The man who has become the face of the #ThisFlag campaign in Zimbabwe says he is just one of many voices seeking change
President Robert Mugabe publicly denounced Pastor Evan Mawarire, who became a national hero by starting the #ThisFlag social media campaign to highlight the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans who were starving because of dire socioeconomic conditions.
He was arrested and then released after 100 lawyers came to his aid, offering to represent him for free. “The role that Zimbabwe’s citizens played [to get him released] made them the real heroes. I saw thousands of people waiting for me when I was released, and this just proved that this movement is here to stay,” he told City Press on Saturday.
The pastor attributes his political consciousness to the leadership programme he was involved in when he was just 16 years old.
“The government runs a ‘children’s parliament’ that celebrates June 16 in memory of what happened in South Africa. The programme has everything, from a president to Cabinet ministers, and I was a part of it.
“In 1993, I was selected to be a child member for this parliamentary programme for my area, and I ended up becoming the president for that term. Even though it was a mock parliament, it raised awareness about relevant issues and was aimed at helping us to learn and recognise the rights of children.”
So when he observed the suffering of his community a few months ago, Mawarire expressed his outrage via an online video that he posted on social media using the colours of Zimbabwe’s flag to argue his points.
He accessed images of hope and freedom that the flag meant to symbolise and juxtaposed this with how the government was now failing the nation’s aspirations, symbolised by the flag.
The video, which was posted on his Facebook page on April 20, has to date been viewed 170 531 times and forwarded to millions. Its popularity gave rise to the #ThisFlag movement.
Mawarire did not expect to be harassed by state security agents just for speaking out against injustices.
“We are allowed constitutionally to challenge our government and raise our voices. As a pastor, the word of God holds me to challenge these injustices, particularly for the poor, for the widows and for the downtrodden,” he said.
Born in 1977, Mawarire was raised in Glen Norah, a high-density township in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, where he grew up in a modest home with five siblings.
“My parents were civil servants who worked for the government their whole lives,” he said.
“My father enrolled me in a rural school after not performing well at the Prince Edward High School. This really woke me up to realities of life I wouldn’t have experienced.”
After completing his O levels, Mawarire studied a vehicle electrics course with the Harare Institute of Technology for about two years. He then moved on to become a youth trainer at a church.
“I ended up going to Bible school, where I did a leadership training course with Celebration College. I then became a youth councillor and eventually a pastor for a church in London for almost three years [2007 to 2010].”
He returned to Zimbabwe in 2010 where he and his wife looked after a Celebration Church congregation.
He said the #ThisFlag movement had garnered mass support and achieved its objective because it was meant to “register the citizens’ voice, the voice of discontent and the voice of holding government to account”.
“The citizens of Zimbabwe have shaken the government in terms of showing that we can see what is being done and we are demanding things to change,” he said.
“This movement is not housed in a building. It is an idea that is within Zimbabweans, and that is why people identify with it. For Zimbabweans, it’s personal and not about following an individual. This is about a better Zimbabwe that lives in the hearts of us all.”
But Mawarire has been left shaken and scared by the experience. As a result, he told City Press that he has resolved to stay in South Africa, depending on the situation back home.
“It’s important that people understand that I am not running away from Zimbabwe. I travel to South Africa regularly for my own personal and church business. But because of my arrest, there has actually been a disturbance.
“I have to rethink my return to Zimbabwe because of the current situation. I was denounced by Zimbabwe’s government; yet, I am just one person who has raised his voice and spoken out. So, it is a tricky situation and something that I am still thinking about,” he lamented.
Mawarire said he believed his people needed to be stronger than ever before, locally and internationally.
“People in Zimbabwe now understand that an attack on one citizen is an attack on all citizens.
“If the rights of one citizen are being molested, then the rights of all citizens are affected.”