Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Evan Mawarire
Featured image: Yale 2020 World Fellow Evan Mawarire, a Zimbabwean clergyman who founded #ThisFlag Citizen’s Movement to challenge corruption, injustice, and poverty in Zimbabwe (source: Wikimedia Commons).
By Sandhya Kumar
What contributed to your decision to get involved with the World Fellows Program and how has your experience with the program been?
The World Fellows Program is obviously quite a well-known program in terms of its quality. Over the years it’s had some really amazing people that’ve come through it, so to be selected as one it was pretty awesome. Being a COVID Yale, of course, means that we have a very different experience this year from what you would normally get in a World Fellows program. Our interactions are very different; everything is on Zoom. We don’t get a chance to really interface with the faculty and students as much as we would have liked or as much as the program sets up for you in a normal environment. We are having to make it up as we go along—meet the people that we can [such as] professors or students who are interested, [and facilitate] all the events that we have to host as World Fellows. Besides that kind of strange world, the overall goal of ideas and knowledge exchange between myself as a World Fellow and Yale as an institution has been awesome already. [The World Fellows] were just talking… and we literally have like 3 weeks [left]. How is that even possible, we just got here, so it’s going by pretty quick.
How has the transition from what you normally do to a virtual academic environment been?
Yeah, it’s been a bit of a weird transition. Most of us are coming from nations where the time difference is also quite big, so usually the news cycle or the cycle of work or the information cycle that we are a part of, we’re having to either catch up very late at night or catch up with it a few hours later than you would normally be engaged with it. But it has also been cool disengaging from our normal work environments and just focusing on the World Fellows. The way the program is designed, is that you are taking time to retool, you’re taking time to think about the next level and the next step. [At the same time,] you are also interacting with students and faculty in terms of your work and just kind of showing how that works, what you’ve been involved in, and maybe what you would like to try and do going forward.
How did you get involved in democracy activism? And what motivates you to continue this difficult work?
Well my story is a bit of an interesting story because I didn’t get involved in it by plan or intentionally. I think the intentionality kind of came in as I realized how important the work was and how it kind of spoke to my values as a person and particularly as a person of faith. So I started off on this journey [when] I recorded a short video back in 2016 in which I was ranting about the situation that our country found itself in—the socioeconomic problems were just becoming intense: the corruption, poverty, injustice. And so I recorded this short video just bemoaning that and also calling Zimbabweans to a place of saying we must draw a line in the sand as the people. We have to make a decision whether we will put up with this or whether we’re going to stand and say enough is enough. This is not the way our country should be, particularly 40 years after independence. So that little video went viral and gave birth to what we called This Flag—#ThisFlag—because in the video I was talking about our flag, the Zimbabwean flag and I refer to it as this flag, what this flag stands for, what this flag promises us and that we should fight for it. So that went viral and began a citizens’ movement—one of the first, if not the first, citizens’ movement in Zimbabwe—that was nonpartisan and that was made up of ordinary people whose desire it was to speak truth to power and cause them to change. And of course, Robert Mugabe, who was the president at the time, dictator on all accounts, didn’t take lightly to that and when we began to organize ourselves into protests that would push the government to change, he was not happy about that so we found ourselves in a series of head on confrontations with government. As ordinary people, that meant that we became targets of the system and ended up finding ourselves in prison many times—abducted, tortured, and beaten. But that’s how we started out. It’s been about four and a half years of continuing to do the same work and finding ourselves in these situations.
You are often referred to as a Zimbabwean pastor and activist. What role does your faith play in your activism and have you ever found them to be at odds?
