Dream beyond the walls that hold you back

Evan Mawarire encourages southern Africa’s brightest minds to reflect on the value of freedom at Canon Collins Annual Scholars Conference

Every year, the Canon Collins Scholars’ Conference creates a forum for over 120 scholarship recipients to deepen their engagement with current critical issues, in the continued effort to build a robust network of change agents committed to social justice. It is a truly interdisciplinary, international gathering of young academics from ten different countries, studying for degrees across fifteen fields.

Following consultations with scholars, 2019’s conference was used as a space to collectively explore the voices resisting social injustice. To facilitate scholars engagement on what ‘resistance’ means for their field of research and themselves, a number of actors from civil society and academia who have blazed a trail in their voicing of resistance were invited to speak.

The keynote address was delivered by Zimbabwean pastor and democratic activist, Evan Mawarire. He came to prominence during the 2016–17 Zimbabwe protests that challenged the rule of Robert Mugabe’s government. His movement #ThisFlag was founded with the intention of removing the government of President Robert Mugabe and is considered by some as the most influential civilian-led political movement in Zimbabwe’s history. Mawarire urged the people of Zimbabwe to stay away from work in protest of the appalling levels of poverty that citizens had become subjected to. In late 2017, Mawarire was acquitted by a Zimbabwe court where he faced a 20-year prison sentence if convicted for allegedly trying to overthrow Robert Mugabe.

Today he faces new charges holding a possible 20 year sentence of trying to overthrow the government. Permission to speak at the conference had to be obtained by giving the police the title deed of his parents’ house as a guarantee that he would return from South Africa.

In a deeply personal exhortation to the multi-disciplinary audience of southern Africa’s brightest minds, he encouraged them that “freedom is not something you are given for free. You must demand it. You must risk something for it or it’s not real freedom. Every generation must pay the price of their freedom. That’s why it’s called a struggle.”

At a time, where so many pursue personal affluence over public interest and universal freedoms, Pastor Mawarire encouraged scholars and alumni to have a cause you can give yourself to, “pursue that cause beyond a paycheck. It’s what will change the world. Nobody will fight for you – be present for your struggle. The struggle cannot be subcontracted. You must be part of your own search for freedom.”

The arrest of seven civil society leaders and practitioners between 20 and 27 May 2019, in the days before the conference, on their return from a capacity building workshop in the Maldives, raised the possibility that the Pastor may face re-arrest upon his return to Zimbabwe. This concern hung over the entire two days of the proceedings and reverberated through everything he said, in particular his appeal to scholars to “deal with the fact that it may cost you your life.”

Participants take away from his powerful address and companionship to the scholars over the course of the conference a deeper appreciation of the value of freedom. It must be emphasised that his resistance, like that of the Zimbabwe 7 has never been violent. Whether through civil society structures or social movements theirs is the sustained use of nonviolent action by civilians. It is a powerful way for people to fight for their rights, freedom, and justice – without directly harming (or threatening to harm) an opponent. This organized civic pressure approach, usually done through strikes, protests, demonstrations, boycotts, amongst others is about empowering citizens to self-organise and participate more in issues to do with their welfare. It is distinct from civil disobedience, which thrives on intentionally breaking the law to achieve civic goals.

Other keynote speakers at the conference included Rekgotsofetse Chikane, author of Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation: The Politics Behind #MustFall Movements and Sarita Ranchod, Director of Under the Rainbow, a social justice organisation that advances women and girls’ rights, operating locally, regionally and globally, with a particular interest in sexual and gender-based violence.