A Maverick Citizen conversation with Pastor Evan Mawarire, a fighter for freedom in Zimbabwe who faces a trial for treason — for the second time.
In 2016, Pastor Evan Mawarire rose out of obscurity and emerged as a leader in Zimbabwe when he stood up to Robert Mugabe by mobilising Zimbabweans around their national flag. He did this by recording, This Flag, A Lament of Zimbabwe, a very moving video that he put on YouTube.
The video went viral and catalysed a spontaneous and indelible movement that became known as the “This Flag Movement”. In 2017, civil society campaign SaveSouth Africa used the same idea when mobilising people to take on corruption and State Capture under then-president Jacob Zuma.
Zimbabwe is once again in the news for the wrong reasons, with reports of increasing crackdowns on civil society. Last week Dr Peter Magombeyi, an outspoken critic of the government whose biggest “crime” was to mobilise for better pay and an improving health system, was reportedly kidnapped. He is still missing.
In August 2019, Pastor Mawarire was a keynote speaker at the Amnesty International Global Assembly in Johannesburg. Mark Heywood and Nomatter Ndebele stopped him for a conversation. This is how it went …
Mark: Can I start by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you come from? Why did you get involved? How did you get involved?
This is how my story began. In 2016, as a pastor of a very small church, I was gripped with the sense that my very own children would inherit a country that had nothing for them and it was not for a lack of resources.
Zimbabwe is a well-endowed country. It’s been known for years as the breadbasket of Africa and that pushed me to ask myself: “What kind of a country would my children inherit?” Not necessarily from the people that currently govern, but from me?
The truth of the matter is that sometimes we think, well, it’s all their fault and has nothing to do with me. Unfortunately, it’s all of our faults. If we were present when the country was being pillaged then it’s all our faults.
So, I sat behind my desk one day, put my phone up and made a little video which eventually became #ThisFlag video. I just spoke for four minutes about why it was important for us as Zimbabweans that we stand up for ThisFlag, that ThisFlag is a promise to all of us. If it is ever going to have any honour at all it needs its citizens to defend it.
And that is what drives me, preserving the promise that we make to each other. Going back to the simple way of honouring who we are, honouring the future, our own struggles that we went through.
Why did people give their lives if the country is going to be in tatters as it is?
Those things drive me, that is where my passion stems from, along with my beliefs as a Christian. The beliefs of justice, beliefs of transparency, love and compassion: these are all tied up and are the driving force behind what I continue to do.
Mark: Before you made the video in 2016, what was your life like? Where you an activist before then?
I was born in 1977. I’m 42 years old and no, before the events in 2016 that lead to that video you couldn’t have paid me to be an activist in Zimbabwe, under Robert Mugabe especially. It was that scary.
A year earlier to the date of the flag video, a young man called Itai Dzamara who was a journalist running a one-man protest in the town square was abducted from an area near his home. I believe to this day he hasn’t been found. These were the scary things that were happening in Zimbabwe — so you could never have paid me to do this.
Prior to this, I guess I was just another citizen, someone trying to just make it in a difficult economy and difficult social environment.
On a day-to-day basis, I was pastoring the small church we had founded in 2010. I still pastor it today in its many shapes and sizes because over the last three years my journey has had a very big impact on the ministry work that I do.
A part of my work involved a lot of counselling of people. There was a lot of interface with real-world problems. Hearing what people were going through, seeing people searching for solutions and sanity. That led to the understanding that a lot of the social problems we were facing as Zimbabweans are actually born in the misgovernance of the country and as a result are starting to show up in the personal and social lives of the people.
I had dabbled a little in the motivational speaking and life coaching, something I had always wanted to get into.
I wrote a book titled Dream Big and Make it Happen in 2007. It’s a book I love dearly up to today. In it, I give 41 reasons why you should dream big and make it happen.
The idea it was geared towards was getting young Zimbabweans to say: “Listen, we come from a small country that has been struggling for years, but now is the time to make something of yourself.” I must say it was not at all politically driven, purely for personal development.
Our church is right in the centre of Harare. I grew up most of my life in and around Harare, my family was a middle-class family. My mom and dad actually coming out of the War of Liberation became civil servants, those were their first jobs and for much of their lives those were their only jobs.
