As I write, a fellow Zimbabwean citizen is a guest of the state at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, the country’s most notorious jail, which accommodates some of the country’s most dangerous criminals. Once they step inside, behind its tall fences and high walls, convicted criminals leave their birth names at the gate and begin a new life in which henceforth they must answer to a set of numbers. Stripped of your normal identity, you become just a number.
But it’s not just the freedom and names that they take away. They also take away your dignity. Conditions in Chikurubi are notoriously parlous. Food is scarce. Sanitary conditions are deplorable. They are so bad that in the past scores of prisoners have lost their lives, not due violence that is commonplace in prisons, but because of hunger and disease. It is not a nice place. As a correctional facility, prison is supposed to rehabilitate but Chikurubi dehumanises.It was the scene of one of the most daring and movie-style jailbreaks in 1995, when notorious convicts Chidhumo and Masendeke escaped.
Like livestock, the men and women of Chikurubi are corralled into categories. One’s qualification into a category is down to the nature and gravity of their crime. One of these classes is called Category “D”. It belongs to the most dangerous inmates – men and women judged to have committed the most heinous crimes such as murder and armed robbery. There, they are destined to spend their lengthy sentences, which in some cases means the rest of their lives or in other cases, awaiting the hangman’s noose.
Suffice to say that the residents of Category “D” are society’s condemned – men and women whom the justice and correctional services system have classified as a serious danger to society, indeed a hazard to other inmates, from whom they must be kept separate. To this special category of Chikurubi’s residents, the Mugabe regime has added Evan Mawarire, a pastor who made waves last winter leading the hashtag #ThisFlag citizens’ movement.
But unlike his fellow residents of Chikurubi’s Category “D”, Evan Mawarire is not a convicted prisoner. No court of law has found him guilty of any crime. No judge has found that he is a danger to society. By the elementary rules of law, he is still an innocent man until the state proves him guilty. He stands accused of allegedly subverting constitutional government. He is also accused, rather bizarrely, of allegedly insulting the national flag. All this because the man peacefully chose to speak out and urged his fellow citizens to speak out against bad governance. For this, the regime has thrown him into Zimbabwe’s version of hell on earth.
Some say, but why did Evan Mawarire come back? Mawarire left rather abruptly at the height of the citizens’ protests last July. He cited security risks to his family as primary reasons for his departure. The regime had arrested him once before he was discharged by the court. Why did he return to Zimbabwe when he knew very well that the unforgiving regime would not spare him, they ask. I get them. I understand these questions.
Mawarire’s most ardent supporters say these questions are not necessary. They say a man does not need to explain why he must return to his home. Zimbabwe his home. I get them too. I understand their assertions.
But I also get why some people have been despondent and cynical when there should be widespread outrage. Too many hearts were broken last July when their hero decided to leave the country. Mawarire did what was right by him and his family, as every parent must do. I get that. But I also get why this move left many broken hearts. Mawarire had inspired a generation in a manner not seen since the rise of Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC. Then without notice, the curtain fell down and plunged the new hopefuls into darkness. Some even felt betrayed. They had invested too much too soon and they had lost everything. I understand. I get it. I was not immune to the disappointment of that period.
But I understood Mawarire’s situation. The man of cloth had started something that went far beyond his dreams. The whirlwind had shaken the state, but it had also consumed him. He had not planned for the deluge of support that was inspired by his video. He could not have known that it would touch the hearts and minds of so many, both at home and abroad. He could not have anticipated that he had lit a powder-keg that was threatening to blow over and consume the establishment. Had he planned it, Mawarire and his wife would probably have postponed the conjugal act that meant his wife was with child at that critical time of their lives. He found himself carrying two sets of expectations, one familial and another, national. He did what any responsible parent would do and attended to the familial expectation. I understood why he took that decision, even though I might have wished him to have handled it differently.
Some say, but why did Mawarire appear so relaxed in a selfie video, albeit in handcuffs. I get that, too. I understand the cynicism and questions. People must always ask questions of their leaders and the decisions they make. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s normal. Perhaps the judgment on that occasion could have been different. But I also understand that sometimes in the rush of the moment, when emotions are high, judgment does not always follow the normal course. It could have been handled differently.
