The Zimbabwean political figure fighting for her country’s future
Inside a cramped cell at Zimbabwe’s infamous Chikurubi prison in January last year, a group of women took turns to speak.
Among them was Fadzayi Mahere, one of the country’s most prominent young opposition leaders.
Sitting on the cold, urine-stained concrete floor, she listened while her fellow inmates – many wearing the ill-fitting yellow tunics of convicted criminals – shared the reasons for their incarceration.
One by one, they listed violent assaults, armed robberies, and murders.
Then it was Mahere’s turn. “I tweeted,” she said, to the laughter of her cellmates.
The spokesperson for the country’s leading opposition party, then known as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, Mahere spent seven nights in pre-trial detention before being released on bail.
She was told that she stood accused of communicating falsehoods relating to several of her posts on social media, but only received an official charge sheet nearly 15 months later.
It was not Mahere’s first time in detention, but it was the longest, and the most difficult.
Held in a series of overcrowded, poorly ventilated and squalid cells – where mosquitos thrived and fleas clung to bloodstained blankets – she also contracted COVID during her incarceration.
“There’s a culture of stripping you of your dignity,” says Mahere, 36, explaining how prisoners in Chikurubi are forced to kneel before wardens when speaking to them and are prohibited from wearing a bra, or using a spoon when eating porridge.
“You’ve got all these women lapping porridge out of their fingers,” she adds as we speak more than a year after her imprisonment, her impeccable attire and perfectly manicured nails a stark contrast to the experience she describes.
Over the course of six years, Mahere has emerged as a vocal critic of the country’s ruling ZANU-PF party, previously led by the removed president Robert Mugabe and now headed by his long-time ally Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Her rapid ascent has placed her firmly in the firing line.
First as an independent parliamentary candidate and now a leading figure in Zimbabwe’s main opposition, Mahere calls out government incompetence and reported state abuses on a near-daily basis – also drawing on her expertise as a practising constitutional lawyer. She is widely recognised as one of Africa’s most promising young political leaders, as women – averaging 26 percent of those serving in national parliaments across sub-Saharan Africa – continue to face immense social, cultural and economic barriers to representation.
A digitally savvy communicator, Mahere has built a powerful online voice with more than half a million followers on Twitter alone. Sharing everything from motivational quotes to posts about spiralling inflation and violence against political activists, she also uses social media to amplify opposition party messages and announcements.
But Mahere’s January 2021 arrest and imprisonment was the first time she was directly targeted for her online activities.
The formal charge sheet she received in March 2022 alleges the crime of “communicating false statements prejudicial to the state”, adding that by posting these statements, Mahere “intended to incite public disorder or public violence” or “undermine public confidence in a law enforcement agency”.
The charges relate to tweets about a video shared online that shows a woman holding a limp baby and berating a police officer in the street. Bystanders can be heard shouting in Shona, “He’s killed the child!”
Initial reports online suggested that a police officer dispersing passengers at an illegal bus stop hit the woman and accidentally struck and killed the child.
In response to the video, Mahere shared posts strongly condemning police brutality. Like many others who posted about the viral footage, Mahere believed that the baby had died.
Within days of the incident, the police issued a statement. It rebutted online accounts suggesting the baby had died, saying that officers, while trying to arrest the crew of a commuter minivan for flouting COVID rules, smashed the windscreen of the vehicle. Although glass fell on the baby, the police said that neither the mother nor child had sustained injuries and that the force did not condone the officer’s actions.
Soon after the police released their statement, officers came looking for Mahere and her week-long detention began.
Police also arrested prominent journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition politician Job Sikhala on similar charges relating to the same incident.
Legal experts and rights groups have described these and other incidents as examples of the weaponisation of the criminal justice system to harass and intimidate government critics. The cases against Mahere and Sikhala may drag on, but Zimbabwe’s High Court in April 2021 quashed the charges against Chin’ono – who has been repeatedly detained and imprisoned – noting that the law used by police to arrest him no longer exists.
Putting the citizen first
These incidents are among a number that many say point to rising repression in Zimbabwe.
Despite a short flowering of optimism after the November 2017 removal of Mugabe – when Mnangagwa promised “a different, positive direction” and to open the country up politically and economically – the ruling party’s tactics began to look all too familiar.
In a display of brutal violence, in early August 2018, security forces shot at mostly peaceful demonstrators protesting the delayed release of election results. Six civilians were killed – including people not involved in the protests – and dozens more injured amid indiscriminate shooting in downtown Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.
Other subsequent protests and peaceful actions have also faced heavy crackdowns.
Mahere says she believes that a democracy should be free from political violence and that free speech and free assembly should be possible. She wants to see a Zimbabwe where people can have different views, and can “challenge the status quo, without that landing them in jail”.