My dad is really someone who believed in an opportunity-driven Zimbabwe. He wanted to make sure that myself and my five siblings were all prepared to take advantage of what this new Zimbabwe was going to be offering us.
I went to Prince Edward Boys High School — at that time considered one of the best schools. I think it was at that school where I gained a love for public speaking and a love for issues concerning the environment, it taught me to think outside the box of just academics.
An incident took place while I was in Prince Edward Boys School that helped shape my life greatly. It was 1992; I was 15 at the time. My dad suddenly announced to me that because of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme that was taking place in the country then, he could no longer afford for me to remain at that school, so I then had to leave. This was a school I loved, I had become part of the culture and it was just an amazing school to be at and to think that I wasn’t going to be there any more was quite tough.
But what was tougher was the next school my dad had to send me to.
The school was in a rural location. It was a Salvation Army school called Charles Clack Secondary School. They had no running water or electricity in this school. This hit me hard, to see the other side of Zimbabwe.
I came from a boarding school where we had cheese and toast, casseroles. We played water polo and badminton and here I am at a school that has none of the above, none at all! Not even a soccer field of their own.
First of all, it was sad for me because I thought to myself; how can someone like me end up in a school like this?
Eventually, after spending two years at that school that became one of the most important seasons of my life that shaped who I was, because I now understood the other side of Zimbabwe, a side that I had been sheltered from.
The rural, undeveloped, fear-driven side of Zimbabwe where the ruling party controlled everything. That changed me, that experience built a whole Evan Mawarire.
As a result, today I am someone who is able to relate very well to an urban progressive lifestyle and to a rural, lagging-behind lifestyle as well.
I went to school with kids who walked upwards of 15km to get to school.
Mark: What are the values that have driven you since leaving school?
I think nothing beats the top value of family. I believe families are where dreams are nurtured, where people find themselves and gain their perspective on the world. They say charity begins at home, so family is a big value for me.
Moving on from that is education. When you deprive a person of education you deprive them of the opportunity to grow, to think and to see further than themselves.
Two other strong values for me are justice and fairness.
Fairness is a very deep-seated value for me. I remember going back as a young person playing football in the streets of one of the neighbourhoods we grew up in, and I remember this day very well because one of the guys we were playing with was a particularly good soccer player but he was also a cheat. There was a moment where he clearly cheated, but because he was the best soccer player on the field everyone that saw it just thought, well let’s just leave it alone and carry on. I was so upset that I told them I can’t play and left off in a huff, I even cried.
It was such a deep thing for me, it cut me up so badly that he cheated, and he was getting away with it. Everyone said I was sulking but for me, no matter how rich, popular or good someone is or whatever the case may be, fairness is a universal value. We must learn to be fair with people, with each other.
I think those are some of the things that led tome choosing the path of becoming a pastor.
Compassion, the desire to see people go further than their challenges. If you speak to anyone who has been part of my congregation they will tell you that they get healthy doses of being pushed to do better than they did before.
Breaking barriers, breakthroughs and chasing after challenges, those are my kind of messages.
I am always saying: Let’s be better, let’s do more, let’s challenge ourselves, and I think those are some of the values that drive me.
Nomatter: In recent history, when we speak about politics there has always been this notion of keeping the church and the state separate. You are a pastor and now a political activist as well. What do you have to say about that?
The conversation about the separation of the church and the state and how pastors or the clergy should not dabble in politics is one that Robert Mugabe actually pushed particularly around the time I stood up. His threat to us was that those of us in the clergy should not dabble in politics because he had special prisons reserved for us. Mugabe said, “Leave our politics and we will leave your churches alone.”
The great myth is that you cannot be a pastor and be political at the same time. I say it’s a great myth because issues that come out of political decisions are issues that have to be handled by pastors in counselling and in trying to help a nation heal. So we cannot allow this narrative of churches staying out of politics and letting the politics run on its own without the church coming in.
If there is anyone who has got the moral high ground to stand up and call out injustices it is the church.
If anyone can call out corruption it is the church because of our principle and message of righteousness and transparency for a nation.
When we look back historically, we start to see the role that the church has played, I won’t even go far, I’ll go right here in South Africa. We see how powerful the church movement was. There was the known church movement engaging the political system and the underground church movement that was engaging with the political system. So I think that trying to exclude the church or clergy or excuse them from speaking or come in with a message is a mistake.
