Journalist Violet Gonda brings you a new series of weekly Hot Seat interviews. Her first guest is Pastor Evan Mawarire, the founder of the #ThisFlag social justice movement that has taken Zimbabwe by storm. Has the momentum of the #ThisFlag social media campaign changed since he left for South Africa following a high-profile court case in Zimbabwe? How effective can he be from outside and does the Church in Zimbabwe have a clear vision of what should happen in the country? In a wide ranging interview, Pastor Evan gives us his views on the land issue, women’s and gay rights and safety concerns following visits by unknown individuals behaving suspiciously. He also comments on recent remarks by President Robert Mugabe.
Hot Seat with Pastor Evan Mawarire
Violet Gonda: Hello and welcome to the program Hot Seat, my name is Violet Gonda. In our first episode of this new series we talk to Pastor Evan Mawarire, the founder of the This Flag campaign that has stirred the emotions of thousands and is credited for helping people to openly speak out about the state of affairs in Zimbabwe. How are you Pastor Mawarire?
Evan Mawarire: Thank you very much for having me on your show. In terms of how I am, I am doing much better now than I was doing before and I am thankful for that.
Gonda: What an incredible couple of weeks you have had. Can you describe how this experience has changed you?
Mawarire: It has definitely changed me. The wakeup call for me is that I am part of an amazing citizenry in Zimbabwe. These are people that most people in other nations had written off or had failed to understand. But that has been the greatest impact of the last couple of weeks – discovering that my fellow countrymen are a powerful people who desperately love their country.
Gonda: It’s reported that you actually fled to South Africa after your legal team found out you were going to be re-arrested on treason charges and that you were being monitored in Zimbabwe. Is this true?
Mawarire: Well it comes as no surprise that I was being monitored at a very, very high level. Leaving Zimbabwe for South Africa really was routine. I travel here regularly as I do to other parts of the world and because of the arrest my schedule of travel had actually been disturbed. So I needed to travel as quickly as I could. But let me also mention that it was important for me to travel after that experience – just to recuperate and rest but also to spend time with Zimbabweans in the Diaspora, particularly in South Africa where many of our brothers and sisters live; to encourage them and let them know that we are in a season of change in Zimbabwe. And to once again encourage them because these are people who, over the years, have been working here to support their families back home. For me, personally, I wanted to meet them to thank them and to encourage them.
Gonda: What went through your mind when President Mugabe publicly accused you of encouraging violence?
Mawarire: It really was an unfortunate moment. His comments are not well informed. I am not someone who has incited violence in any way, shape or form. But for him to suggest that I did not have a place in my own country is heart breaking and for many Zimbabweans. Because what I have done is to represent the issues that are on the ground and his government has failed to respond to that. And so when you respond by threatening and intimidating people it further reaffirms that sense of being abandoned as a citizen of Zimbabwe.
Gonda: Are you worried for your safety and your family back home in Zimbabwe?
Mawarire: Oh yes, I am. This is a system and a government that has dealt with me quite ruthlessly … might I add that according to the magistrate – they dealt with me unlawfully. So they have no respect for the law, they have no respect for the constitutional rights of people. And that leads me to be concerned for my safety, the safety of my family as well and this is something that we had to rethink in terms of us.
But let me also say that the one thing I have learnt for the last couple of weeks is that my safety as much as other citizens’ safety as Zimbabweans is amongst the citizens. We are the ones that look out for each other. We are the ones that back each other up, we are the ones that check up on each other and make sure that we are ok. And that’s where my security lies within the citizenry of Zimbabwe.
Gonda: If that is the case, why did you leave the country? How do you respond to people who say you were the safest person in Zimbabwe because of this massive response from the people … in a way that support was your protection and that it would have been risky for ZPF to harm you; So, you should have stayed in the country. How do you respond to that?
Mawarire: True. There is definitely that response and that focus continues to be my safety. But let’s understand that even the very next day after I had left there were groups of men that showed up at my house and at my office looking for me. They wouldn’t identify themselves. So already you can see that there is a ‘stopping at nothing’ attitude to either intimidate or frustrate people when they are trying to be good citizens. So, even with the safety of the citizens there is still that risk.