I think my faith is actually what drives me in the activism I’m involved in. They are actually not at odds. My faith and activism, particularly democracy activism, are not even in contestation. The values of my faith, which as a Christian include: justice, mercy, compassion, freedom, fairness, transparency, truth,[and] love. For me, those values are values that actually meant that I was qualified, more than, I suppose, anyone else, to stand up and call out the injustices of government. I think that as a pastor of a church, I occupied and still occupy that moral position of being able to say this is wrong or being able to say it is not OK for millions of people to go hungry, for millions of people not to have access to good medical infrastructure, for millions of people not to have access to education simply because a few people in power want to enrich their own pockets. It’s not OK for you not to arrest those who are looting the system and yet try to shut down those who are calling for justice. So my faith more than anything else actually drives and sets me up for this kind of work and especially if you then begin to consider the human rights side of things—that the kind of human rights abuses that Zimbabweans have suffered are unspeakable. I think that the church and the voice of the church is important in protecting life and in trying to restore the dignity of life.
Speaking of human rights, we don’t always have a tangible understanding of human rights, what do you think is most important for people to understand?
I think the most important thing to understand about human rights is the fact that life in itself is something sacred. This is maybe what every constitution that has the Bill of Rights within it is trying to protect—a life that is worth living, a life of dignity—and most authoritarian regimes will either exclude human rights from constitutions or will try to exclude citizens from accessing their human rights. Some of those rights are very simple and very basic tangibles. We’re talking about the rights to clean water, the right to a safe environment, safety for children, [and] access to basic medical infrastructure. And then we move on to rights that are to do with including people in governance. We’re talking about the freedom of expression, the right of association, the right to political ideas or political association, the right and the freedom to protest. So all of these rights are what allow a person or allow for us to measure whether a person is living in a place where they are oppressed. The more oppressed people are, the less those rights are allowed for that particular person. So for me, that’s the world of rights and that’s part of the fight. We have to say, “look, as a Zimbabwean, where I come from, I must have access to these rights that allow for me to be a Zimbabwean who can contribute to nation building, but also a Zimbabwean who can enjoy a quality of life that is not subhuman.”
It is, of course, much more complex than that. I come from a simple background—my activism and my involvement in democracy activism in Zimbabwe. I don’t come from the political sphere, I don’t come from civic society, I don’t come from the academics. I come from ordinary people and this is one of the reasons why our movement was key. It was born out of the desire of ordinary people who didn’t hold public office, who are not wealthy elites, [and] who are not connected in any way. Just ordinary people that are saying, “enough is enough.” This is our voice, and I think for me that is the missing ingredient in the democracy journey of Zimbabwe and I think it’s the missing ingredient in many countries in their democracy landscape that the ordinary people are not allowed to speak. Their voices are suppressed, and decisions are made for them by the political elite or by the corporate elite and they are excluded.
If you could coordinate an international campaign to address the issues in Zimbabwe, what would you do? What do you think is the most important first step towards a truly democratic Zimbabwe?
I think any campaign for any nation that is done by people should first and foremost speak to its own people. It must have the buy in of its own people. It is the willingness of those people to stand up for that campaign or to contribute towards that campaign that, I believe, makes it worthwhile for the international world to pay attention to. It’s a problem when you try to have an international campaign for an issue in Zimbabwe when Zimbabweans are not buying into it or Zimbabweans don’t understand it or they’re not a part of it. One of my big statements throughout our campaign for the last couple of years has been, “We must be present for our own struggle. We cannot subcontract our struggle. It is something that we must do. The struggle cannot be subcontracted.” So after having been able to mobilize [and conscientize] Zimbabweans, the next level would be to amplify the movement or the campaign beyond Zimbabwe for international solidarity. I choose that word solidarity because it’s a very important word that speaks about other people in other places identifying with your cause and standing up with you and speaking up on your behalf as well. That means that your struggle can now be present on platforms that are outside of Zimbabwe and I think this is the desire of every struggle, that those who hear what we are clamoring for would stand with us on those same principles. An international campaign for Zimbabwe would invite voices—and this has been a desire of ours—multilateral platforms such as the Southern African Development Commission, the African Union, the United Nations, and they would listen. The challenge we’ve had in Zimbabwe is that particularly the African regional bodies have not listened. They would rather protect the regimes than stand with the people or listen to what people are struggling with. [An important] part of successful international campaigns for Africa—if I had the chance to craft what would be a successful international campaign for Zimbabwe—would be an opportunity to speak to our world leaders about the effect that the Zimbabwean crisis has had on the current generation, particularly those that are going to be present in the future. What we are left with in Zimbabwe is a generation of people who have not had access to education for many years and so our pool of educated people has become depleted. Our pool of people that have had access to good health has also become depleted. I think the cry or the call would be to say, “help us to hold the current leaders we have to account, help us to bring them to a place where they are held accountable for the condition that they have left the country in, but more importantly for the condition that they are leaving a future generation in as well.”