In addition to documented incidents of human rights abuses over decades, the country has long been mired in a grinding economic crisis, with painfully high levels of unemployment, a continuing exodus of its citizens, and the near-collapse of publicly funded services and utilities.
Many observers say high-level corruption and misrule are to blame. The ruling party – backed by various regional leaders – often cites Western sanctions, first applied during the Mugabe era and now targeting specific ZANU-PF-linked individuals and companies, as a cause of Zimbabwe’s economic problems. According to a 2021 report from pan-African research network Afrobarometer, two-thirds of citizens surveyed attribute these woes to government mismanagement.
Zimbabweans often quip about their ability to “make a plan” in the face of so many challenges, but Mahere warns that the knack for finding solutions could be “our undoing”.
“The solution to the broken health system is not to fly to South Africa or the UK for medical care,” she says.
“The solution is to pay the doctors, ensure that we properly fund our healthcare sector, and make sure that we keep our best brains here.”
As an unelected figure in the opposition, Mahere’s political power does not yet stretch to implementing change through policymaking. (If she ever had such an opportunity, she says, one of her first priorities would be to try and improve conditions in the country’s prisons.)
For decades, Zimbabwe’s political opposition – in various incarnations – has tried to unseat the ruling party at the ballot box. Its leadership has repeatedly claimed victories in past polls, contesting certain results while citing flaws in the process, as well as noting the effect of state-led repression and manipulation.
Another showdown is fast approaching, with elections due in 2023. Mahere hopes that the country will vote for a new government that “will put the citizens first”. In March by-elections seen as a test run ahead of next year’s vote, Zimbabwe’s main opposition – now standing as the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) – won 19 out of 28 parliamentary seats. But many fear that the ruling party will fight to hold on to the control it has had over the state since independence in 1980.
‘Checking the scales’
As a successful lawyer with a Masters from the University of Cambridge, experience at the international courts in Arusha, Tanzania and The Hague, in the Netherlands, as well as an active practice in Harare, Mahere could have pursued a comfortable corporate path.
But friends describe her as someone who cannot stand by when she sees something unjust.
“You either sit back or you do something,” says David Drury, her lawyer and an early mentor. “Fadzayi is the ‘doing something’ person.”
As a constitutional lawyer, he says, basic human rights lie at the centre of her legal ethos. “They’re not just clever words … those rights – for Fadzayi and other people like her – have got real meaning and real application in Zimbabwe.”
Mahere grew up in a tight-knit, middle-class family in the suburbs of Harare, the second of four siblings. She shared a room with her sister Mudiwa, seven years her junior, who recalls Mahere back then as “very organised” and wanting things done “in a certain way”.
Mahere remembers the post-independence Zimbabwe of her childhood as “happy, hopeful” and “on the up”.
Schools were good, utilities reliable, and Harare’s neighbourhoods safe and clean.
“You could come from a family where your dad was a teacher and your mum a nurse, and you lived a decent life,” says Mahere, citing her own parents’ jobs at the time.
As the eldest daughter in a largely patriarchal and traditional society, Mahere also noticed how many more household tasks fell to her than to her brothers. She remembers beginning to develop a “sense of checking the scales” and her strong belief in human rights and the rule of law starting at a young age.
“I knew as early as 14 that I was going to be a lawyer,” says Mahere.
Nombi Domboka, 37, who attended one of Harare’s best private schools with Mahere and remains a close friend, remembers in their early high school years that she was a “joker” who was “always laughing”.
She recalls Mahere then becoming very serious ahead of her O-Level exams, which she took at 16.
“She had this briefcase-style bag, with the clips on the side, she’d wear her blazer every day, with neat shoes,” says Domboka, a visual artist and women’s rights activist.
Mahere flourished academically and with a talent for public speaking, she pursued law, moving overseas for work and further study before she returned home in 2011 to establish her own practice.
“I wanted my career to be one of impact and I felt that could be best achieved at home,” she recalls.
Her return coincided with a period of political power-sharing. Zimbabwe’s opposition had joined a unity government in 2009, established through negotiations after a period of state-sponsored election violence and political crisis the previous year.
A progressive constitution followed in 2013 that codified a wide range of rights, something that Mahere was keen to see in motion. She took on cases to protect threatened property rights and represented women on death row.
Thanks to dollarisation removing the spiralling local currency from circulation in 2009, Zimbabwe’s economy was starting to recover from one of the world’s worst episodes of hyperinflation, during which salaries lost value in real time and people struggled to buy even the basics. Mahere recalls there being a sense of progress in the air and wanting to be part of it.
In those days, Domboka remembers Mahere driving a car with a wing mirror stuck on with tape, a far cry from her current vehicle, a pristine SUV. “You could tell that things were just starting out,” Domboka says.
‘Doesn’t believe in failure’
As Mahere’s career picked up, so did her involvement in politics.