Gonda: When you first started your campaign what did you think would happen?
Mawarire: When the campaign first started, and I must be honest, it was a campaign that I thought would run on social media and that a few of my friends would get involved because of their love for the country – and that it would kind of end there. But as we carried on with the campaigning in different forms it started to change and gain momentum through different ways. As that happened we began to see that the job here was no longer about just a social media protest but that there was a job to stem the wall of fear. So that became and still is the main focus of inviting Zimbabweans to no longer be afraid. And it’s a long journey. It’s not an easy one but it is one that must be walked and must be achieved.
Gonda: But you were on such a high though. Don’t you think the momentum was lost when you left immediately after a high profile court-case, and this massive support you had received at the magistrate’s court?
Mawarire: On the contrary. The momentum has not been lost. Just because we don’t have something that is happening on the ground today or yesterday doesn’t mean that the momentum has been lost. The thing with the campaign and This Flag is that it is a personal thing for every Zimbabwean, so one of the things we encouraged was for people to start having open conversations about the issues on the ground. About the government’s failures about policies and how they have failed and how they can be improved. And those discussion and conversations are happening right now in Zimbabwe. They are growing, they are vibrant and it’s calling for people to be ready for mass action that is non-violent, mass action that makes a statement to government. So at the momentum is still growing.
Gonda: The story is you will not be returning to Zimbabwe anytime soon especially after President Mugabe publicly denounced you. Are you thinking of staying away?
Mawarire: It is very wise for me to rethink how I am going to return to Zimbabwe but I am definitely returning home.
Gonda: How long will you stay in South Africa?
Mawarire: At this point it is indefinite. I am still doing my business, I am still meeting Zimbabweans and when that time comes, particularly the citizenry will know that it’s time for me to go back home.
Gonda: How effective can you be right now from outside?
Mawarire: Again I go back to the understanding that ThisFlag is not about one man. It is not about Evan Mawarire. It’s about citizens. It’s about what is in their hearts, it’s about the realities that they face. So the effectiveness of citizenry doesn’t lie in me. It lies in the hearts of the citizens. This is not the only movement taking place in Zimbabwe. There are many other movements and many other efforts that are channelling the same message and are continuing to give substance to the issues that the citizenry is raising. There are 13 million Zimbabweans that are in Zimbabwe right now who are ready and prepared to stand up and challenge the government. So the effectiveness has not been hampered at all.
Gonda: Many people support This Flag across the political divide. Why do you think you have been able to get everyone to support this movement?
Mawarire: I think the success of This Flag across the political divide is proof-positive of how the citizenry has gotten to a place where they are equipped with the politicking of or the theatrics of politicians. And so people have a vehicle that does not affiliate them to a particular political movement, so that they can be free in Zimbabwe. This Flag provides them with an opportunity for someone to be Zimbabwean first before they are anything else. I think that is the success of it and I feel that for the first time I am getting a chance to love Zimbabwe, with other Zimbabweans. To have no divisions between us and put our country first.
Gonda: Your critics say the 1st stay-away only worked because the civil servants went on strike and the second stay away was a flop because they had been given their salaries … and that the day was only saved when you were arrested resulting in your supporters staging a rally in and outside the magistrates’ court … do you agree with these observations?
Mawarire: There are a lot of dynamics that are at play. The first stay-away was definitely not inspired by my This Flag. There were a lot of dynamics at play. Definitely the teachers, doctors and nurses were on strike but those are citizens and we joined together with them. So there is no division between civil servants and citizens. We are one. We are the same people and in-fact one of the demands on the stay-away was that civil servants must be paid on time. These are police, teachers, doctors, nurses and soldiers. As citizens we realize how important it is for people that work for the government to be rewarded the way they should so that they are motivated to serve their country well.. So that was a combined effort between citizens, civil servants, private sector and so forth. And again this speaks to the unity of the country.