What role can and should other countries play in promoting democracy outside of their country? What should they be cautious of when taking actions like these?
Two things stand out. The first being that when countries are promoting democracy in a country that is not their own, they must take great care in not overriding the agenda that the people of that nation have. Sometimes the tendency is to introduce an agenda that is not so representative of the people of that country. It’s important to understand what it is these people are fighting for, what it is these people want as a democracy in their nation, and then support that or support aspects that can be supported. For me, it’s important not to change the people’s message or the people’s desire, but to support it, to enhance it, to give it amplification. The second thing is what those nations do at home. When you do not practice at home what you are pushing for in another country it hurts that message and it hurts that process and it hurts that struggle. So for example, if the United States is having challenges in how it handles its own internal democracy process, it’s going to hurt the credibility of their help when they come to Zimbabwe to help our Democratic process because the cry is going to be, “How do you come here and propose that we do that which you are failing to model in your own home?”
You have voiced skepticism about the freedom and fairness of Zimbabwean elections in the past. Around the world—from Belarus to the United States—we are seeing similar concerns right now. What can be done to restore integrity and democracy to electoral systems?
I think there is one route that stands out for me as being very clear. The institutions of democracy, I believe, are under threat globally. The institutions that people have normally run to when democracy is threatened by people, by cartels that are in power, those institutions are the ones that are being eroded. It is imperative that institutions of democracy are strengthened and protected as a matter of urgency and as a matter of priority because when those fail those are the last line of defense for the citizens; when those fail, then nations are given to authoritarianism and dictatorship. For me, that is a very important aspect of it. When I look at Zimbabwe and we wish for a new government, our wish must also contain within it a wish for strengthened institutions, because if we just go and change governments or change presidents without strengthening the institutions and protecting the institutions, that same government will do to us what the previous one did as well.
What do you believe has been the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on democracy movements? Are there particular strengths or weaknesses the situation lends itself to?
Coronavirus has been both a curse and a blessing to democracy. Not just [in] Zimbabwe, [but also in] a lot of nations in Africa, the Coronavirus exposed, first of all, just how vulnerable we are as a people when it comes to our infrastructure for delivering medical health [services]. We have nothing. We are absolutely exposed. It laid bare how much has been ransacked, how much has been ignored over the years. The second thing that the pandemic then did, is also expose the notoriously and horribly high levels of corruption. We saw the face of corruption in Zimbabwe, in South Africa, and in many other countries in Africa. We saw funds that had been reserved and earmarked to alleviate the effects of the Coronavirus being looted by those in power. It’s opened our eyes further to the fact that we have people in power that are not even concerned about a tragic situation like this one and will do anything to line their pockets even with resources that are meant to save lives. So it made apparent the fact that corruption is one of the biggest issues on the continent and I think going forward in Africa, if we do not have a generation of leaders that [commit] to being transparent [and] to being open, then our continent is never going to recover from bad governance.
Looking to the future, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the way that democratic institutions are going to fare?