With Zimbabwe facing fresh crises in the latter years of the Mugabe era – when the leader was also once again in full control of the government following the 2013 election – she began to speak out.
The situation in the country was starting to get so bad again that “the lack of clean, potable water, the broken roads, the broken hospitals” affected everyone, whether unemployed or employed, and Mahere felt at a tipping point.
“I was so frustrated and bent on trying to speak out against what I believed was complete maladministration by the system,” she recalls.
In early 2016, Mahere became more involved in the citizen-led #ThisFlag movement which called for reforms and sought to hold the ruling party to account for the country’s troubles. For Mahere, a key issue was the government’s decision to issue “bond notes” to ease a cash shortage, which was causing people to queue for hours and even sleep outside banks. She argued that the introduction of these “bond notes” were unlawful, while others feared a return to hyperinflation.
Joining street protests against the currency measures in November 2016, Mahere was arrested for the first time and held overnight, along with friends and her sister, Mudiwa, an economic development activist.
By mid-2017, Mahere had announced plans to stand as an independent parliamentary candidate in the next elections.
With Mugabe forced out by his close allies – supported by the military – soon after, the July 2018 elections suddenly seemed to present an opportunity to do politics differently.
The first poll since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 not to feature Mugabe on the ballot ostensibly offered a chance to disrupt ruling party narratives. These had long celebrated the fighters of the liberation war of 1965 to 1979 in what was then Rhodesia, a conflict that killed tens of thousands of people.
Many leading ZANU-PF figures, including Mugabe and Mnangagwa, had played roles in the armed struggle against white-minority rule. Younger participants in the political space struggled to compete with tales of war heroics often presented as political validation.
In the run-up to the 2018 vote, as she canvassed for miles in the hot sun, Mahere told me we need “a new style of doing politics”.
Her slick, citizen-focused “Be The Change” campaign won supporters among Harare’s middle class – but also attracted lower-income voters living and working in the affluent Mount Pleasant constituency, who chatted with her and her team as they campaigned on its potholed streets.
“The foremost question people have is, ‘How do I know you’ll be different?’” Mahere said. “They think politicians are self-interested and in it for themselves.”
Mahere ran on a three-pillar platform of hope, accountability, and development. Standing outside of Zimbabwe’s traditional two-party system sent a strong message, but the positivity of the campaign was not enough to defeat the candidates from the two main parties.
“She was a bit disheartened at first, but she’s really strong,” recalls her 30-year-old sister Mudiwa. “She doesn’t really let things affect her for long.”
Domboka agrees. “She doesn’t believe in failure. She only believes in lessons.”
A party in turmoil
The campaign, however, which saw her bank more than 4,000 votes, did significantly lift Mahere’s public profile.
Using her growing platform, she continued to call out corruption and state excesses, and demand more competent professionals in government.
“We need new leaders” is a common sign-off to her posts.
A year after her parliamentary loss, Mahere moved a step closer to becoming one herself, joining the country’s main opposition – the MDC Alliance – in June 2019 as its Secretary for Education, Sport, Arts and Culture.
“It was one of the messiest decisions,” she says of her move into the chaotic, complex heart of party politics, which surprised some who hoped she would continue to occupy a middle ground between the two parties.
She feared losing her “essence” and not having as much control over “how things were moving”, but being part of a bigger team also meant a chance at bringing real change to Zimbabwe.
“Nobody’s going to come and rescue Zimbabwe from outside,” says Mahere. “None but ourselves are going to take us out of this mess.”
Less than a year after joining the MDC Alliance, whose members said they continued to face incidents of intimidation and arbitrary arrest, its leader Nelson Chamisa promoted Mahere to the prestigious national spokesperson role.
With the promotion came opportunity – and considerable challenges.
“I’ve had to use every single skill available to me, whether it’s oratory, whether it’s mental, whether it’s physical,” says Mahere, who continues to practise full-time as a lawyer.
Her days start early, often with weight training and an inspirational post to social media, and continue through a packed timetable.
But personal discipline alone cannot mitigate the challenges of joining an opposition party already in turmoil.
Losing its long-time leader Morgan Tsvangirai to cancer soon after Mugabe’s 2017 removal, the MDC Alliance was defeated in the 2018 presidential vote by Mugabe’s successor. Mnangagwa beat Chamisa by a razor-thin margin in the first round, although the European Union observer team later said “many aspects” of the elections “failed to meet international standards” citing concerns including over the misuse of state resources, and the intimidation and coercion of prospective voters.
Since then, the opposition has faced multiple obstacles, including internal strife, threats from breakaway factions and the loss of key funding, as well as criticism for their focus on leadership personalities over cohesive policy proposals.
