Nonviolent protests in Zimbabwe could signal a new day for the African nation.
Last April, a friend showed me a video on social media of a 39-year-old Baptist pastor wearing a Zimbabwean flag draped around his neck. “This is our country. Only we can save it,” he announced, referring to the need to overcome fear and speak out against corruption, unemployment and economic mismanagement in this southern African nation. The pastor, Evan Mawarire, used the hashtag #ThisFlag to send his message.
My friend went out that afternoon to buy a flag. I followed her example as a sign of solidarity with the pastor and others like him who were speaking out against the problems besetting their country. Very soon, flags were on sale on every street corner. Motorists placed them on their dashboards; people waved them in the streets and wrapped them around their bodies.
I was heartened by the new self-confidence and courage emerging in Zimbabwe, to which I had returned in 2015, after an absence of almost seven years. When I left in 2008, inflation was the highest in the world. There was no fuel or food in the shops. Worst of all was the violence that erupted that year when President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party lost the election and retaliated by maiming and killing voters.
On my return, I thought things might have improved but soon discovered the sad reality that led to #This Flag. As I met former students who were without jobs, I learned unemployment was over 80 percent and that many youth had left the country in search of work, including the children of most of my friends. While food in the shops was plentiful, it was imported from South Africa and was very expensive. Local services for water and electricity were erratic and expensive. Saddest of all, I began to sense people’s lack of hope.
President Mugabe, who had been in office since independence in 1980, showed little willingness to hand over leadership to a younger generation. Corruption was endemic. I dreaded running into police roadblocks, for instance, since the police inevitably found something wrong with your vehicle or driving and demanded $20, whether you were guilty of a traffic offense or not.
The country had run out of cash, and banks were not allowing customers to withdraw more than $100 at a time from their accounts. (More recently, they were allotted only $50.) Soon the government did not have the funds to pay the salaries of teachers, nurses and doctors. Even the police and army were being paid a week late. Pastor Mawarire had had enough. He decided citizens like him could only effect change if they joined together in peaceful protest. That’s when he draped his country’s flag around his neck and used social media to issue his call to action. Tens of thousands responded.
One of the first nonviolent actions to result from #This Flag was a national shutdown in July. Posts on social media read: “No one should go to work or to vending. No one should go to school. No shop should open. No vehicle should move. No office should open. It’s our Salvation Day. Let’s shut down everything for a day to save ourselves forever! No one can save us; let us unite and save ourselves peacefully NOW!”
An estimated 90 percent of the population heeded the call, with the shutdown coinciding with a strike by doctors and nurses who had not been paid. Inspired by the success of this movement, other protest movements sprang up. “This Gown” was led by unemployed graduates who wore their caps and gowns while marching to Parliament to draw attention to the lack of jobs for college graduates. Some of them continue to wear their academic gowns daily while selling fruits and vegetables on the streets since that is the only avenue left for making a living. A group called Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) took to the streets with pots and pans to highlight the lack of food for their children. Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical churches issued a joint statement that echoed the demands of the protesters. The church leaders continue to meet and strategize.
One of the most serious threats to the 93-year-old president and his ruling party was a statement signed by a large number of veterans of the liberation war. Accusing President Mugabe of being autocratic and out of touch with the needs of the people, the war veterans said they would not campaign for him in the 2018 elections.
What makes the current protests different from those in the past is that now they are not being led by political parties but by ordinary people and a younger generation unafraid to speak. This may be a nationwide political awakening.
Pastor Mawarire was arrested in July and charged with inciting public violence. In a rare show of solidarity, thousands gathered outside the courthouse to sing hymns and pray for his release. Nearly 100 lawyers volunteered to defend him. The judge threw out the charges.
Although Pastor Mawarire fled Zimbabwe after receiving threats against his life, he now lives in the United States and continues to send messages encouraging his fellow Zimbabweans to protest peacefully. “Success is a series of small victories,” he recently tweeted. The protest movement he helped to start shows no sign of abating, despite increasing violence by police.
The calls for President Mugabe to step down are growing louder and are coming from different groups, including prominent African leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and Graça Machel, widow of South African President Nelson Mandela and Mozambican President Samora Machel.
Within Zimbabwe, a coalition of opposition parties, now numbering 18, has been holding weekly demonstrations, calling for electoral reform. We can only hope and pray that a new beginning is near.
Featured image: Pastor Evan Mawarire wraps the flag of Zimbabwe around himself as he issues a call to action against injustices in his country.