I hate this question, I really do, because naturally I am an optimistic person. I love to look to the future with hope with excitement that things will turn, but for the first time in a very long time I’m looking at the present indicators and trying to figure out what kind of future we have and it doesn’t look good. It does not give me confidence when I look at what is happening presently. [The current situation] doesn’t give me confidence that democracy is going to grow stronger in the future, particularly on the continent. In fact, when I see what’s happening globally, when I look at what’s happening in the United States, it does not give me confidence. I then go back to one thing, because when I can’t find the confidence and I can’t find the hope, my values and beliefs almost say, “OK, we’re not comfortable in a pessimistic place; we must find something that gives us hope so that we carry on doing what we’re doing, so that we continue to mobilize, we continue to believe that we can change things.” So my system defaults back to what gives me hope, which is “people power”. The fact that it is a people that make a nation. That it is the people that develop a nation. It is the people that can change a nation and I can see this beginning to happen on the African continent. When we began to mobilize in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 in Zimbabwe, for the first time, we started to see certain changes—very small, but we began to see certain changes happening. There may not have been changes in government but there were changes within the people. People who were afraid were now prepared to show up. We’re seeing this today in Nigeria with the #EndSARS movement where young people have stepped out. They breached the fear, and they said this doesn’t look good but we have to stand up and say, “stop the brutality, stop the misgovernance in the country, we want better.” I think this is a wave and this is where my optimism comes in. This whole attack on democracy, this whole attack on bright futures is inadvertently sparking up a rising up of young people who want to be involved, who want to participate, who are no longer afraid, who want to go the full distance, [and] who want to go the full way of making sure that their nations are better than they are right now. That’s where my optimism starts to kick in about the future.
You yourself got involved in politics at a young age. What do you wish you had known as a young person entering politics and activism, and what advice would you give to others who are interested in pursuing a similar path or may find themselves in this field?
This is a really good question. I wish I knew that change in a nation is not the prerogative of adults. Had we known that we are the people we have been waiting for we would have moved earlier. We would have organized without fear had we known what we know today. Had I known that standing up is going to cause the kind of changes we’ve seen in the last couple of years, had I known that years ago I think we would have pushed harder, [and] would have mobilized even more without fear. If I were to speak to a young person right now who’s involved in activism, who’s involved in trying to bring change in their region or in their nation, I would tell them what I said before: number one, the struggle cannot be subcontracted; no one is coming to do it for you; you are the people you are waiting for. Organize more, stand up more, speak up more. It’s not about waiting until you’re a certain age or until you have certain qualifications. It is often the unqualified that bring some of the biggest changes. It is often the most unexpected people that start a process that brings change. Don’t be afraid to start initiatives; don’t be afraid to come together and plan. The worst that could happen is that it doesn’t work out, but the best that could happen is that it could be the ignition for something that completely changes your nation. So start now. Start today. Build it, make it happen even [from] where you are now.
Optimism is certainly hard to find right now. What would you want Yale and the international community to know about your experiences, including the difficult topic of arrests?
I was arrested maybe six, seven times in the last four years and ended up in maximum security prisons. Those are the hardest places to be in because you’re sitting there and you think to yourself, “we’re screwed up now; this is the end. I made a mistake; we shouldn’t have done this.” But we had to learn whilst we were in those prisons, that the reason they gave us the full extent of the law is because they realized that we could actually make certain things happen, that we could [create] change. So whilst we were there, we had to begin to make the decision that we will not let these walls and these chains define for us the next step we’re going to take. We’re going to focus on what’s on the inside, what are we going to achieve, how else are we going to push this agenda forward when we come out. Oftentimes when we came out of prison, we were stronger than we were when we went in. In fact, we often made statements like, “the biggest mistake they made was to send us into that prison because it gave us time to think. It gave us time to see how strong we were, and we always came back stronger.”
That’s kind of similar, certainly not the same, to how people are getting more time to think during quarantine and having the time to more critically examine the societal structures that we’re in and the political kind of assumptions we take for granted.
I think it would be a tragedy for our worlds to emerge from the coronavirus experience and [find that] we are weaker, and we are depleted. In my mind, the spirit of humanity is designed to bounce back stronger, it’s designed to overcome and to be better, particularly after challenges. We need challenges for us to better ourselves. Without that, we sit back [and] relax. My greatest expectation right now is that in every sphere of life we come back better—whether it is on a relational basis that we relate better; we value life even more because of this; if it’s businesses, businesses exist to do better, it’s not just about making money, it’s about making life better; nations do better, they do more. Everything for me, I feel, has a chance to bounce back and do even better.
*Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity.
Sandhya Kumar is a sophomore in Saybrook College. You can contact her at email@example.com.