- By Munyaradzi DodoMunyaradzi Dodo is a 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow and the Editor of OpenParlyZW, a citizen journalism platform in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Trevor Saruwaka, a member of the Zimbabwean parliament, got some good news this week: A court has just cleared him of “gathering with intent to promote public violence, a breach of the peace, or bigotry.” The serious-sounding charges stemmed from his participation in a September demonstration that was violently broken up by the government.
Just last week, Saruwaka was courting an entirely different sort of controversy, when security guards barred him from entering the parliament building to attend the body’s opening session. The cited reason will probably come across as absurd to anyone living outside our country: The lawmaker was wearing a jacket in the green, gold, red and black colors of the national flag. “I am shocked because I didn’t know it’s a criminal offense to be patriotic,” Saruwaka said.
Zimbabwe’s flag has become a symbol of protest since pastor Evan Mawarire accidentally founded the #ThisFlag movement earlier this year when a video of himself draped in the flag and lamenting the state of the country’s governance went viral on Facebook. In response, thousands of Zimbabweans have been inspired to speak up against the government by posting pictures of themselves with the flag. Mawarire’s intent was straightforward. He wanted to remind the government that Zimbabwe belongs to its people, and not to a particular political party.
Mugabe and the other members of his ruling ZANU-PF party were not amused. As the protests have continued, the regime has resorted to a rather desperate stratagem — they’ve essentially banned their own country’s flag. On September 20, Justice Ministry official Virginia Mabhiza warned citizens that using the flag without the government’s permission is punishable by a fine of $200 (in a country where the average citizen lives on just over $3 per day), a jail term of up to one year, or both. Mabhiza cited an obscure law that makes it illegal to “burn, mutilate or otherwise insult the national flag … in circumstances which are calculated or likely to show disrespect … or to bring [it] into disrepute.”
Needless to say, the law says nothing at all about how the government defines “disrespect” or “disrepute,” leaving vast leeway to the powers-that-be to interpret these criteria as they see fit.
In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the mere act of wrapping oneself in the national flag is now deemed an act of subversion. The Herald, a state-controlled newspaper, accused protesters of “using the flag to whip up political emotions against the constitutionally elected government.”
Pastor Mawarire was briefly arrested, but walked free after the government failed to make treason charges stick. He left Zimbabwe for South Africa, and now lives in the United States. The #ThisFlag movement has lost momentum since his departure — but other civic groups such as the Tajamuka Movement, which has been using social media to galvanize protests, have moved into the spotlight. The group’s leader, Promise Mkwananzi, told Reuters that the group has no intention of obeying the government’s restrictions. “It is total insanity that government should ban citizens from using their own flag,” he said. “We are going to continue to make use of our flag. It is our identity.”
Critics have dismissed the government’s ban as baseless. Fadzayi Mahere, a Harare-based lawyer, says that the regulations cited by the government don’t require citizens to seek its permission to “wear or possess the flag,” and that wearing, using, or possessing the national flag doesn’t constitute a criminal offense. “And even where sale and manufacture of the flag are concerned, no law bans these activities,” he added.
As I see it, the flag ban is attempt by Mugabe’s government to reclaim the upper hand in an environment where protests seem to have become the norm. What better way to slow down popular uprisings than to take away the symbol that unites the protestors?
Banning the flag may also make it easier for security forces to single out, arrest, and convict protesters. The government had been finding it hard to find justifiable reasons to imprison protesters, as the Zimbabwean constitution explicitly gives citizens the right to protest.
When Mugabe became the country’s first post-independence leader, one of his first responsibilities was to sign off on the design of the new national flag. It seems possible that that same flag will signal the end of the Mugabe era.
In the photo, Zimbabwean “ThisFlag” activists demonstrate in front of the Zimbabwean embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, on July 14.
Photo credit: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images