“I think the opposition hasn’t seen a crisis like this in decades. There’s a drive by ZANU-PF, by the regime to really recreate a one-party state. They took our resources, they took our headquarters,” says Mahere.
When Chamisa and his core team, facing legal battles around the use of the MDC name, launched the CCC as a new party in January 2022, Mahere was at the heart of what she describes as a “restart” for the opposition.
Still, she describes herself as a political outsider.
“Fadzayi is at the forefront of a new political movement that is breaking away from liberation hero struggles and actually finding competent young people who just want good government policies and rule of law,” says Kuda Musasiwa, who worked on Mahere’s independent campaign team.
“She may be a bit ahead of her time sadly, but I think she is at the forefront of a generational shift.”
In small-town Harare, Mahere is approached everywhere, say friends.
“She’ll literally have a chicken wing in her mouth and someone will come over and say, ‘You’re my hero,’” Domboka says, describing Mahere as a “fun, light human being to be around”.
Widely admired, she also contends with high levels of scrutiny.
From online discussion about her Apple Watch to relentless questions about her personal life, scrutiny can translate into risks to her person.
Concern about their daughter’s safety was a major reason for Mahere’s parents’ initial lack of enthusiasm about her early activism.
“Like any parent in Zimbabwe, they were afraid that it would be dangerous, that politics is perceived to be dirty, that it could get in the way of my career,” says Mahere, whose father served as permanent secretary in the education ministry in the later years of the Mugabe era, a historic link to ZANU-PF raised repeatedly by some of Mahere’s opponents, although he occupied the role as a civil servant.
Some of those fears came to pass when she was imprisoned in Chikurubi, which her sister said devastated the family.
Mahere felt its effect on her parents particularly keenly.
“It’s not that I speak less, but I’m a lot more cautious and conscious of what I say,” she says. “Being on bail that many times, no matter how flimsy the charge is, the next time it could be more serious.”
Political space for women
Her imprisonment in Chikurubi came just six months after a third arrest, which she livestreamed on social media.
Mahere and six others had held a peaceful, walking demonstration in her neighbourhood to protest corruption and economic mismanagement. As they drank coffee afterwards at a nearby shopping centre, police descended. They were held overnight and released on bail facing charges including participating in a gathering with intent to promote public violence, the case against them ultimately collapsing.
Mahere is fatalistic about the risks she faces, drawing strength from her own Christian faith, while remaining, as one friend puts it, “very logical”. “If a bullet has my name on it, there’s nothing I’ll be able to do,” she says.
“The Zimbabwean political space is not easy nor is it safe for women. For any women, but especially young women,” says Chipo Dendere, assistant professor at Wellesley College in the United States with an expertise in African politics.
Dendere says her research shows that many women who are active in Zimbabwe’s politics are forced to exit online discussions in the face of name-calling that is often sexualising, or related to their appearance or marital status. According to Dendere, the name-calling is not limited to any part of the political spectrum.
“It is incredible – even though I often find myself holding my breath – to see Mahere remain active online and now offline in her role as party spokesperson,” says Dendere.
As well as the online harassment, “First female President!” is a regular comment under Mahere’s posts on social media.
But when asked about the future, Mahere says she is “literally focused on the 24 hours” ahead of her.
“My ambition, really, is to live a life of meaning. Make sure that whatever happens, win or learn, I’ve done my part,” she says, adding that she would consider standing in the 2023 elections if “the citizens ask me to”.
Mahere, who counts strong women across the political spectrum as heroes, from Hillary Clinton to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, references Margaret Thatcher when it comes to her work-life balance.
“Thatcher said you can have two things, not three, right? So work, politics, a personal life … pick two,” Mahere says, always quick to laugh when there is an opportunity.
When she can grab slivers of the third, Mahere’s sister says that she always tries to make time for her family.
Dendere says that Mahere has brought into the fold “many people who did not think there was room for them in activism”, particularly those who are young and middle-class.
“The more that’s done, the more women will come and step up, the more professionals will step up, the more young people will feel like they have space and they can be included,” says Mahere.
‘Roll with the punches’
More than a year after her initial arrest on charges that Amnesty International described as “malicious”, Mahere’s trial relating to her tweets – which was scheduled to start in June and finally began this week – continues to face delays.
Under her bail terms, she must report regularly to the police. She has had to surrender her passport and must apply to leave the country temporarily, depositing the document again upon her return.
“We’re living in a designed limbo land. And the only inference I can draw is that it is to maximise discomfort at all sorts of levels for Fadzayi,” says Drury.
But a series of experiences that would discourage many have only strengthened Mahere’s resolve.
“I became more fortified in my belief,” she says.
“Being a woman in politics is hard. But being a woman in politics in a patriarchal, repressive dictatorship is a million times harder,” Mahere adds. “You have to roll with the punches and make sure you swim – and remain standing.”
Reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.