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‘Fear will hold us back’

#ThisFlag founder Evan Mawarire is back in Zimbabwe after a six-month self-imposed sabbatical. He has since been arrested and charged with subversion, among other charges

#ThisFlag founder Evan Mawarire is back in Zimbabwe after a six-month self-imposed sabbatical. He has since been arrested and charged with subversion, among other charges, but declares in this interview with NewsDay Senior Reporter Richard Chidza (ND) that he will not be silenced even by the government’s controversial ban on the use of the flag. Mawarire (EM) wants Zimbabweans to close ranks against President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF ahead of elections next year. Below are excerpts:

Richard Chidza

SOCIAL media activist and cleric, Evan Mawarire of #ThisFlag
SOCIAL media activist and cleric, Evan Mawarire of #ThisFlag

ND: Pastor Mawarire, welcome back.

EM: There is no better feeling for a Zimbabwean than to be home where they belong, home where they are allowed to be, home where they count and home where they are citizen, there is nothing better.

ND: You left the country in not so very nice circumstances last year, but Zimbabweans felt cheated. How do you respond to that?

EM: I would be a fool to say I did not understand how they felt about my leaving at the time. It was a very difficult and painful decision for me to make. I totally understand the disappointment that people had at the time because they had stood with me and, not only with me, but for Zimbabwe, and felt that something was about to happen. I would like to think that a good number understood my position and I think they have a better understanding even today now that I am back. I would have felt the same if I were in their shoes. The journey we are walking is not a 100-metre sprint. My belief is, it is a journey not to transform a moment, but a whole future and so this is part of the journey we are continuing.

ND: You want to continue with the journey with your family safely tucked away in the US?

EM: It is important for every Zimbabwean to understand that our first responsibility is to our family. This is why we are out there putting our lives in danger in order to provide for them. For me, this is a value I hold dear and when my family was directly threatened by those who felt that they wanted to prove a point, it became my responsibility to make sure they are safe. It is my hope that everybody will understand that the job of protecting one’s family falls to nobody, but themselves. It is important to be able to protect one’s family because it is only then that you can be prepared to fight for the nation genuinely. It starts with the family and when we start to think about our children’s future, we can then fight collectively for the nation.

ND: Given the naked threats on your life and clear indications you would be arrested on arrival, what drove you to return?

EM: Zimbabwe is home for me. It is a place where my voice counts; it is a place where I have a chance to bring change. I have always, in my communication while I was away, said that I would come back home. The decision to come back home was made at the same time as the decision to leave. I was already going to come back. It is part of the process of breaking the fear and part of mobilising Zimbabweans beyond our fear. Teaching each other that fear will hold us back, but if we can collectively disregard the danger we can achieve something amazing for our country, whether with this government or another in the future.

ND: Your detractors have associated you with the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) or Mugabe’s State apparatus. What would be your response?

EM: I have never heard something more absurd, but I do not blame people because our country has become so messed up. It is hard for people to believe when something genuine is happening. Even before I left the country, when I began releasing videos around the flag and urging people to stand up against corruption, injustice and poverty, people did not believe I was in the country. They said no one in Zimbabwe says these kinds of things and gets away with it. It was not until I was arrested that they realised I was around, because the system has taught us to believe that none of us is good enough to stand up against it. There is always a level of doubt about us when someone does something with a level of success. People have this belief that there should be some power behind them. I want to submit today, as I did before, that I am an ordinary Zimbabwean. Evan Mawarire started with his phone, flag and voice. Mawarire is back and with his phone, voice and flag. I have a church of only 70 people and, in fact, the number has gone down because people are scared, but they ask why people listen to me. It is because what I said resonated with what the people had in their hearts. It is not about me, but it’s about that we know deep down that we have had enough. What we have done, thus far, is now engraved in our hearts and that we cannot allow our future to be abused. The kind of change that Zimbabwe is undergoing cannot be stopped. Some people seem so sure of who I am, are they certain of who they are?

ND: You await trial for subversion and seeking to overthrow the government. Now where do we go from here?

EM: It is disappointing that our government wants to continue to suppress the participation of citizens in the building of their country. We have never sought to remove the government, but we have argued we cannot allow our health system to be destroyed. Over $15 billion of diamond money disappeared and nobody has been arrested. Zimbabwe is entering an unprecedented mobilisation of citizens across the country to find representation. Our leaders would rather buy themselves cars than fix the roads or buy hospital drugs. We need to begin to unite and we have a chance in 2018 to bring change using the ballot. Let us unite, let us educate each other. We are not just voters, but thinkers. We need to begin to understand the power that the Constitution gives us in the building our country. My case is ongoing and I want to be careful, I can still do things lawfully, which is what we have always done, no violence, no fighting or breaking things because it gets us nowhere. We have a chance to change Zimbabwe for generations to come.

