“If we cannot cause the politician to change, then we must inspire the citizen to be bold,” said Pastor Evan Mawarire, founder of Zimbabwe’s #ThisFlag movement, at the Atlantic Council on Wednesday, August 17.
Mawarire gave his remarks draped in a Zimbabwean flag, the symbol of the movement. “We are rising up to say that our government has failed us. We’re not afraid anymore to raise our voices, because it is the truth. […] the Zimbabwean citizens are the missing voice that has not been present in the timeline of building Zimbabwe.”
In April 2016, Evan Mawarire, a previously unknown Zimbabwean pastor, inadvertently launched the #ThisFlag movement by posting a video on social media calling the government to account for corruption, injustice, and poverty.
“I thought to myself [that] this flag makes a promise to me as a Zimbabwean. But what the promise stands for and the state of my nation are so far apart. I felt like this flag was a fraud.” He added, “I’m not a man of vast educational assumptions. But I do know when I’m hungry. But I do know when I can see that my future is being destroyed.”
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has been in power for thirty-six years, a tenure characterized by corruption, economic mismanagement, and gross human rights violations. At the age of ninety-two, President Mugabe is failing to unite warring factions within his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party (ZANU-PF) as an internal succession battle rages. The opposition is splintered, and the country struggles with an acute cash crisis.
Mawarire’s campaign has sparked an unprecedented surge in citizen activism amid rising social discontent, leading to a spate of protests across the country. On July 6, a nation-wide stay-away day led by #ThisFlag shut down foreign banks and most businesses in the country’s capital, Harare. The protest was commended as one of the largest and most peaceful in nearly a decade.
Several days later, Mawarire was arrested on spurious charges, but later released by a magistrate following a spontaneous mass demonstration outside the courthouse.
Mawarire temporarily left the country in July following several public threats from Mugabe. Speaking on Wednesday, Mawarire responded to these threats, saying “Nobody, absolutely nobody, including the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, can ban me or any other citizen from home for standing up for what we believe.”
The Mugabe regime has sought to delegitimize #ThisFlag with accusations alleging that the movement is funded by Western countries.
“What is so ‘western-funded-and-founded’ about the fact that I can’t send my kids to school? […] What is so ‘western-funded’ about the fact that they [the Mugabe regime] looted the funds of the people?” asked Mawarire, dismissing the accusations.
Mawarire’s passionate remarks came in the wake of the continued crackdown in Zimbabwe on Wednesday morning. Police in Harare turned water cannons and tear gas on peaceful activists protesting the introduction of ‘bond notes’, a new currency that the government purports will address the country’s financial woes. Several protesters were beaten and sustained severe injuries.
“We want our government to know that they [can] beat us some more, they will jail us some more, but we will only get stronger. We are not going to stop,” said Mawarire.
The rise in social media activism has clearly shaken the regime, and it has come at a time when ZANU-PF has its back to the wall. The government coffers are empty, and the Chinese—who are fondly known as ‘all weather friends’ of Zimbabwe—have remained curiously silent in the wake of the recent crisis. Alleging that social media activism constitutes cyber terrorism, lawmakers allied with Mugabe hurriedly drafted a ‘cyber crime’ bill in an attempt to impede the movement.
The future of the movement is uncertain, but it is clear that it has ignited something unique in Zimbabwe. Mawarire agrees. “We haven’t seen this passion since the war of liberation,” he said.
Reflecting on the impact of the #ThisFlag movement, Mawarire concluded “we have unified Zimbabweans and raised their voices. And to me, that is victory.”