When Evans Mawarire posted a video to YouTube lamenting the parlous state of his beloved Zimbabwe he was an unknown pastor. With the Zimbabwe flag wrapped around him, his “This Flag” video in April 2016 became a “rallying cry” for a country that only recently emerged from 37 years of rule by former president Robert Mugabe.
In a repressive country where much of the media is state-owned, being able to broadcast his “four-minute lament about what my country has become” was possible through the internet.
This video “changed my life completely,” Mawarire told the Oslo Freedom Forum, the global human rights conference held for the first time in Johannesburg, South Africa. The event has highlighted how the internet and decentralized technologies can help activists and human rights campaigners overcome oppressive regimes.
“Big problems facing humanity tend to impact tens of millions. These numbers are so vast they seem unthinkable,” said Thor Halvorssen, the founder of the forum, which is organized by the Human Rights Foundation. There are tens of millions of refugees in the world, while 220-million people are affected by natural disasters, some 780-million lack clean water and 834-million suffer under extreme poverty, he said.
“There is a massive correlation between those problems and authoritarianism. More than half of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule, suffering under tyrants, military juntas, absolute monarchs or elected dictators and despots. It is the single largest challenge affecting humanity. No such coordinated effort being waged against authoritarianism” unlike campaigns against natural disaster or diseases.
One of the technologies being highlighted is blockchain-based identity service Civic – created by South African Vinny Lingham – that allows for a person’s identity to be held by the person themselves. “You own it. You don’t get it from your government,” the forum’s Alex Gladstein told me. “It’s tremendously useful for stateless people or people who have been expelled from their country. What happens when they leave, especially in a hurry? They can’t take their records with them, their degree, their medical records. Many refugees end up in new countries will no record of their identity or their achievements.”
Technologies like blockchain and Civic enable us to “move to a place where you can own your identity”.
“We have fintech, agritech, why not demtech?” suggests Gladstein, for democracy tech. “Why not have a philosophy of investing in technology that does good for society? Not only will people make money investing in them, but also do good for human rights.”
Mawarire’s story is a triumph of using simple internet technologies like YouTube to mount a peaceful movement for change. “I was struggling to pay school fees for my children. I was struggling to look after my young family. It was a cry from the heart,” he said of why he did it.
Mawarire’s video, the first of 25 he would record, became an online movement that allowed Zimbabweans to rally against the corrupt regime of its liberation hero-turned-dictator Mugabe, who was ousted in November 2017 by the country’s military.
When he was first arrested in April 2016 a remarkable thing happened, he said. “Imagine that I had recorded that video out of love for my country but here I was charged with treason.” Outside the police station, “thousands of Zimbabweans gathered to demand my release. This was unprecedented. They stood firm in front of armed riot police.
“At the end of that night, people power prevailed. I was released. That event gave birth to a new vision,” he said. “From the grassroots a movement formed.”
People has realised that “after 37 years, the freedoms they were fighting for would be taken away by people they voted for. They have always had their dreams stolen by leaders of Zimbabwe,” but he believes: “No one can fight for Zimbabwe like a Zimbabwean can”.
As a pastor “I would teach people perseverance and hope because those are the only things people have left” when they are opposed, which was what he intended with his YouTube videos.
Mawarire fled the country with his wife and children, after they were threatened, but returned despite knowing he was likely to be arrested. He was thrown into jail for 17 months until he was acquitted last November after Mugabe’s former deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa became president following the military intervention.
“Mugabe the person is gone. Mugabe the system remains,” warns Mawarire. “Our [new] president keeps saying Zimbabwe is open for business. But the question we keep asking is: Is Zimbabwe open for freedom?”