Over the past two months tensions have been rising in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans took to the streets to voice their concerns and raise awareness of numerous issues in the country. At the forefront of this protest stands Harare based Pastor Evan Mawarire, the face of the #ThisFlag movement, who began the movement for social awareness with a single post on social media.
On 20 April Pastor Mawarire posted a video on his Facebook page wearing a Zimbabwean flag around his neck. In the video, which has been viewed almost 170 000 times, Mawarire said, “When I look at the flag it’s not a reminder of my pride and inspiration. It feels as if I just want to belong to another country. […] And so I must look at it again with courage and try to remind myself that it is my country.” The video sparked a large social media response with hundreds of people posting pictures of themselves wearing the Zimbabwean flag. In reaction to the overwhelming response he began five days of digital activism from 1 May using the hashtag ThisFlag. The action was then extended to 25 days, ending on Africa day on 25 May. In a video posted on his Facebook page Mawarire said, “The 25th is not when we stop but when we start, where we start to push them to accountability. The last 25 days have been us waking up, us knowing that we all have these frustrations. […] A lot of people have got to a place where, like me, they didn’t know what to do, but they really just want Zimbabwe to work.”
On 1 July protesters shut down the Beitbridge border post, close to the town of Musina in Limpopo province, over new import restrictions introduced by Zimbabwe. The new import laws, which restrict the importation of basic items such as jam and bottled water, affect both sides of the border. Speaking to eNCA, International Cross-Border Traders Association representative Dennis Jeru said of the restrictions, “If the situation continues there will be a total shutdown in Musina as most businesses rely on buyers from Zimbabwe. Without Zimbabwean clients, Musina will cease to be active.”
On 5 July fourteen unions representing civil servants, including doctors and workers in the health sector, went on strike after their June salaries were not paid. The first national shutdown in Zimbabwe happened the following day. Zimbabweans answered social media calls made by Mawarire to stage a peaceful protest and close all schools and businesses in the country. According to a BBC article titled “Zimbabwe shutdown: What is behind the protests?” this strike was the biggest strike action since 2005. According to the same article the protests were caused by a 90% unemployment rate, strict limits on the amount of money people can withdraw from banks and a severe drought that has led to Zimbabweans being unable to feed themselves.
Zimbabwe’s telecommunications regulatory body issued a public notice warning users that they were being closely watched, were “easily identified” and would be “dealt with accordingly”. The public notice explained that any person caught sharing “abusive” or “offensive” messages would be arrested. This notice came after WhatsApp and other communications were shut down in the country on the morning of 6 July.
Encouraging citizens to go ahead with a second national shut down, Mawarire tweeted on 8 July, “In the face of intimidation, abductions and arrests we are determined to be builders of a better Zimbabwe than the one we have #ThisFlag.”
On 12 July Mawarire was called to appear before police for questioning, however, shortly before 11:00 am a tweet was posted on Mawarire’s Twitter account which said, “Pastor Evan Mawarire is being charged with section 36 for inciting public violence and disturbing peace.” These charges were later changed to subverting a constitutional government in contravention of Section 22 (2) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
Mawarire was released on 13 July when the court found the charges pressed by the state were in violation of the Constitution. Zimbabweans were singing and praying outside the court the entire day and approximately 100 lawyers had showed up to represent Mawarire.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe denounced Mawarire, accusing him of being sponsored by foreign governments. During an address at the funeral of Charles Utete, the country’s first black cabinet secretary, Mugabe said in reference to Mawarire, “A man of religion will speak the biblical truth. 1 Corinthians what does it say? Love one another […] So beware these men of cloth, not all of them are true preachers of the Bible.” He went on to say, “I don’t know whether they are serving God […] We spell God double G.O.D, they spell God in reverse.””
In an unexpected move, The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA), a prominent supporter of Mugabe for decades, said that they will “no longer back President Robert Mugabe in elections”. The group said in a statement, “We note, with concern, shock and dismay, the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle,” and, “He [President Mugabe] has a lot to answer for the serious plight of the national economy.”
Speaking to Perdeby, former Minister of Education, Sport, and Culture of Zimbabawe, David Coltart, who is a member of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said of the decision by the ZNLWVA, “The war vet statement is one of the most significant events in recent Zimbabwean history. It was they who brought Mugabe to power in Mozambique in 1975 and without their support Mugabe will be deprived of a disciplined body of men who have been the backbone of Zanu PF for decades.” He added that he was not sure whether the #ThisFlag movemement would evolve into something else, such as a political party, but said that he hoped that #ThisFlag would “challenge opposition leaders to get their act together”.
Speaking to eNCA on 19 July, Mawarire explained his role in the protests, saying,“Part of what I’m advocating for as a young person and I do so openly, is that it is time for new ideas to enter the political fray of our country. There’s no doubt about the fact that we have recycled the same people and the same ideas for a long time. It is time for us to think differently […] The elders dreamt about a Zimbabwe when they went to war. They’ve laid the foundation.
Image: Pastor Evan Mawarire’s Twitter page