Suspicions over Itai Dzamara’s disappearance fuel the current anti-Mugabe protests

It’s been close to 18 months since Zimbabwean journalist and activist Itai Dzamara disappeared while protesting against the Zimbabwean government.

His brother, Dr Patson Dzamara, argues that it was Itai’s one-man campaign that has led to the large-scale civil unrest currently taking place in the country.

Itai Dzamara has always been a leader. At a time when many Zimbabweans were comforted by the national mood — with a government of national unity that, it was hoped, would finally restore the country to its former glory — Dzamara stood up and refused to be fooled.

“Growing up, Itai was always inclined towards leading. He was a natural leader, and I think that also came with his position in the family — being the firstborn in a family of five,” Patson says.

Itai spearheaded a movement called Occupy Africa Union Square. The square is a short walk away from Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s office, the Constitutional Court and Zimbabwe’s Parliament.

It was here where Itai organised sit-ins and demanded Mugabe step down in favour of a pro-democracy government.

He was beaten by riot police and forced into an unmarked vehicle by five men on March 9 2015. Nobody has heard from him since.

“Until we see him walking, or we see his corpse or bones, we’re still going to hold on to hope, and we’re still going to pile pressure on Mugabe and his minions over what they did to Itai,” Patson says.

The Zimbabwean government has been heavily criticised for failing to adequately investigate what happened to Itai. Patson believes the abduction was orchestrated by Zanu-PF through its military intelligence agencies.

Itai’s disappearance and activism was a catalyst that has seen increased and visible protests against Mugabe in the country.

The journalist began his campaign in 2014 and was initially perceived as somewhat crazy.

“So many people did not understand him then, so many people did not understand the ramifications or the trajectory of whatever Itai was doing. But now we understand because everyone is speaking about the same things Itai was saying in 2014,” Patson says.

“The culture in Zimbabwe, the culture in Africa, is [that] opposition parties are the ones who apply pressure on the government,” he adds.

Since Itai went missing, Patson participated in demonstrations against the ruling Zanu-PF party and Mugabe.

In April 2016, he protested against Mugabe in the packed national sports stadium while the president was there.

He has been arrested and received beatings at the hands of state security police, but continued in the hope of securing his brother’s freedom, which he believes will help “liberate” Zimbabwe from its current state.

Although he knows he could be in danger, Patson refuses to hire a security detail, and still drives on his own when in Zimbabwe.

“What I am doing is not entirely limited to Itai. We have the bigger picture in mind. It’s now about a better Zimbabwe, inspired by the quest to find out what happened to Itai. To locate answers about what transpired, because that’s not the Zimbabwe we want,” Patson says.

This year has seen citizens shut down Zimbabwe as they demonstrated in a stay-away protest under the banner of the #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka movements. #ThisFlag leader, Pastor Evan Mawarire, has since left Zimbabwe, fearing for his safety.

Patson is disappointed in Zimbabweans who are angry with Mawarire, who has decided to settle in the United States.

“How can you, as a grown man with a beard, cry over another man? Do you not have a phone? Can you not take videos just as he did? Our political template of one man leading and the rest of us following is wrong.”

Mawarire, who began his campaign by posting selfie videos calling on Zimbabweans to take action against corruption in the country, posted his first video on the day of Patson’s protest at the stadium.

Patson says Mawarire has apologised to him, saying: “I’ve been neglecting you, my young brother; you’ve been fighting in solitude.”

More activists have risen under campaigns such as Tajamuka, but the younger Dzamara says that they are all connected to one another as long as they have the same demand: Mugabe must go.

“What we want right now is to decapitate this monster called Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF,” Patson says.

“I don’t belong to #ThisFlag; I don’t belong to #Tajamuka or Occupy. I belong to the struggle. Anyone and anywhere the struggle is happening, I am a part of that.”

Another stayaway is planned in Zimbabwe for this Friday, and on Wednesday, Zimbabweans in South Africa marched to the Zimbabwean embassy in Pretoria to show solidarity.

Despite criticism of the South African government’s lack of intervention in Zimbabwe, Patson says the country has done enough to support Zimbabwe through trade and providing an alternative home to many Zimbabweans.

“It’s not about South Africa. If anything, we must appreciate South Africa for what they have done for Zimbabwe,” Patson says.

“They don’t owe us anything. We are the people who are supposed to do something about our situation.”

And citizens have arguably taken up the cudgels to agitate for change in recent months.

Fear marks any protest action in Zimbabwe, as a result of the government’s generally violent response towards any act of discontent with the country’s leadership.

But the protest movements aren’t perfect, Patson says, with there being too much gossip and focus around trivialities such as how many wives a leader has or a leader’s wealth.

“It’s quite unfortunate that our people have a very weird propensity towards romanticising nonsensical things — things that do not matter at all.

“Instead of focusing on things that do matter, they talk about stupid trivialities. That’s what has precipitated the disunity. Our enemy is but one: Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF,” Patson says.

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, has stated that he believes Mugabe and the country’s security agencies are responsible for Itai’s disappearance.

In 2015 the Zimbabwean vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, told Parliament that he could not confirm whether Itai Dzamara had been arrested or was in government detention.

The country’s higher education minister, Jonathan Moyo, has said that he does not know what happened to the journalist.

“I’ve said I do not have any information whatsoever about that matter, and that’s my honest and final truth,” Moyo said.

But Patson said the family has information that points to Itai being detained by the state. Photographs released by the Dzamara family, circulated in May 2016, show a man believed to be Itai, with his hands tied behind his back, sitting on the floor, with a white cloth wrapped around his head like a bandage.

The whereabouts of Itai, a husband and father of two, are still undetermined.

His family strongly believes that he is alive. Tellingly, Dzamara speaks of his brother in the present tense.

“The idea for a revolution, for transformation, for change has descended on Zimbabwe. Mugabe and his minions cannot do anything about that,” Patson says. 

Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.
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