First they found a voice then redefined an emblem:
The role of speech censorship in pacifying Zimbabwe’s society, and the impact of #ThisFlag – how one man shared a personal story that helped a forgotten society reclaim its voice and reprimand its leadership
By Maynard Manyowa
People love to say talk is cheap. Growing up in Zimbabwe nothing could have been further than the truth. Among ordinary people, speech was an expensive commodity whose price was often life.
It was a strange but devious society where ‘the man’ repressed and compelled speech simultaneously. That ability to maintain silence yet determine dialogue meant false narratives could be peddled without challenge.
As recently as 10 weeks ago, it was still considered a death wish to as much as offer a critical opinion on Zimbabwe’s socio-economic crisis and political tyranny.
For as long as i can remember, nearly each time my articles were published in local or international press, my social media inbox would be flooded by as many as several hundred direct messages offering support, encouragement, opinions and even genuine concerns about my safety.
Its a norm that became a rule. Expressing political opinion was considered a hazard.
Those fears were real and not imagined. A lot of Zimbabweans old enough to drink a beer today were of age when Zanu PF launched a massive crackdown on defenseless citizens in 2008.
Hundreds were killed, maimed, raped, and amputated. Thousands were kidnapped and force marched to youth militia bases and forced to recite Zanu slogans and liberation war songs. Millions fled into neighboring South Africa and Botswana.
So irrational was the crackdown that at one point it was unilaterally declared that anyone caught or heard “talking about” or using the words “elections” and “results” in the same sentence would be arrested and detained till kingdom come!
It was a very dark and unpleasant time. The vibrant streets of Harare quickly turned dull and were deserted at speed. You would barely see anyone moving about. Perhaps an occasional truck full of intoxicated members of the youth militia singing war-time jingles.
Suspected members of the opposition were beaten to a pulp, and often in front police as well. Compelled speech became a lifesaving tool. Reciting a war time slogan on request was often the ticket to continued life.
The country was pummeled into deathly silence.
Many years before this, in the year 2000, when I was about 10, Zimbabwe held a constitutional referendum under less gruesome but equally scary circumstances. A few years later, in 2002, the nation held Presidential elections.
Robert Mugabe lost the elections, but was still declared the winner. South Africa, which led the observer mission refused to release its official report, until as many as 10 years later, and only after its Constitutional Court ruled that the document be released. Upon release, The Kampepe Report confirmed that Zanu PF had lost the election, then rigged it to keep Mugabe in power.
I was relatively young when both elections were conducted, but can vividly recall commonly shared stories about how spies were said to stand by the walls and windows of people’s houses, listening to their conversations.
As a result, in our house, any political comments were an early ticket to bed, and probably a verbal lashing.
The reason I went to through this detail was to carefully illustrate the dynamic of muting civilian speech.
The fact is, whether the fears of electorate were real or imagined, they led to political dialogue being frowned upon, even between family members. This was not accidental. It was deliberately and intelligently orchestrated by the ruling party.
Civilian discussions on topical government matters were permanently muted by Zanu PF.
Yet, at their convenience, if you encountered the youth militia, failing to recite a liberation war jingle, or a Zanu PF slogan could easily translate into a broken jaw.
In making criticism private, the regime muted civil retaliation, yet they determined dialogue by making it a life necessity to be well versed in Zanu PF lingo.
The country’s rulers did not just repress speech; they recreated it to serve the present. They knew that, in an oppressive state, change often starts with a complaint.
What they did not factor in though is that silence is unnatural, and repression inspires protest.
That game changing moment arrived months ago when a broken citizen, buoyed by his state induced struggles failed to raise school fees for his children, recorded a video and posted it on Facebook.
In the touching video clip, he lamented the perversion of the national flag, whose meaning has gone sideways, and irony of celebrating independence day when it does not evoke the patriotic fondness is is due.
It was such an easy story to relate to. The video went viral, all across the world in days.
It inspired a sense of combined unity and shared experience among the citizens who for decades have never shared political opinion. Nearly everyone who saw it could relate to it.
Zimbabweans are a very diverse people. You will find all races, and most Nguni tribes. The country has its fair share of Asian expats, North and South Americans, and even Europeans as well. Yet, if we are so different, most of us share two things in common experience – our economic problems are are the mere result of a concerted effort by the government to ruin our lives.
For his actions, Evan Mawarire earned himself death threats. But that was rather late if not useless. Each time the video was shared, it allowed another voice be free. Everyone who watched the video felt him, his passion, his story. We have all been there after all.
Since then citizens have a voice, and it is loud. The leadership is rattled, confused and in enchanted land. Deep down they know the power of a speaking civil movement. For 36 years politics has failed us. Whichever way you look at it. There are more civilians than they are politicians. Such is the power of a citizen movement.
The powers that be attempted their cliche – dismissing it as #HashTag activism, only to figure the movement had grown too big – impossible to downplay until it went away. Typical – the mantra where the government keeps repeating a lie in the hope that it turns true or we end up believing it.
Politicians being politicians threw all sorts of criticisms. They say the movement lacked ideology, that it was not backed by ideals, nor significant political frameworks. But such is the weakness of politics at times, and those that become politicians. They become so divorced from reality.