ND: You think the time is right?

EM: I think there is no better time to be Zimbabwean. We must create the same euphoria that gripped this country at independence and it is the kind of situation we face now. Zimbabweans know that this is the time. If we are wrong, then it has to be collective, but I do not think whatever it is that we are doing will go to waste. At some point, it will pay off. It is not about changing a government, but the way we think. Corruption is easy to stamp out if everyone says no. An injustice to one is an injustice to all, it’s easy to stamp out if we stand up for each other. Poverty will disappear if we manage well the resources we have. There are people in Zanu PF, who have the power to reform, but they will not do it because of fear and greed. They need to repent. There is a better Zimbabwe on the other side if they repent than stick to what they are doing.

ND: Do you think the current institutions under Zanu PF can change?

EM: It is happening, there is gradual transformation, but we cannot, however, change institutions if we do not change people. The people in these institutions must make personal decisions. Someone must come to a point where they should be able to say, I cannot continue to abate such injustice.

ND: What are the goals you are looking at now?

EM: Unity is the ultimate goal to drive Zimbabwe into the space that we wish it to be. On my own I will not be good enough, it does not matter how many videos I make or the number of times I am arrested. We have depended on superheroes before. It is not the time for that anymore. There is some convergence among social movements and that is important for me, I can see the unity or drive in the same direction. We cannot entrust the future of our country to anyone and our ideas are useless unless they are shared.

ND: Your view of the opposition?

EM: I have respect for the opposition leaders, who have borne the brunt of the system for many years. They have succeeded and failed in equal measure, but I think it’s time they began to think in a different way. They need to change from the politics of power to politics of people. Zimbabweans have had promises and seen rallies of all forms, but they need inspiration now. We have always voted out of fear or dissent, but now we need to be inspired. The spirit of entitlement that is in our politicians is regrettable. Zimbabweans want something they believe in so they can be inspired to bring a friend to the ballot box to change our situation, but something radical needs to happen within the opposition formations. There must be an … aha moment.

ND: Has there been any overtures from the opposition to work together?

EM: Not that I am aware of. Even though I would gladly welcome such moves, but it will not mean anything if there is no radical shift in the way the politicians do their things. I am open to talking, but it is not Evan Mawarire who needs convincing. It’s Mbuya VaHector and Jonso the tout. I got a chance to see that they also love their country when I was locked up with 110 of them. Which politician is prepared to reach out to these as well as the young and old women on the pavements selling all sorts of wares? If they are ready for this, then we will transform a generation.

ND: You were talking about the juxtaposition of prison life and what we see daily out here?

EM: It was painful to learn of the situation in our prisons. Some of the people in there have been abandoned, the way they are kept in there is a mirror image of how we are living. I saw a picture of Zimbabwe in the manner how prisoners live at Chikurubi Maximum Prison. I am not a free man, I am not allowed to act or speak even though I claim to be free. The overcrowding, the poor medical care, treatment and surrounding is true of our everyday lives.

I encountered a saying recently that ‘if you want to see the state of a nation look at the state of its prisoners’ and I saw it.

ND: So Zimbabwe is one huge prison?

EM: It feels like it. If when you come back home as a man, who has not committed a crime you are arrested, then the country represents one big jail.

ND: How did Mugabe’s denouncements of your activities make you feel?

EM: My criticism is of the government he leads and not personal to him. I came back despite him having declared me persona non grata. When he castigated me, I was scared and who would not if they were castigated publicly by the Head of State? But I have come to the realisation that if I fear my government, then I am of no use to the nation.

Not one day has any government official asked to sit down with me; it has been intimidation and lies. I want to operate as a law-abiding citizen. All I want is what anyone who loves their country would do: the best for Zimbabwe. But it is a shame, Zimbabwe is a shame.

ND: You are contemplating running for political office?

EM: I have been asked this many times. It is a right and duty to consider themselves for office if I qualify. The CIO asked why a pastor is meddling in politics, but my answer is that before I am a pastor, I am a citizen. If I want to make that decision I will and people will know. We need conviction to do something that is right even if it is one man doing it.

ND: After the banning of the flag, now what?

EM: It means we were successful. That flag does not belong to a party; it belongs to me and my children as well as all Zimbabweans. It is the story of our country and what it ought to be. The horse has bolted, it’s gone. We have a Constitution that Zimbabweans still do not own. We must begin to take it back. The flag is ours, it’s now clear.

ND: Your final word?

EM: It is when the night is darkest that dawn will break. There is no night without a morning. Good will always triumph over evil.