I have been observing the latest turn of events in the #ThisFlag protest movement with keen interest as well as growing dismay as scores of Zimbabweans, who only a few weeks ago were lauding Pastor Evan Mawarire as a “hero” and Zimbabwe’s hope for a better tomorrow, are now tearing into him on various social media platforms. He stands accused at best of being a coward who deserted his followers when they needed him most and at worst, of being a political fraud who manipulated the emotions of the people of Zimbabwe as a means of getting asylum in the United States.
In my view, the first accusation is unfair as it fails to take into account the following key observations:
- Pastor Evan never set out to be the leader of a protest movement. He was just a frustrated citizen who like millions of Zimbabweans, found himself in the unenviable position where he was struggling to provide for his family’s basic needs. That his heartfelt video lament struck a chord within Zimbos the world over and went viral does not automatically transform him into a political leader who is accountable to Zimbabweans at large, no matter how many of us chose to follow him. I think Pastor Evan realised that people were looking up to him and out of his own volition decided to adopt the role of a big brother, speaking for those who might otherwise have been too afraid to speak out.
- Before he became the poster boy for the Zimbabwean protest movement, Pastor Evan was and still is a husband and a father to two young girls. As such, his God-given responsibility is owed first and foremost to his family, and not to the people of Zimbabwe. He has no obligation to put his life at risk and potentially leave a widow and fatherless children just because he dared to speak out against the government (at a time when very few people had the guts to do so). The fact that he has chosen to relocate, whether temporarily or otherwise, to protect his family should not be an issue requiring public consensus nor is it something he should apologise for.
- #ThisFlag is not about one man. It is a rallying cry to all Zimbabweans to rise up and take responsibility for the future we want to see for ourselves and our children. Pastor Evan’s geographical location has nothing to do with the problems we are currently facing in Zimbabwe, nor does it prevent any of us from continuing to speak out against corruption and the other evils plaguing our nation. It doesn’t stop you and I from taking the time to register as voters so that come 2018, we are able to go out in our masses and exercise our democratic right to vote. Your vote DOES count, whether or not you believe it does.
The second accusation, that Pastor Evan is a fraud who misled citizens for personal gain, is equally flawed. This is because it presupposes that Pastor Evan could accurately predict how the #ThisFlag movement would evolve and eventually play itself out. If this theory is true, it would mean that when he made the initial protest video, he knew that:
(a) the video would go viral and that he would gain a cult following;
(b) he would be arrested and charged with inciting public violence (i.e. the infamous “button stick”);
(c) an unprecedented number of people, including hundreds of lawyers, would turn up at the courthouse to support him, thus turning him into an overnight sensation and raising his public and international profile even more;
(d) the charges would subsequently be changed to the more serious charge of subverting a constitutionally elected government;
(d) the Zimbabwe Republic Police would bungle up the case and forget to issue a warned and cautioned statement for the new charges, resulting in the charges being dismissed;
(e) the dismissal of the case and Pastor E’s growing influence would encourage citizens and incite other protest movements like #Tajamuka and #ThisGown to take further action, thus putting him on the government’s radar;
(f) he would be publicly denounced by the highest office in the land, with further threats of incarceration and worse being levelled against him.
(g) he would be forced to flee with his family to South Africa as a result of the threats against his life and liberty.
Pastor Evan would need to have had prior knowledge of all of the above in order to mastermind his clever scheme to deceive the citizens of Zimbabwe into helping him gain international acclaim as a political activist and thus gain asylum in the USA once his life was under threat. Sounds quite ludicrous when you put it like that, doesn’t it?
Apart from requiring one to suspend belief and assume that Pastor E had such prior omniscient knowledge, this accusation is also completely unsupported by any facts. Correlation does not imply causation. The fact that Pastor E may now be eligible for asylum in the US as a result of this turn of events does not mean that he brought about these events in order to get such asylum. It is a sad day when we can go from hailing someone as a man of integrity and principle for so long as he is saying and doing what most of us wish we could and were too scared to do, and then turn around and accuse the same man of manipulation and deceit just because he has made a personal decision that is not favourable to us.
I know some of you will argue that I am just another blind follower who is seeking to silence any criticism against Pastor Evan. Not true. I have no problem with someone expressing their opinion about a public figure, however negative that critique may be, as long as it does not malign and cast aspersions on the integrity of a man who most of us only know from afar and without any basis to support such accusations, other than rumour and innuendo.
What many refuse to acknowledge is that the anger they feel is not really at Pastor E’s decision to leave. It is rather the pain of the loss of a big brother, someone who we could hide behind when the bully came into the playground while we stood in the background shouting “Ngaarowhe! (hit him)” from a safe distance. If truth be told, Pastor Evan’s fearless stance emboldened many of us to find a voice to speak up against the corruption and injustice in this nation, a voice which had become croaky from disuse and fear. Yes, we were afraid of the very thing Pastor Evan now stands accused of. With Pastor E gone, that fear is slowly creeping back, together with the uneasy question: Who will defend us now?
We wanted Pastor E to be willing to risk going to prison, to put his neck on the line while we continued to peep over his shoulder. That time has however come to an end. Big brother has left the playground and we are left to confront the bully by ourselves. So we feel betrayed and exposed. Confronted with the reality that we no longer have a champion on the ground who can take the fallout that is the inevitable consequence of any citizen’s protest movement, we want to lash out at someone, and Pastor E is the nearest target for our rage. That anger is however, misplaced and will ultimately lead us nowhere, except to divide us, thus playing into the hands of those who wish to see this movement come to nothing.
It is time for Zimbabweans to realise that the success of this movement will not depend on whichever personality happens to have sparked it, but on the strength of our unity as we stand up for what we know is right and just. Just as we stood united at the courthouse when Pastor Evan was arrested and subsequently released, we need to stand united in our resolve to see the birth of a better Zimbabwe. We need to be willing to stand on our own two feet and realise that we do not need a designated leader in order to accomplish this. There is a potential leader within each of us and we are capable of effecting national change if we are only willing to step out of our comfort zones and be counted.
QF Chido Mash