Pastor Evan Mawarire was sitting at his desk in Harare, worrying about how he was going to pay his children’s school fees, when something inside him snapped.
The Zimbabwean, who isn’t paid a salary by the church, decided to film himself venting his frustrations with the Zimbabwean flag around his neck, explaining to camera: “When I look at the flag it’s not a reminder of my pride and inspiration, it feels as if I want to belong to another country.”
The pastor then posted the video using the hashtag #ThisFlag, and it quickly racked up tens of thousands of hits, with other users posting their own messages to the Zanu-PF party, led by president Robert Mugabe, which has been in power for more than 35 years.
Speaking from his home in Harare, Mawarire says he has been shocked by the reaction, which he described as “like an avalanche”. Some fellow social media users started posting pictures of themselves wrapped in the flag on his Facebook page. Others wrote to say that he had expressed the feelings that they were too scared to vocalize. He responded to the widespread enthusiasm by declaring five days of digital activism using #ThisFlag, which was then extended to 25 days by popular demand.
For Mawarire, this is just the beginning. “The 25th [of May] is not when we stop but when we start to push [the government] to accountability,” he said. “A lot of people got to a place where, like me, they don’t know what to do, but they really want Zimbabwe to work,” he added. He said his country had become “completely broken because people like me have stayed quiet”.
Mawarire accepts there is a long way to go before they can expect change in the government. Belying his age and reportedly ailing health, Mugabe, the 92-year-old ‘president for life’, continues to cling to power, while stifling dissent and political opposition. The economy has run out of US dollars and has almost ground to a halt, while the government’s plan to resurrect the Zimbabwean dollar has been widely criticized.
Unemployment is high, corruption is rife and the country’s once-heralded health and education sectors are in tatters. But complaining is a dangerous business for citizens. While there was a rare opposition march in the capital last month, activists say they are routinely targeted by authorities. More than a year ago, Itai Dzamara, a prominent critic of Mugabe was abducted and his whereabouts is still unknown.
Mawarire says: “I couldn’t lie to you and say that I feel completely safe. I don’t have enough resources to hire a security team or equipment. The only safety [net] I have is my fellow citizens.” One night, he says he received a phone call from an anonymous man who warned that “the flag around your neck can strangle you”. He adds: “I tried not to show fear, so I told him [that] if he was going to strangle me, he would be there already, not on the phone.”
‘A pastor’s fart’
Officially, the government has mocked the digital campaign. On Twitter, higher education minister Jonathan Moyo dismissed the movement as nothing more than a “pastor’s fart in the corridors of power”, and accused Mawarire of using it to make money and boost attendance at his church. Moyo went on to describe #ThisFlag supporters as “nameless, faceless trolls”, and initiated his own social media campaign, #OurFlag, which hasn’t been adopted with nearly as much enthusiasm.
“The first contact that I had with ministers was very hostile,” says Mawarire. “It was: ‘Oh please keep quiet’, ‘oh please, you’re trying to get popular’, ‘you’re trying to drive people to your church’. Their response [has shown] the exact problem we’re dealing with.” Mawarire insists that he is nonpartisan and has no ties to any political parties. He argues that politicians from across the spectrum have failed Zimbabwe – not just the ruling Zanu-PF.
This hasn’t stopped opposition parties from capitalizing on the discontent, however. Last week, two opposition MPs were ejected from parliament for wearing the Zimbabwean flag around their necks in homage to the movement. Mawarire insists he is not pushing for revolution or regime change. Instead, he wants to remove the fear that keeps Zimbabwe’s citizens from speaking out, to give them the space to confront their problems and hold their government to account.
- Allison, S (2016) ‘The man behind #ThisFlag, Zimbabwe’s accidental movement for change’