They forgot that this was a citizen movement. Citizens are not political scientists. They are not in the business of cooking social theory in labs of though. If anything Zimbabwe is a perfect example of just how well politics can fail.
It never occurred to them as well, that as they engaged the movement, mocked it, and threw all sorts of debris, they invited its growth. You see any honest Zimbabwean who is above 3 probably understands the fact that things are bad, and bad for the population only.
Leaders milk billions and billions of dollars everyday, all the time. This is not propaganda. Its not even a fact. Its a truthful experience that anyone with half an hour experience in Zimbabwe understands. Mocking #ThisFlag only opened up more voices.
For some unknown reason, though the civil movement only ever asked the government to deliver promises it made, to stop corruption, and fix the economy. For some reason anyone who demands these is anti-establishment.
All of sudden talk of a social media black out was thrown into the fray. We were told wearing the flag could be criminalised, and all sorts of things.
And there observers stood wondering, if that is just how blind leaders can be? Evan never asked to be a Minister, or head government. Not a single video i saw ever encouraged any form of violence. All they asked was basic things which are within the scope and mandate of the leadership.
But perhaps, for an exploitative regime that relied on censorship for so long, even telling them the colour of their socks makes you an enemy.
I have gone at length to show the amount of misdirected retaliation that greeted the populace to show how scary a talking citizen is to a corrupt politician and a cadre deployed leader. This is because an ordinary citizen unites, a citizen movement is honest, and quite objective too.
I mentioned before, that in a oppressive state change often begins with a complaint. Since Evan Mawarire gave Zimbabweans a voice, i have seen several different movements appear. Ordinary people speak out, demand accountability, demand an end to corruption, demand proper service delivery.
For so long, the people of Zimbabwe have waited for a miracle. West, East, South. At times we have even resigned to our fate. By allowing voices to be taken away, we encouraged leadership that must not be held to account.
A voice is not a revolt, its not a criminal. Leaders are meant to service the people. Politics has failed the country, but only because we lost our voices.
A talking citizen is much harder to fleece. Our silence was installed as means to pacify us. This has changed, and leaders are feeling the heat.
They have since attempted to arrest and detain some social advocacy movements in an effort to send a clear message. It is not association they worry about, it is the fact each and every day, more and more people are finding a voice. Each and everyday, the voices are challenging the past. Voices which are holding the national flag of the Republic. Voices that can define sovereignty on their own, define independence on their own.
While they were busy arresting #OccupyAfricaUnitySquareMovement, a new one, #Tajamuka was sensitizing bankers about the real cause of the cash crisis. They arrested them too. Then pop came #Asijiki!
Zanu PF faces a new vice which it has secretly feared for long – a talking citizen who asks questions. Its unfamiliar territory for them. They can’t arrest them all so they now have to answer their questions. Which is new for them. They are being told No where they would have proceeded without consultation. This frustrates them.
The Central Bank Governor was among the first few to find the authoritarian declare and decree approach of governance in tatters. His bond notes pronouncement has been met with serious resistance. Minister of Education, Lazarus Dokora earned himself a demonstration after murmurs of an intention to ban Christianity and rumours of introducing uniforms for teachers.
Both Mangundya and Dokora have reacted by doing some ‘u-turns’, even if it is only for now. Tafadzwa Musarara, found propaganda and bullying to be ineffective when the opponents are a speaking society. Energy Minister Samuel Undenge was hounded to explain the fishy circumstances under which Wicknell Chivhayo was awarded a tender of nearly half a million US.
All this would have been unthinkable just months ago. It puts things into perspective. Given the repression of the past, it makes you appreciate among many, the bravery of Evan Mawarire and #ThisFlag.
Where few had dared speak, he took a risk, appreciating that it would be greedy to be scared to die today, yet guarantee the death of your children tomorrow. The results are promising and pleasing.
From the lens of my perspective, i see myself as a young man. I am a father of 2 children. A little boy and his beautiful little sister.
Wherever they maybe at a time, the greatest legacy i have given them, is their roots and heritage to Zimbabwe.
Regardless of where they were born, the air they breathe, and wherever they may end up in their quest for fulfillment, their roots lead back to Mazviwa communal lands, where their Grandfather, Silinganiso Chabwanda, a hero of the liberation struggle, lies buried.
Their roots will forever be deeply entrenched under the tombstones of Ellen Fiya Manyowa and Chinyama Kloepas Manyowa, their Great Grandparents, and heroes of their father.
This is a reality no individual circumstance can change or separate. It is a reality that all citizens of Zimbabwe must protect.
If not, our history will be re-written again, replaced by partial truths and outright lies. As the past has shown us, when our speech is taken away, we lose our past, our present and future.
Evan Mawarire deserves a thank you, for taking a risk which has been known to materialize, for restoring the real historical narrative that says Zimbabwe belongs to us, for restoring our children’s heritage, for insisting leaders are held to account, but for being a father to his children, my children, our children, and even our current leader’s children.
A father is a pioneer. Through #ThisFlag, #Asijiki, #Tajamuka, #Hatichada #OccupyAfricaMovement a generation has been motivated to stand up and walk into their future!
- Maynard Manyowa is a political commentator, social commentator and contributing editor of Khuluma Afrika – a budding non-partisan center for analysis and investigative journalism