April 6 1986 – August 26 2020
“Where is my brother Itai?”
It was the painful, burning question that drove Patson Dzamara for the past five years of his life.
But the 34-year-old Zimbabwean activist, who was struggling to get the urgent treatment he needed for colon cancer, did not live to get an answer. He died this week.
Itai was abducted in March 2015 after coordinating months of small but relentless daily sit-ins in downtown Harare, where he would fearlessly hold up a sign that read “Failed Mugabe Must Step Down”. Such public criticism of the aging autocrat was almost unthinkable, and Itai and his small group of fellow protesters were frequently targeted by police.
Two years ago Patson told me that he hadn’t been very political prior to the abduction of his journalist-turned-activist brother, who was seized by unidentified men many — including Patson — believe were state security agents. The state denies involvement, and maintains that it has no knowledge of Itai’s whereabouts.
In his famous solo protest at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day celebrations in 2016, Patson walked out in front of many ruling party officials, including then-president Robert Mugabe, holding a banner spelling out his still-unanswered question: “Where is my brother Itai?”.
The banner also read: “Independent but not free”, referring to Zimbabwe.
He was bundled away by state security agents, and afterwards described how he had been assaulted and interrogated.
“This path was not his intention, but he became so enraged when his brother was disappeared,” said Rufaro Kaseke, an activist and film producer who travelled with Patson in the United States in 2016. “We would talk late into the night, and every conversation would somehow come around to Itai.”
While continuing to push the Zimbabwean state for answers about the fate of his brother, Patson became known as a powerful voice of dissent, fighting for democratic reforms and against the abuse of human rights.
“When Itai was abducted, Patson stepped up and became the representative of the family. But he didn’t remain just the family representative, he became an activist in his own right,” said Dirk Frey, who had protested alongside Itai.
This activism came at a great cost.
When we met, Patson narrated ordeal after ordeal — arrests, detentions, physical assault. He also described being surveilled — he nervously looked around even as we sat in a hotel cafe — and an incident in which he was sure his car had been tampered with.
Given the apparent threats against him and the grinding difficulties of daily life in the country, his determination — his certainty of the possibility of a better Zimbabwe — was particularly striking.
In an outpouring of sorrow on social media and beyond, Zimbabweans have remembered Patson’s humour, passion and bravery in standing up for the rights of Zimbabweans.
Nelson Chamisa, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance opposition party, of which Patson was a member of the national executive, said he was “devastated” by Patson’s death.
One of five children, of which Itai was the eldest, Patson grew up between Harare’s high-density suburbs and their rural home of Mutoko in Mashonaland East.
He wrote several books about leadership and was a motivational speaker and a committed Christian.
“He was a very loving and passionate person,” said Rutendo Mudzamiri, who is also a leadership coach. “He was extremely resourceful, funny, adventurous, loved music and simply loved all people.”
Patson stepped in as a caregiver and guardian for Itai’s two young children. When we first met, he arrived directly from their school prizegiving, joking that the keynote speaker had talked for so long that “he sounded like Mugabe”.
“Him being in their lives as their uncle did a lot – emotionally as well as materially,” said Frey.
“He was a smart person — intellectually — but he was also a quality guy. He was very modern,” recalled Kaseke. “I remember walking around Bryant Park [in New York] with him, as he marvelled at the architecture. He’d say, ‘What is stopping us from having an intersection like this?’ Patson had an idea, a vision for a modern Zimbabwe.”
Many hoped that the ousting of Mugabe in November 2017 by his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, would herald positive progress for the country.
Patson seized upon the moment to again press for answers about his brother and call for an independent inquiry into his abduction. But Patson also warned in an opinion piece for the Mail & Guardian that although the country had a different administration, “it is not new leadership”.
Nearly three years on, little of that hope remains as Zimbabweans battle serious crises on multiple fronts.
Patson’s own experience intersected with the country’s ongoing healthcare crisis. Public healthcare has effectively collapsed and private treatment is unaffordable for the majority of Zimbabweans.
A crowdfunder raised more than $14 000 in the days after Patson’s diagnosis was announced last week, but he died before enough was raised to cover the huge projected treatment bill of $28 000.
“Everything is broken down, and these are the results. We are struggling with healthcare, with mismanagement of healthcare funds, and Patson dies right at the peak of that,” said Kaseke.
“This struggle has eaten him, literally.”
Zoe Flood and Nichole Sobecki’s reporting in Zimbabwe was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.