UPDATE: July, 27 ― Evan Mawarire said on July 26 he will not return to Zimbabwe from South Africa out of fears for his and his family’s safety. Amnesty International warned that the pastor’s life is at risk.
The greatest challenge to Zimbabwe’s aging, autocratic President Robert Mugabe in years started with a viral video.
Over the years, 92-year-old Mugabe and his henchmen have crushed protests, regime defectors and the political opposition.
Yet, the regime is now struggling to counter a social movement ignited by a charismatic pastor who advocates for non-violence and cites India’s Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration.
Evan Mawarire, a 39-year-old pastor in the capital city Harare, was best known for his videos giving marriage and relationship advice until April, when he posted a patriotic rant online that set Zimbabwean social networks on fire.
Mawarire, struggling to pay the school fees for his two daughters, says he was fed up with the injustice, corruption and poverty ruining the lives or ordinary Zimbabweans. The country had just celebrated independence day, and the sight of the national flag in his office made Mawarire think about the broken promises it symbolized.
“They tell us that the green is for the vegetation and for the crops. I don’t see any crops in my country,” Mawaire said in the cellphone video, which racked up 100,000 views in five days. “They tell me that the black is for the majority, people like me, and yet for some reason I don’t feel like I am a part of it.”
“This flag. It’s your flag. It’s my flag.”
The video hit a nerve. People began to respond by posting pictures of themselves wrapped in the Zimbabwean flag using the hashtag #This Flag and sharing the slogan “we’ve had enough, we are not afraid” in the local language Shona. In May, Mawarire urged people to carry the national flag with them everywhere they went for a week. Earlier this month, #ThisFlag activists organized the largest national stay-at-home boycott in a decade.
As the peaceful civil disobedience continued, supporters on social media made comparisons between Mawarire and Gandhi, whose philosophy of non-violent resistance helped unravel decades of British colonial rule in India.
“There is nothing wrong with learning from people like Gandhi, because they achieved a lot of things in pushing the non-violent aspect of things,” Mawarire told the Zimbabwe Independent weekly. “If we use violence we send a message that it’s okay to destroy.”
“This government has been using violence over the years and if we fight violence with violence, the result will be more violence,” he added.
The protests caught on with Zimbabweans tired of long years of state-sponsored-violence, crippling poverty and high unemployment in the country.
After nearly three decades as president, Mugabe is clinging to power, and his 50-year-old wife Grace, tipped as a possible successor, last month warned that Mugabe would continue to rule the country from beyond the grave.
Since Mugabe was once again declared the winner of contested elections in 2013, the country has plunged back into economic crisis after a few years of reprieve. His government, facing severe currency shortages, has restricted cash withdrawals, banned imports of many goods and repeatedly delayed payment of civil servants’ salaries, leading to strikes. The economic hardship been exacerbated by the worst drought in decades wiping out crops.
The #ThisFlag movement has been propelled by a generation of social media-savvy Zimbabweans who organized protest actions on messaging and web apps, analysts say.
Zimbabwean authorities have tried to quash the movement. Police have crushed demonstrations with brutal force. A government official warned that strikers would face “the full wrath of the law.” Messaging apps inexplicably went dark on the day of the largest protest earlier this month.
Mawarire, who says he has received threats since the video was released, was arrested and charged with inciting public violence on July 12. His supporters, fearing Mawarire might suddenly disappear like other activists, released a pre-recorded video in which Mawarire urges people to continue without him. “Maybe we shall see each other again. Maybe we shall never see each other again,” Mawarire says in the video. “Maybe we succeeded, or maybe we failed. Whatever the case, you and I have stood to build Zimbabwe.”
Mawarire, however, appeared in court on Wednesday, where over 100 lawyers showed up offering to defend him for free. Hundreds of his supporters spent all day praying, singing and dancing outside the Harare courthouse, under the watchful gaze of riot police.
By nightfall, Mawarire walked free. A magistrate (whom Zimbabweans on social media described as “brave”) threw out the government’s case because prosecutors changed the charge against Mawarire after his arrest, from inciting violence to attempting to overthrow the government, which carries up to 20 years in jail.
“We are not backing down any more,” Mawarire told the cheering crowd outside the court, many of them holding candles and draped with the Zimbabwean flag.
“The government intimidates us, they arrest us and they scare us into keeping quiet, and we are saying we are done with that,” he said. “If you touch one of us, you are touching all of us.”
On Friday, Mawarire posted a video assuring people he was safe after a truck of unidentified men showed up at his house looking for him. He left for South Africa over the weekend, but insists he is on a pre-planned work trip and hasn’t fled the country.
Meanwhile, Mugabe on Tuesday accused Mawarire of supporting violent protests and being sponsored by foreign powers.
The pastor remains convinced that non-violent action can change the country’s future prospects. Since his release, he has kept up a steady stream of videos calling for more protests as well as voter registration and education campaigns ahead of planned 2018 elections.
“Our voice is our weapon. Never, never keep quiet, because that is how you build a country. No violence, no inciting, just using our voice,” Mawarire said in a video to supporters Saturday.
“You make everyone proud to be Zimbabwean,” he said, the national flag draped over his shoulders.