The next stay-away – of course I was arrested and a lot of fear had then been instilled in people. The government had issued a lot of statements that were constitutionally frightfully wrong in terms of instilling fear within the citizenry. The communications controller – POTRAZ – the communications regulator put out an advert that was in violation of freedom of expression literally by every word that they wrote. That’s wrong. So people were a little bit afraid. I was arrested during those two days and that also affected the level and quality of the stay-away. I think we need to understand what Zimbabweans are trying to communicate – whether we succeed or not – the fact is that the citizenry has a story. The citizenry is trying to get their government to respond to their demands and not to react.
Gonda: You continue to say hatichatya and hatidi violence. Why do you preach non-violence a lot?
Mawarire: When we deal with issues with violence, what we give birth to is more violence. Violence begets violence. As a Pastor I am reminded of the word that talks about the sword and how if you resolve matters with fighting what you end up with is fighting. In Zimbabwe we have had this culture and this era of violence and fighting. People being beaten up, incarcerated, people disappearing. So we have to start having a new narrative that we can achieve results without violence.
Gonda: What do you think of the other movements like Tajamuka who appear to encourage confrontation?
Mawarire: They represent what people are crying out for. It is important to understand who they are and what they stand for in terms of the message. I wouldn’t come out straight away and say they are definitely a violent group. I have not personally seen that they are a violent group or accused of being a violent group. What I love about them is that they have gotten to a place where they can now say ‘we are not afraid and we must confront our government.’
Gonda: Was it your group that threatened private schools and shop owners if they remained opened during the stay-away? Is it right to do that?
Mawarire: No definitely not. We did not threaten anyone at all. Again these are machinations of those that are trying to divide the citizens. People don’t have to be forced to understand that the issues we are all standing for as citizens are the same issues. There are people who stayed opened on that day because it was their right to do so. It is not our culture as Zimbabweans to intimidate each other and to threaten each other at all.
Gonda: You have been accused by the government of being a puppet of the west … or of being sponsored by the west to destabilise the country.
Mawarire: It’s not true. We have heard this rhetoric before. It’s not the first time. So we know it. The people know that this is a diversionary tactic. We are people who have enough sense to know that when we are failing to buy food, when we are failing to lead a normal life we can raise our own voices. We don’t need to be sponsored by anyone. We don’t need to be schooled by anyone concerning our difficulties because we live them first hand.
Gonda: So who is financing the This Flag campaign?
Mawarire: Again this is a mindset that people have to change. Not everything that is effective is being financed or being funded by something or by someone. When we started This Flag it was a matter of just recording a video, going live and encouraging people to share it. It hardly costs anything to do that. And this is the proof we have been able to show – that if people stand together the cost of bringing change is not as much as it is supposed to be. For example when we did the stay-away the people asked – so how we did get everyone to stay-away? It’s very simple, every Zimbabwean who stayed away on those days paid for that stay-away with their own salary for that day. They paid for the stay-away with what they would have earned that day.
Gonda: When you started you were a lone voice and there was no need for financing but surely with all that has happened in recent weeks, this campaign has now grown to a stage where it might need financing? So as a Pastor have you thought through about who you will accept money from as time goes on?
Mawarire: As time goes on it will be necessary for certain programmes to be funded. That thought is ongoing but we are very careful about that. We don’t just take money just because we have some interesting and exciting things happening. We’ve got to be careful about that. I want to go back to the question about – if I was to look for funding who would I ask? I would ask the citizens of Zimbabwe because this is a learning curve for us. No one will pay for our change except us as Zimbabweans. So that would be my first port of call – to go to my countrymen and say with what you have and where you are, contribute to bring change.
Gonda: As a man of the cloth, what conversations have you had with substantive churches?
Mawarire: Our conversations are around issues of justice, around the issues of standing for justices, standing for righteousness, standing in favour of building a nation that respects human rights issues. I think that is our standpoint. That we speak for those with no voice, the orphans and the widows who are actually being taken care of by the Church in Zimbabwe anyway.
Gonda: Do you think the church in Zimbabwe has a clear vision of what should happen in the country?
Mawarire: I think it’s beginning to happen now. It has taken a while but the church in Zimbabwe is an amazing stakeholder and they are now coming together. We see some of the comments that have been made publicly from respected men and women of God. I think the realization is there that the Church is going to play a key role as we go forward.