Political players, especially autocrats and repressive regimes are very afraid of the voice that comes from churches because it is a voice that is not seeking any favours or any power, it is not trying to be popular but it is calling for alignment with principle, empathy and compassion, and these are things that politicians rarely display.
An interesting experience I have had is church members who sometimes do not understand this have turned to people like myself and told me that I cannot be a pastor who preaches on the pulpit and then go to a rally calling out politicians and demanding that they change. We have to change our societies to understand that the church is what is able to put their thumb on pulse of a society and tell whether we are losing life and when we need resuscitation.
Mark: So, fast forward to the Pastor Even Mawarire who we know in South Africa. When you addressed the Amnesty International Global Assembly yesterday you said something which I thought was very striking. You are now on trial for treason — for the second time in your life. There aren’t many people in the world who have been charged with treason twice. Can you tell us a little bit about your first treason trial and what happened?
It is surreal to think that I am going through a second treason trial and what is sad about it for me and many other Zimbabwean people is the fact that we have had to normalise this kind of thing. It’s not normal for you to go through an experience of this nature because of the deep traumatic experience that it actually is.
In 2016, Robert Mugabe was, unknowingly, coming to the end of his rule. I had been arrested on the 1st of February in 2017. I am coming back into the country from six months of exile. I had left Zimbabwe on the run, with my pregnant wife and two kids as well. I had been arrested and then got released after thousands of people had gathered at the courts asking for my release.
It was an amazing moment in the voice of the ordinary persons coming alive and coming to the fore. So, I had just been released, we escaped the country, spent six months in exile; my daughter was born while we were in exile…
After spending a month out there I remember saying to my wife: “I don’t know what it is but I can’t be here, I have to go back.” It was a very difficult moment, but my wife agreed for me to come back and our hope was that I would not be arrested when I got back.
When I did arrive at the airport on the 1st of February 2017 I was arrested immediately and went on to be charged with treason.
I spent almost three weeks in the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. You have to understand that for someone like me whose greatest crime had been a parking ticket or a speeding violation I really didn’t know how to deal with the jump from petty violation to a Chikurubi Maximum Prison.
However, that experience of being in Chikurubi Maximum Prison shook me to the core. It also grew me very quickly.
I always say one of Robert Mugabe’s biggest mistakes was sending me to Chikurubi, because that is where I made the resolve that I would spend my life — if it meant my life — fighting for justice, freedom and a better Zimbabwe for my children.
I find it quite strange that a lot of people struggle to make these resolutions. But for me when I got there I was done. I thought to myself:
“This is it, I cannot carry on because I am coming from a place of safety and I’m going into this prison.”
I’m thinking “this is the biggest mistake of my life”, but by the end of three weeks a resolve had come through that had said: “I am going to have to see it through.”
So I spent the whole year of 2017 in and out of prison. Then, I was arrested another two times that year while I was on bail. By November 2017 when my trial came around I was being tried for not just one treason charge but for two!
The other arrest took place right in front of our congregants on a Sunday morning. It was particularly difficult for me to be arrested in front of my congregation because I had always promised them that my church would always be a place of safety and that my actions would never come knocking on the door of our church. I said this was a personal journey and not a journey that our church was embarking on as a programme.
On that Sunday I remember thinking to myself: “What do I do to make sure that the world knows what is happening and that our church is safe?”
And again I did the natural thing that occurred to me that I had done over the last few years: I took my phone out and went straight onto Facebook and began to record the arrest in real time.
I recorded the last five minutes of my message/sermon because the police had insisted on taking me and I had counter insisted that they allow me to finish my sermon and only then they could take me.
Strangely, they agreed to that.
But when the trial eventually kicked off, the realisation was that I could be sentenced to upwards of 20 years without the option of a fine. There was no way out — it is in those moments that you realise the gravity of what you are involved in.
You start to realise the gravity of the matter when you start to hear the charge, when you start to hear what the sentence could be.
I remember thinking to myself that if I do not make it out of this I have just given away watching my children grow up, I have given away my life and it is gone. Is it going to be worth it at all?
