When the nation of Zimbabwe was born on 18 April, 1980, Jamaican reggae superstar, Bob Marley, brought the house down at Rufaro Stadium in Harare with a standout performance for the ages which included a sweet rub-a-dub song titled "Zimbabwe". The revolution Marley sang about has since lost its zing amid a sharp recession almost 37 years later from the day history was made in Zimbabwe. Pastor Evans Mawarire – the newest and unlikely hero for the opposition movement in Zimbabwe, last week returned home from a brief self-imposed period of exile in America hungry to pick up from where he left off last year – only to find himself locked up and charged with subversion before he could shoot a five-minute video for his #ThisFlag movement.
The 40-year-old clergyman who was 3-years-old when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain has become the poster boy for millennials who are opposed to the rule of President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF. You could describe Mawarire as a born-free: a person who did not live under the colonial rule of Rhodesian strongman Ian Smith. Mawarire attended an elite government high school in Harare named Prince Edward. And he studied electrical engineering at the Harare Institute of Technology.
Mawarire is notably younger than his peers in opposition ranks: Morgan Tsvangirai of The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is 64 years old. Joyce Mujuru, President of Zimbabwe People First (ZPF), is 61 years old. Unlike Tsvangirai who delved into politics as a seasoned trade union chief, or former vice-president Mujuru who was expelled from Zanu-PF three years ago after she had served in cabinet for 34 years. Mawarire has never been a card-carrying member of Zanu-PF, nor has he ever led a large body by all accounts. But he has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence. And while Mujuru and Tsvangirai lead well-oiled political formations; it was Mawarire who last year rallied his supporters to stage the biggest demonstration against Zanu-PF rule since 2005 via a nondescript smartphone, a flag of Zimbabwe and a free YouTube account à la Egyptian Arab Spring bloggers and activists.
The protest action followed a ghastly economic decline for the nation of 14 million people: Zimbabwe ranked 155 out of 188 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index in 2015. Over 72% of citizens live below the international poverty line, and one-fifth live in extreme poverty. #ThisFlag has mushroomed in these dire conditions. When Mawarire began his high school studies in 1990, Zimbabwe had a profoundly utopian feel about it for all who lived there: the economy was in excellent shape – inflation remained low and civil servants got paid on time all of the time. Industry was booming. Tourism and agriculture were flourishing. Zupco buses ran on time. And so did planes from Air Zimbabwe.
The Zanu-PF government allocated considerable resources to food subsidies, infrastructure development and education: it offered free and subsidised education from primary school right through to university or college where every student had access to a state-funded bursary. Streets named after African heroes such as Samora Machel, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Sam Nujoma, Josiah Tongogara and Julius Nyerere in the central business districts of Bulawayo, Gweru, Kwekwe, Mutare and Harare which were bustling with activity and had unbridled optimism which filled the air.The country was prosperous and peaceful: a unity pact signed between Zanu-PF and Zapu in 1987 ended a civil strife that had engulfed the provinces of Matabeleland and Midlands and reportedly led to thousands of civilian deaths.
A united Zanu-PF upheld its desire to finally fulfil a huge historical imperative when it fast-tracked the land reform programme after demand for fertile land from war veterans and peasants in rural areas intensified in 1997. Not everything about agrarian reform was rosy though: the late Zanu-PF stalwart Edson Zvobgo – a Harvard-trained lawyer, on one occasion told parliament, "We have turned what was a noble agrarian revolution into a racist enterprise". The implementation of the Land Redistribution Programme has been praised and denounced in equal measure in Zimbabwe.
Critics say agrarian reform has been riddled with corruption and contend it planted the seeds of the present economic crisis in Zimbabwe. The ruling party blames its detractors for strangling the life out of the economy in the hope of removing Zanu-PF from power. Believe who you may: agricultural output, according to a report from the World Food Programme (WFP) has waned substantially as a result of poor farming methods, recurrent droughts and political and economic instability.
The romanticism of #ThisFlag politics is rooted in a postwar struggle for jobs, houses, cars, money – and service delivery. Mawarire and his followers swear allegiance to the flag of Zimbabwe only and view the liberation struggle through the prism of expediency: it is a blurry reality of a long-gone era. Mawarire has no manifesto, history of servitude in government or credentials to speak of. And he has no semblance of organisational capacity to call upon should he contest a national poll today. But he does enjoy immense support in urban areas. That should count for a lot if he secures financial backing or forms a grand coalition alongside Tsvangirai and Mujuru.
They have everything Mawarire may want or lack – but revealingly: they are not locked up in a police cell in Harare at the moment. The good pastor is. The party of liberation era leaders like Joshua Nkomo, Herbert Chitepo and Jason Ziyapapa Moyo has a colossal task at hand: The Mawarires of this world believe the revolution is no longer working for them in 2017 and are seeking a fresh form of governance and a new and diversified economic dispensation for the future. Who should – and will – prevail in this fight for power? You be the judge. But remember the wise words of Bob Marley from "Zimbabwe" – his seminal hit song of 1980: "Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny."