poverty. We were thinking, “All this new guy has to do is just to be slightly better. Just marginally better.” In any case we had no choice on who would become president next immediately after Mugabe had resigned.
So what would I do differently? We should have insisted on a transitional or inclusive government. We should have pressed for guarantees of representation. Unfortunately, we got caught up in the moment. I think that I would have used our organizing ability at the time to call for talks between stake- holders to start crafting a new vision for Zimbabwe that includes everyone. To call for the military to go back into the barracks and never come out. We should have refused to accept ZANU-PF forming their own government.
JIA: Many people see the transition from Mugabe to Mnangagwa as a demonstration of how corruption begets corruption. How can a country break the cycle of corruption?
EM: Corruption is a disease that is rearing its head in many nations across the world. It starts off with leadership. Zimbabwe’s leadership is born out of ZANU-PF, which is a party that is born out of a system of patronage. It’s all about rewarding those that keep you in power: with money, with tenders, with national resources. Because it starts there, it’s difficult to stop it as it grows. Sometimes we are trying to deal with the fruit and yet we know that the problem is with the roots. You can arrest as many people engaged in low-level corruption as you want, but unless we address it at the source we’re not going anywhere.
As I said, our movement was about corruption, injustice, and poverty. Part of what we were saying to Robert Mugabe was, “Stop appointing men and women who are known to be corrupt.” We need to have people that are put into government not because of their loyalty to a party, but because of how they understand the area that they are being appointed for. We have got to start appointing competent people into positions of leadership. That’s number one.
The second is to deal with corrupt officials ruthlessly, in terms of using the law. They must be prosecuted for it. They must be arrested. There must be prosecutions after investigations have been done. But Mnangagwa has completely failed at this. When a government doesn’t take the issue of corruption seriously by prosecuting those who are known as corrupt, it sends a message to the rest of the nation that it is okay to be corrupt. That’s how you end up with an entire corrupt nation. Corrupt children in schools. Corrupt officials at border posts, at police stations, at hospitals.
JIA: You’ve said that you find Mnangagwa to be even worse than Mugabe. Do you expect that Mnangagwa will face a popular protest similar to the one against Mugabe?
EM: Mnangagwa is worse than Mugabe. For a Zimbabwean to say that statement is remarkable, because Mugabe was really bad. But Mnangagwa has taken it to the next level. I definitely see another movement to oppose Mnangagwa happening in the future. It has already begun to happen. Over the last one month we’ve seen the birth of a movement called Zimbabwean Lives Matter, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement here in the United States. This one is centered on the brutality of the government towards the entire citizenry of Zimbabwe. It’s centered on the corrupt government. It has gained a lot of traction, utilizing digital space and utilizing physical space.
I believe that for every authoritarian regime, there will be a voice speaking up against it. The question is how to build a movement around that voice. How do we translate our outrage into nonviolent action, sustained action that puts pressure on the regime to give way, to make changes? I see that happening. It’s happening now. I think that will only grow. Our movement was built on the foundation protests before us laid. And Zimbabwean Lives Matter is laying a foundation for future protests.
What the #ThisFlag video did was enable people who would not normally speak out to start protesting. People said, “If that ordinary guy can do it, so can I.” And that helped break the climate of fear. We are now seeing more people that are speaking out, which means that our work was not in vain. It helped hundreds of thousands of people to break out of fear. There are now more activists on the street than we had in 2016. Emmerson Mnangagwa will continue to be challenged and resisted by the people. And the intensity of his brutality will hasten the speed at which these movements grow.
I think Zimbabwe is a microcosm for a lot of nations in Southern Africa. What happens in Zimbabwe will end up happening in other nations in South Africa. Zimbabweans have had no support from the SADC [Southern Africa Development Community] or the African Union. Democracy in Africa struggles for a lack of support from international leaders. The only one who spoke out for the people of Zimbabwe was Ian Khama, the president of Botswana. In 2016 and 2017, Zimbabweans started saying, “We are the people we have been waiting for.” We’re starting to realize that the world will not come to our aid until we stand up, until we speak up, until we fight back. International solidarity is extremely important for what we are dealing with right now. I know that every nation is dealing with their own issues, but the people of Zimbabwe need their support. They need the global community to speak out against the injustices and to encourage them.
The reason I started this journey is because I’m a father; it was because of my children. It’s been bittersweet because I fight the battles so that my children can have a country that they can be proud of. At the same time, I also fight the battle because 20 years from now those same kids are going to ask me, “Dad, we read about what happened to Zimbabwe. How come you didn’t do anything?” I want to be able to say, “We stood up, my children. We stood up.”
This Feature appears in Politics of Protest, the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Journal of International Affairs. Subscribe or purchase to read the article in print or via JSTOR.
Photo Credit: Oslo Freedom Forum, Photographer: Reka Nyari, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.