A friend of mine said to me: “You know Evan, what you have done in the last couple of years, is to introduce something to the space of Zimbabwean life and politics that just wasn’t there and if you are sentenced for it, history will remember you for that contribution.”
In that moment it dawned on me that, yes it was a great contribution, but if we are going to make progress in Zimbabwe, more than one person needs to stand up.
We came to the end of that trial at the end of 2017 and I was acquitted. The feeling was magical to have conquered the regime, to have strengthened the voice that you can take on the government and you can win. That was amazing and that was 2017, the worst was behind us.
Mark: I would imagine that your life and that of other activists become easier since the fall of Robert Mugabe?
For me this was the pinnacle, Mugabe had been removed and we were done. From here we are going to something new, we are about to do something that none of us ever thought possible, that we have the chance to do it.
So the journey towards Zimbabwe being a normal or a better society had begun. We thought since we marched together with the military and we stood up against Robert Mugabe, the military now has stood in solidarity with the citizens, surely we are going to see even just a slight improvement, just a slight betterment and that is all the new administration has to do.
Mugabe was the worst that we had had for 38 years. All President [Emmerson]Mnangagwa had to do was marginally better, just a little bit, then not just Zimbabweans would be happy with that, the whole world would have applauded.
But it was not to be.
We went for elections in July 2018 and on the 1st of August 2018 the worst thing any of us could have ever imagined happened. People went on to the streets to protest the election results that people felt were being manipulated and were not being released in time.
To our shock and horror, the response to that was the deployment of the military. Not just the deployment of the military but the deployment of the military to fire live rounds at citizens.
We as Zimbabweans had not seen this since the 1980s with the exception of [the] Gukurahundi [massacres] — which is not a small event at all that was a deep gash in our nation. This, however, was blatant, it was brutal, it was in pursuit, it was war against unarmed civilians who were running away on the streets of Harare and the whole nation stood back and thought: What is this? What has just happened to us?
The violence in Zimbabwe has been so much. Every political turn in Zimbabwe has been marked with the loss of life and it has been too much.
What was your involvement at that time?
By the time the events of August 2018 were unfolding I had stopped speaking out as much as I was in 2016.
I tried to go back to my life, and here is something interesting: I was speaking to my good friend [Zambian anti-corruption activist and rapper] Pilato yesterday. I said the problem with activists who try to go back to their life is that they find that it is gone. You can’t go back.
People ask me all the time:
“Why do you keep doing this?”
“Haven’t you done enough?”
“Shouldn’t you just stop?”
“Shouldn’t you go back?”
But the truth is, I can’t unsee what I have seen.
Then came January of 2019. The economy began to spiral badly and once again I took out my phone and made a video together with Peter Mutasa, the president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. We just said: Listen folks this is not going to work out, we have to stand up.
The whole country took heed to our call and our protest was a stay-at-home protest and this is a mirror protest of my June 2016 protest where we had called again for people to stay at home.
The entire nation responded to that, the whole country came to a complete standstill and shut down. But, once again the military was deployed. There was some violence that took place, people were beaten, rapes took place and people were killed again.
I sat in my house watching this on social media trying to find out what was happening.
On the 16th of January 2019 at about 2.00am, 19 armed men came to my house. They tried to knock the door down, but failed and then left. Eighteen armed police officers then showed up and arrested me.
Mark: That must have been very scary for your wife and children and everybody else as well?
It was unbelievable. It is difficult to describe the terror that comes with people coming into your house with guns and taking you away. It is the worst, you pray your last prayers, you cry your last tears and that is just how it happens. No one is coming to your last defence at that point.
The shock and disbelief for me was: “Oh my gosh! Not again.” I truly thought I was behind this.
In a few days, I was charged with treason.
Mark: Isn’t it ironic that in Zimbabwe people can be charged with treason for “subverting the constitution”, a constitution which is meant to give people freedom of expression and assembly?
The subversion we were apparently perpetrating was the enactment of our constitution. We were doing exactly what the constitution said we were allowed to do — the right to protest, to hold the government to account.
It was déjà vu. We went right back to Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. We were there for another three weeks. I saw the men I was with in 2017 again. They were serving long sentences and it was surreal for them. They couldn’t believe I was back. But once again this was necessary, these are necessary destinations because they cause us to understand and cause a lot more people watching to understand that if it can happen to him it will happen to me.
