February 10 marks 14 years since leading Zimbabwe cricketers Andy Flower and Henry Olonga took the brave decision to protest against the policies of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party.

On February 10, 2003, Flower and Olonga wore black armbands during Zimbabwe’s World Cup pool game against Namibia at Harare Sports Club to protest against what they deemed an unjust and repressive system as well as the economic and political woes ravaging their country.

Death of democracy

Flower and Olonga released the following statement:

“In all the circumstances, we have decided that we will each wear a black armband for the duration of the World Cup. In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe. In doing so we are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. In doing so, we pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our nation.”

14 ago Zimbabwe cricketers Andy Flower and Henry Olonga took the brave decision to protest against the policies of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party. Photo: AFP/Desmond Kwande)

After Zimbabwe crossed over to main World Cup host South Africa for the rest of their campaign, Flower did not return to the country, fearing for his safety and that of his young family.

Olonga remained in Zimbabwe for three weeks, but would later follow Flower to England after claiming to have received death threats.

Zimbabwe cricket slide

It marked the beginning of the slow demise of Zimbabwe cricket, a spark plug that ignited the ruins seen today in a game that used to be a bright shining light in the troubled Southern African country.

Flower was a world-class player, the world cricketers association’s International Cricketer of the Year in 2001, one of the finest batsmen of his era and simply Zimbabwe’s best player in history.

Besides being a premier fast bowler for the team, Olonga was a historic player for Zimbabwe – the first black person to represent the country at full international level.

The pair’s statement released in Harare 14 years ago had been co-authored by human rights lawyer David Coltart, an opposition politician who would later become a cabinet Minister in Zimbabwe’s coalition government of 2008 to 2013.

  Brains behind

“The meeting I remember most clearly was in David Coltart’s study, at his home, and we sat down and wrote the statement,” Flower would later reveal in an interview.

“We sat down and wrote the statement, obviously, David Coltart was more eloquent that either Henry or I, and it was important that the language we used in the statement was the right sort of language to get our message across.

Andrew Flower and Henry Olonga receiving the Wisden Almanack sportsmen of the year award in 2003 for the black armband protest. Photo: Henry Olonga/Facebook

“So David, with the input from Henry and I, sort of wrote and edited the statement and I do believe it was David who came up with the idea of having a symbol.

“The black armband was traditionally a symbol of mourning or paying respect to someone, but in this instance it was mourning the death of democracy in our country, and we wanted that message to go to the media and to go out to those who might listen around the world; that democracy was dying in our country, and because of that, human rights abuses were occurring.”

Reliving the protest

In 2013, both Flower and Olonga gave the BBC an interview and relived their protest.

“I thought Henry might grab the concept and have the courage of his convictions to take a stand,” adds Flower. “I also thought the fact that it would be one white Zimbabwean and one black one operating together gave the message the most eloquent balance,” said Flower.

Olonga said:  “I had in my own naivety thought that I could carry on in Zimbabwe – maybe my career would come to an end but I could still live there. But that all changed when I got death threats two or three weeks after the World Cup. It became very clear that they had it in for me after the World Cup. I realised the game was up.”

Flower and Olonga received widespread global plaudits for their brave action.

Contrasting fortunes

But their lives in exile would go different ways.

Flower became a successful coach for England’s national team, among his achievements being guiding the “Three Lions” to Ashes wins over great rivals Australia and winning the 2010 World Twenty20 in the Caribbean.

In 2011, the Harare-raised Flower was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for service to sport.

On the other hand, for Olonga, cricket at the highest level was over following the black armband protest.

Cover of Henry Olonga’s book Photo: Henry Olonga/Twitter

Olonga, who was born in Zambia to a Kenyan father and Zimbabwean mother, turned to music and public speaking while overseas.

The contrasting fortunes of the two have not gone down well with Victor Olonga, the cricketer’s less famous but abundantly talented older brother.

Victor Olonga, the different off-spring

Victor Olonga – a much-revered Zimbabwe rugby captain in his prime – is an outspoken critic of western ideas, culture and policies.

The older Olonga was playing club rugby in the UK at the time his brother arrived from Zimbabwe. To this day, he strongly believes his brother shouldn’t have been involved in the protest.

This is what Victor told this writer in 2009 after returning home to set base in the family’s hometown of Bulawayo: “The armband thing, I believe there was another way to do it than to embarrass leaders. I don’t think it was the right way to do it. I told Henry when he came over to England that what he did was not in his best interests. It did not help him. It helped Flower. Flower knew where he was going and should have advised Henry properly. He’s coach of England now. And where is my brother?”

14 years on, has the famous Flower-Olonga protest helped achieved what it aimed to achieve? With Zimbabwe facing similar socio-economic challenges as from 14 years ago, the answer is no.

Setting an example  

But it doesn’t take away the impact of that statement. The dissenting voices of Flower and Olonga will echo forever and has perhaps stirred on more and more such form of protests.

Zimbabwean Pastor Evan Mawarire addresses students during a lecture at Wits University in Johannesburg, on July 28, 2016. Photo: ANP/ AFP Mujahid Safodien

Last July, Evan Mawarire, the pastor who has fallen foul of the Zimbabwean government for leading unique protests in the country, took his fight to the cricket ground during New Zealand’s tour of Zimbabwe.

In the second Test match in Bulawayo, Mawarire successfully called on fans to wave the national flag and sing the national anthem at the 36th over of the game. He said the gesture signified a protest of 36 years of misrule by President Mugabe’s administration.

As for Flower and Olonga, the two iconic Zimbabwean cricketers were genuinely concerned about their safety in a country they so love, forcing them to leave and prematurely end their careers.

Low-key homecoming

Years later, such fear has diminished, but without retracting the pair’s stance on the situation obtaining in their homeland.

Olonga hasn’t been back home since the protest 14 years ago, but in interview in Australia (where he lives with his Aussie wife and children) two years ago, he said he believes nothing will happen to him if he were to return.

Flower made a quiet homecoming late last year. He was guest speaker at a fundraising dinner in Harare for prestigious private boarding school.  He told reporters he had also come back to show the country to his children, who were young when the family left.

He left the country as quietly as he had come, a much low-key event than 14 years ago when world media put the spotlight on him and his mate Henry Olonga.