I have read a lot of things in the last few days. I have read criticism of Evan Mawarire. I have read praises of the man. I have spoken to many people, too, some with questions, others with suggestions. Whatever, their opinions, people do care, as they should. Overall, the reaction has been mixed. His court appearance last Friday was in stark contrast to the atmosphere that engulfed Rotten Row, the Harare Magistrates Court on 14th July 2016. Then, multitudes converged in solidarity with Evan Mawarire. Scores of lawyers volunteered their services to defend Mawarire. It was an unprecedented convergence in the name of freedom and justice. The state was committing a heinous crime upon society, and society said no. The young and old came, as did the rich and poor. It was a remarkable show of strength and moral outrage at the state’s abuse of power. On Friday, it was a more muted affair. I also get that. I understand why the situation was different this time around. There are too many broken hearts that have not healed yet.
But whatever misgivings we might have, whatever criticisms we might harbour, there is one indisputable truth: it is that Evan Mawarire is still an innocent man until proven guilty. The man has not been put on trial. He has not been found guilty of committing any crime. There are allegations, yes, but allegations do not form a crime.
There is a broader concern which must command our minds. It is that what is happening to Evan Mawarire can happen to any one of us. It can happen to our brother or sister, to our father or mother, to our nephew, niece or cousin. Indeed, it can happen to our neighbour or our workmate. In fact, what has happened to Evan Mawarire has happened to many men and women in the past. Worse has happened. In 2008, MDC-T youth leader, Tonderai Ndira was abducted from his home and killed in cold blood. In 2008, human rights activist Jestina Mukoko was abducted from her home and tortured for days. The testimonies are far too many to mention.
As I write, Phillip Mugadza, another pastor is detained at Harare Remand Prison, after he allegedly made a prediction of President Mugabe’s death. He has been locked up for the past fortnight.
As I write, the Deputy Mayor of Kwekwe, Aaron Sithole, a Kwekwe councilor, Weston Masiya and an MDC-T activist, Tendai Virimayi are celebrating a temporary reprieve after they were granted bail pending appeal against 3-year jail terms imposed for public violence offences allegedly committed during last winter’s demonstrations. They were in Hwahwa Prison, another notorious jail in the Midlands.
As I write, Last Maingehama, Yvonne Musarurwa and Tungamirai Madzokere, all MDC activists are also in jail at Chikurubi, serving 20 year prison terms after controversial murder convictions.
Many people believe these are political prosecutions and convictions. They regard them as political prisoners. Despite the egregious violence committed in the name of ZANU PF over the years, which has caused many deaths, injuries and loss of property, there have been no serious prosecutions of ZANU PF perpetrators. The one prominent exception is the case involving the son of Governor Machaya, who killed an MDC supporter some years ago, but they owned up after reportedly being tormented by the spirit of the deceased.
That there is selective application of the law in Zimbabwe is well known. That the regime targets opposition supporters is also well known. The long and short of it is anyone can be a Mawarire, a Mugadza, a Sithole, a Maingehama, a Musarurwa, a Madzokere, a Masiya or a Virimayi. The common denominator between these fellow citizens is that they are under the thumb of a retributive and unforgiving regime. The criminalisation of exercising fundamental rights and freedoms is designed to cow people into submission. The target is not Mawarire or Mugabe or Sithole. The target is the generality of Zimbabweans.
So yes, I get the many murmurs over Mawarire’s decision-making last year. I get the questions. It’s normal for citizens to ask tough questions of their leaders. I understand that there are broken hearts and deflated spirits out there. It is hard to repair broken hearts and deflated spirits. But, it is important to look at the bigger picture. There is a man in Category “D” at the notorious Chikurubi prison who is not supposed to be there. There is a man at Harare Remand Prison who is not supposed to be there. There are men and a woman at Chikurubi who are only there because of a compromised system. There are men who might return to Hwahwa because of a flawed and selective system.
As I have often said, it is the system. One day it’s Evan, tomorrow it’s Tendai, and so on. The injuries that these fellow citizens are enduring are an injury to society. We stood by the war veterans last winter because we believed in the rule of law and justice, notwithstanding the heinous things they had done in the name of defending Mugabe and ZANU PF. We must think hard and extend a hand to Mawarire and others who are presently in confinement. If we are favoured to live long, our grandchildren will one day ask us what we did in the face of injustice. It is likely to be an embarrassing moment.
The regime must be smiling as it watches citizens squabbling. The System behaves like a pack of wild dogs going after prey. They isolate a wildebeest from the herd. Once isolated, they chase it in a pack, nibbling at it from all angles until it’s tired and can run no more. The other wildebeest can only watch from a distance, unable to assist one of their own. One of the tried and tested strategies of such regimes is to isolate the leader. The incarceration is designed to take Mawarire out of physical circulation and also to isolate him from the people and send a message to any who might wish to emulate him.
To conclude with the wisdom of Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. Our world has become more gender-aware since Burke’s days, so all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good PEOPLE do nothing.