More than that, it helps people to understand what the cause is, why the cause is that important and why governments will go to any extent to defend their own injustices or to try and silence voices that speak up against the injustices that are perpetrated against us.
Nomatter: When I think about liberation in South Africa and Zimbabwe, I understand that there was a huge group of people who lived under apartheid and colonialism who took to the streets and made a huge difference. My question is: Where is that people power now, because they haven’t all died?
One of the great robberies of our liberation struggles in Zimbabwe and many other African countries has been the theft of the people’s voice and their ability to organise the powerful amongst themselves.
How this has happened is that we saw in Zimbabwe that for 38 years Robert Mugabe was able to systematically build a system to silence people. He even silenced the people he fought alongside in the liberation struggle.
People who stood up when he was starting to go wrong and said: “We think something is going wrong here, this doesn’t look like what we fought for”, even those people became silent.
Fear is one of the worst things to be allowed to grow in a society. In Zimbabwe, it grew unchecked and grew and became a beast that lived with every family inside their homes.
Everyone knew that if you dared to speak up against the regime or against Robert Mugabe there was a way in which you would be dealt with.
The Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) became an animal that everyone believed lived right next to you. It could be anyone: your brother, the person driving the public bus, the waiter in the restaurant, the teacher in the class, it could be anybody.
That belief held so strong that we as Zimbabweans began to check each other. We began our own censorship. If someone began to speak up, if someone began to complain about service provision or missing money at the local pension fund it is the people around him or her that would say: “… that kind of a conversation or discussion is going to have you killed.”
So the conversations and the voices died within boardrooms, bedrooms, classrooms, at soccer fields, people just stopped talking and they knew that you don’t say anything.
A lot of people may want to speak but they are so scared. This is what people live with.
How do we break the back of fear for us to be able to speak?
People power was robbed from us the moment that we voted and chose a president and thought that that is all we were required to do.
I’ve often said this about our politicians in much of Africa: They need people to vote but not to speak. They require you as voters, but after that, they don’t require your services any more. And yet the vote comes with a voice.
I think this is part of the journey that we are starting to reclaim. How do we connect our voices with our votes?
How do we come back to a place where we say: As a citizen, I am qualified, as I citizen I hold the position of calling you to account.
As I close my answer to this question of how do we get back power, I want to tell you that we came up with a phrase as part of this, and it in fact became our catchphrase.
It says: “If we cannot cause the politician to change, then we must inspire the citizen to be bold.”
You know the politician doesn’t want to change, he or she won’t change, so our job is no longer to become consumed with trying to change the politician, we go the other way. Our job must be to empower the citizen, so he or she can be bold, so he or she can scale the wall of fear.
That way the politician will change.
There is only one thing that causes politicians to change, it is people power.
Mark: I think that is the lesson we have to get out in the world these days: Everybody looks up hoping that these people are going to bring change but it’s not coming. You’ve got to look down. We have to look down at our own power, we are still capable of rebuilding dignity, equality and decency but only if you look down.
Young people have this phrase that says: “Game recognises game”, and I think it speaks a lot into the fact that power recognises power. The people with political power don’t recognise fancy speeches or logos, they recognise powerful movements.
As we are here at the Amnesty International Global Assembly you can see that one of the things that scare governments is suddenly seeing a mass of letters that come to say: “This issue must be attended to.”
I was thinking in my room yesterday: what is that makes authoritarians laugh at people that they are oppressing us sometimes?
The conclusion I arrived at is: I don’t really think they are laughing at the people. I think what they are doing is trying to reassure themselves that they are still in control despite this forming swell that they can see.
They recognise it and say to themselves: “No, it’s nothing.”
What they are trying to do is to reassure themselves that although they can see this thing coming but I must reassure myself somehow.
Mark: So as we sit here now, you are on trial for treason. Do you again face a possible 20-year sentence if you are found guilty? How are you feeling about that? It must be really terrifying.
It is. The worst thing is to try and normalise something like that. I deal with it by trying to be lighthearted about it, or trying to tell myself it will come to pass and sometimes going back to the scriptures to find similar situations and trying to draw some sort of comfort in how those situations ended.
