Constitutional lawyer and opposition spokesperson arrested repeatedly in Zimbabwe, Fadzayi Mahere, speaks at the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.
Two years ago, I woke up in an overcrowded jail cell in Zimbabwe’s Maximum Security Prison. No water. No toilet. No underwear. No dignity. No rights.
Inmates ate watery porridge with their bare hands because spoons are not allowed.
Before lights out, we had to line up in queues for roll call – groups A, B, C and D. D was for Dangerous. Even though the other women there had committed crimes such as murder, armed robbery, and infanticide, I alone was put in the dangerous group. I had committed the dangerous crime of tweeting, tweeting against police brutality. Local police had been captured on camera smashing a baton stick into the windshield of a small public transport bus. In the video that went viral online, stood a woman, crying and grabbing the policeman by his collar. She was surrounded by a mob of people yelling that the policeman had killed the baby. The baby lay motionless and pale in the woman’s arms. By all accounts published online, the baby had died, yet the state denied the death. In the face of public outrage, the police themselves issued a statement that they would investigate.
I joined the country in calling for justice. I tweeted, condemning the act of rogue policing and the unconstitutional and disproportionate use of force, that had obviously caused the death of a child. Thousands tweeted about it but they targeted me, a vocal opposition politician, for arrest. They alleged that I’d lied that the baby had died. The violent policeman was never brought to book.
This is how I wound up in a maximum-security prison, charged with “communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the state.” This offense has long been struck off the statute books by Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court. However, in a nation where the government is constantly at war with its citizens for demanding a better society, human rights don’t seem to matter. The legal system is weaponized as a tool to silence, intimidate, and harass. I was convicted four weeks ago and narrowly escaped a 20-year prison sentence.
I walked away from the ordeal knowing that unless there is true change in how Zimbabwe is governed, we are all serving a collective prison sentence. Nobody is free.
The experience was more stark for me because I came out of the womb knowing I would be a lawyer: I love to talk. I love to argue. And despite growing up under Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship, the ideals of justice and fairness became the dreams my older self would pursue.
Life would later provide me an opportunity to work for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda and for the International Criminal Court in the Hague. And it was during these times, that the need for truth and justice for Zimbabwe’s own 1982 genocide, infamously described by Mugabe as “a moment of madness” came again to the fore. Prosecuting crimes against humanity and war crimes in places such as Darfur, the Eastern Congo, and the Central African Republic brought Zimbabwe’s own oppressive reality into sharper focus for me. Ours has been a slow-burning struggle for democracy, following a liberation War of Independence that provided the illusion of freedom, but no tangible sign of its much-needed fruit.
Over time, I have come to learn the complexity of history, that those who were once modeled as heroes can eventually morph into the very villains they once fought. Colonial oppressors and post-independence dictators have that one thing in common – they both play from the dictators’ playbook. And it’s the citizens who suffer. But just like the international courts and tribunals I worked in, where there is injustice, there is also hope that a few good women and men will fight the cause of justice, wherever it may lead them.
In 2016, after returning to Zimbabwe upon the completion of my studies and international work, the government announced the return of the world-famous Zimbabwean Dollar. I was horrified. But I also saw, for the first time, an opportunity to speak publicly truth to power. I stepped out of my comfortable, safe, professional world into the more treacherous world of political doers, actively calling out the injustice and illegality. And before I knew it, I had entered the dictator’s arena, naively paving the way for the dangerous political journey I now find myself on.
Inspired by Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag campaign, I experienced an awakening. He started a movement that urged Zimbabweans to speak up, demand accountability, and be active citizens. I registered to vote, I attended protests, and I got arrested, but kept going back because of the clarion call that we must all be relentless in the pursuit of what is right.
Soon, we realized the limits of activism. Movements get people excited, but they cannot change the political system. Only active, ethical political participation can drive lasting social change. So when most women my age were getting married and starting a family, I announced my candidacy as an independent Member of Parliament for the constituency of Mount Pleasant. I ran for office under the tagline #BeTheChange – for it is only when individuals step out and are counted, that true change takes root. We must intentionally shape the world into a better place and not just accept it for what it is.
I believed that if our campaign could just inspire hope and a thirst for change, I’d change everything, but the person I changed the most was myself. I eventually lost the parliamentary seat but I gained a cause undoubtedly bigger than myself, a pursuit for justice and fairness that goes deeper than the law but is personified in the everyday lived experience of the ordinary Zimbabwean. I have seen hope in action as I have proudly taken on the role of Spokesperson for the country’s main opposition party, the Citizens’ Coalition for Change. In spite of the violence, arrests, and manipulation of the legal system, we will fight to win Zimbabwe for change in the upcoming election against numerous odds.
I stand here today to let the world know that Zimbabwe is currently reeling under a dictatorship much worse than Robert Mugabe. Half the population lives under extreme poverty, 2,2 billion USD are lost to corruption annually, and we have the highest hyperinflation rate in the world – all because those in power would rather loot and persecute than lead. The government’s war against freedom and its weaponization of the law against myself and other government critics, such as Job Sikhala and Jacob Ngarivhume, are calculated to send a chilling message to the rest of society – “We’re watching you, even on Twitter. And this is the punishment you get for participating in opposition politics.” To date, both these brave men remain political prisoners. But we won’t stop demanding their freedom. We call on the world to do the same.
In closing, I wouldn’t risk my life and freedom if I didn’t sincerely believe that change is possible. Courage doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid. It means that you act in spite of your fear because you believe in a greater cause. I choose courage. And I choose hope. This August, Zimbabweans go to the ballot box with one simple mission, to win Zimbabwe for change, to install ethical, competent leaders who believe in dignity, prosperity, and freedom for everyone. The world must insist on this election being free, fair, and credible. The will of the people has to prevail. It’s difficult but we must emanicpate the jewel of Africa from the imprisonment of its current dictatorship.
Hope and action are the sustenance of those who change the world.
15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 16, 2023