Gonda: In Zimbabwe the Pentecostal faith has been accused of being ambivalent in the past. That they have played a retrogressive role to democracy. Do you agree?
Mawarire: Well the Pentecostal Churches that I have been part of have certainly contributed to the conscientisation of citizens to be upright to be lawful citizens. Sometimes people expect the church to come out and say certain things that are political and the church has got to be careful that we represent the issues of justice, of peace, of righteousness and social. So I would not say they are not contributing or completely negative or not contributing towards positive change. They have a job to remain apolitical, they have a job to represent well without muddying the waters.
Gonda: Just a couple of quick question because I know you are very busy.
Mawarire: Yes, we have just arrived now for our next meeting.
Gonda: Yes, so I will be very quick…. You are carrying the national flag that represents many things. Can you tell us what you believe in when it comes to the rights of women?
Mawarire: You have touched on a nerve of the progress of our country that is vitally, vitally important and as a country we still have a lot of work to do in terms of opening doors for our women. Doors have been shut when it comes to women and leadership, when it comes to community development and all the things that have remained reserved for male players. There is a lot of leadership, a lot of passion in our women that needs, at this very moment, to be allowed to come to the forefront. It’s got to be encouraged. We must make way for this to happen because these are the people that underpin our families. These are the people who raise the generations. So if we take the next couple of steps in the next few months and perhaps the next few years going towards the next elections and we neglect that very important aspect of our community we are definitely headed for (inaudible)
Gonda: What about of gay rights in Zimbabwe?
Mawarire: On gay rights. In Zimbabwe we have a constitution and it is important that as a country we respect all the aspects of the constitution and not just choose and pick the ones that we want or the ones that suit us. It’s part of building a Zimbabwe that works. It’s part of building a Zimbabwe that everyone can be proud of. We can disagree on certain elements in terms of culture, in terms of lifestyle but that doesn’t mean we become divided or hostile towards people who don’t believe in the same things as we do.
Gonda: What about the land issue?
Mawarire: The land issue is an issue that, whichever way you look at it, needs to be addressed. It’s part of the Africans owning their own destiny. The problem with what took place in Zimbabwe of course is how the process played out. The whole of Africa uses Zimbabwe as a case study when it comes to the land issue. So whilst there must be equitable distribution of land, which I fully support as an African in Africa, there needs to be an understanding that this needs to be done without destroying the very people you are trying to empower. We have got to do it alongside a framework that empowers people to make that land productive. The problem in Zimbabwe is that we have ended up with land that is productive but is no longer producing anything.
Gonda: And finally Pastor Mawarire. There are allegations that your campaign is being exploited by politicians. Some say you are being exploited in the factional wars in ZANU PF; that you are being exploited for succession politics. While others say you are being used by the MDC to capitalize and push for the removal of ZANU PF. Then there are allegations that your campaign is being used to pave the way for the Third Way. What can you say about all these allegations?
Mawarire: Well these are conspiracy theories. In a nation where there are a lot of dynamics at play these kind of things are obviously expected. My encouragement is to say let’s remain true to the issues and what we are after. We are after a Zimbabwe that works. I am not backing a faction and am not leading a faction. I have not sat down with anyone from any of the ZANU PF factions and I am not sure who the players are. Neither have I been inspired by the MDC at all. Neither have I met them. All these are dynamics that have an interest in Zimbabwe. Anything that shakes up things politicians naturally gravitate towards that wanting a piece of the action. But this remains an organic, grassroots inspired and it will continue to grow as a grassroots movement.
Gonda: A final word?
Mawarire: As Zimbabweans we will now no longer be divided by the politics of our country but united by the dreams of our children. What we see in the future is what we aspire to. We are keen to get moving on with Zimbabwe and I would like to encourage the citizens of Zimbabwe to continue to express themselves in their own way. Continue to bring out the Zimbabwe-ness in your own heart because we need you. It’s no use to leave it in your heart. Let it out. Speak out. Speak about what you want to see and the more we speak together and share about it the more we move with a stronger and bigger hope towards what is possible.
Gonda: Mazvita zvenyu. Thank you for joining us on the program Hot Seat Pastor Evan Mawarire.
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