It still is something that you think about every morning. That this could be the last time I sleep in a bed, these last few months could be my last chance to have a warm meal or a warm bath.
But again the thought that comes to mind is that: Unless a life is spent for the betterment of other people then it is not a life well spent. I take comfort from the belief that this is happening so that at some point somewhere this can be a reference for other people. The court judgements can be citations and reference points in the future should other citizens be mishandled.
My victories, failures, hardships can be reference points for them to be able to claim their own victory for our nation.
Mark: When are you back in court?
We have been on trial for seven months back and forth for various reasons. The expectation is that the indictment will happen in the last quarter of the year unless the regime chooses to do the unthinkable and push our indictment into 2020.
Mark: I thought you were going to say “Do the unthinkable and drop the charges”, which is what they should do.
After you are on trial you realise that they won’t do the unthinkable and drop the charges. It would be a welcome move, but I think part of what they do is try to keep us tied up and keep us in prosecution in perpetuity as a way of controlling our inevitable actions as the crisis deepens in Zimbabwe.
Mark: My last question to you is: What can people do, what can we do in South Africa to help you, to help people of Zimbabwe, to achieve the social justice your country deserves?
The voice of solidarity can never be understated. It is a powerful form of fighting for other people in their causes and particularly for South Africa because I like to think that South Africa and Zimbabwe are kindred spirit countries. Our journeys are similar and they have certain spillovers and overlaps in terms of what we went through and in terms of our country’s struggles.
I hate to say that what happens in Zimbabwe might one day happen in South Africa, the same way it will soon happen in Zambia or in Mozambique. It is important that those that are around us take note of what we are going through and speak into it and stand for us as well with their own governments and so pushing the South African government to take note of what is happening in Zimbabwe and to take a position that condemns things like the human rights violations as well as the corruption that takes place in Zimbabwe.
It’s important, not just for Zimbabwe but also for South Africa and Africa as a whole to understand that our countries are literally their brothers’ keepers. In my interactions in the last two to three years, South Africa has done this very well. South Africa has taken note of what is going on in Zimbabwe, speaking against it and condemning it, but more can be done, especially in pushing the South African government to take a clear stand and a clear position against what is happening in Zimbabwe.
Ahead of that, South Africa has been a hiding place for millions of Zimbabweans over the years. I don’t think that there are enough words of gratitude that Zimbabweans could have. Despite some of the xenophobic issues that have been there, many Zimbabweans have found a safe haven in South Africa and I think that is something to be very thankful for.
Nomatter: You have spoken about the reality of what it means to be an activist in Zimbabwe, that you could disappear tomorrow, you may never sleep in your bed again. If things go badly in your treason trial and you are locked up and never allowed to see Zimbabweans or speak to them again, what do you want them to know?
I have to be honest with you, that is a really tough question, but I remember in 2016 when I was first arrested, as the police were looking for me, I was at a safe house that time. A friend of mine came to me and said to me: “Your videos have made quite an impact in Zimbabwe and I want to ask you to do something that is uncomfortable.” (Just like this question you just asked me.) He asked me to record a video, this to be “released” in the event that I was abducted or in the event that I was killed, of my last words.
I didn’t want to record that video, I reassured myself that I am not going to die, I’m not going anywhere, I’m going to be here. But it put it into perspective that: Should you never come back, what are we carrying on with?
I think this would be my message to Zimbabweans, and people across the world that are fighting for their own nation, for their own futures.
If I, or those that they have believed in never come back or come to the end of their race, the call to freedom must not die with us, in any form or fashion.
We never own the struggle, we are entrusted with it for a season, and though sometimes it may lay dormant, somebody has to pick it up. The reality of it is that it is often not the powerful, it’s often not the connected, it’s often not those who are resourced, but it’s often those who have nothing but belief and nothing but the courage to speak.
So speak. Never ever be intimidated.
You can lose everything, lose money, lose your house, lose relationships but never lose your voice.
Never, ever lose your voice.
It is the most important resource that a human being has.
Thank you for allowing us to tell our story.
Evans Mawarire last appeared in court on Aug 20th. The state postponed the case to November 5th citing that they were not ready to proceed, but that Mawarire should be kept in remand as he is a danger to the public, and that the political situation was too volatile for him to be released. He is currently on bail. MC