When City Press spoke to Pastor Evan Mawarire in 2016, he was seeking refuge in South Africa after being arrested in Zimbabwe.
His crime was recording a video in protest against the injustices which the Zimbabwean people were suffering under the rule of former president Robert Mugabe. Mawarire posted the video, in which he called for the people to unite and take a stand against the government, to his Facebook page – which soon went viral.
Mawarire was eventually freed when about 100 lawyers fought for his release, but he was denounced by Mugabe. Six months after staying in South Africa, he returned home, where he was arrested again immediately upon his arrival.
“Upon landing in Zimbabwe, I was thrown into Chikurubi Maximum Prison and throughout the year of 2017 I was arrested four more times, for different charges. All of them were really violations of my constitutional rights, but also of my human rights.”
City Press sat down with Mawarire at the Oslo Freedom Forum on Monday, where he and other activists from across the globe told their journeys of fighting for human rights.
Mawarire had tied his popular Zimbabwe flag, which became the symbol of hope under the #ThisFlag movement, around his neck.
He explained that the movement, which garnered attention and support on social media, became a mass grassroots movement of how the people wanted Zimbabwe to be run.
The movement was able to help facilitate change to the extent that the government was now being held to account, even though Mugabe resigned in November last year.
“One example of this has been helping parents to hold the government to account when they were trying to make students rewrite an examination in which the government themselves had made a mistake when one of the papers had leaked. The parents were able to take the government to court to stop the students from rewriting. That’s a victory.”
When Mugabe was still in power, the movement led the national discourse on the kind of government the people wanted, and how they wanted Zimbabwe to be run as a democratic country.
“Our payoff line is: ‘If we cannot cause the politician to change, then we must inspire the citizen to be bold’,” said Mawarire.
“The core of democracy is that a government is by the people and for the people, but this is what has been missing, particularly from a Zimbabwean perspective, and that’s become largely from what’s missing across the world. The disempowerment of the people to be able to build their own nation will prevail at the end of the day.”
During his presentation at the forum, Mawarire spoke emotionally about his family, whom he hasn’t seen in 13 months.
“My wife and my young children were threatened while I was in prison. I had to get them to safety, and I thank God that I did. As I was on the run, President Mugabe issued threats publically, and literally banned me from returning to Zimbabwe. He promised that if I continued to meddle with the politics of our nation, that he would put me in jail and that was a promise that he would soon fulfil.”
Despite these threats, Mawarire decided to return home.
“On the first of February 2017 I went back home knowing full well that I would be arrested and might not see my family, and I still haven’t seen them. It’s been 13 months since I saw my wife and our new born baby – when I left when she was only a month old.”
Throughout 2017, Mawarire was charged for subversion, for attempting to overthrow the government, and he appeared in court more than 22 times.
“One of those arrests was in church, on Sunday, right in the middle of delivering a sermon.”
Mawarire was under constant scrutiny by the Zimbabwean government. His passport was seized and he was shadowed daily by government officers, which he said still happens today.
On November 15 2017, the military began an operation to oust Mugabe, and that was when Mawarire saw the opportunity to make a lasting change in the lives of Zimbabweans.
“While out on bail, I began with other activists to mobilise Zimbabweans to march to the state house, demanding President Robert Mugabe must go. We had never done this before as a people.”
Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean citizens marched to the state house on November 18, three days after the military coup began.
“On the 21st of November 2017, Robert Gabriel Mugabe resigned.”
Despite this momentous victory, which saw the streets of Zimbabwe erupt into celebrations, Mawarire maintains that the fight is not over yet because the Mugabe system still remained.
“As we head for elections we continue to challenge the new administration, to respect democratic governance, and the rule of law and in particular the constitution of our land.”
Mawarire maintained that while new President Emmerson Mnangagwa opened the country for business, this was never going to be contested.
“We always knew that regardless of who came to power, that the country would be open to business. But the real question is, is Zimbabwe open to freedom?” he told City Press.
Mawarire said that active citizenry in the global fight towards freedom needed to happen, and that people could not solely rely on government to do that job.
“Even in democracies, people are not truly free. On the 29th of November 2017 I was acquitted of all charges and set free. I will continue the fight for the people and for my family. We have only just begun and hope is all we have.”