by Phil Wilmot
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On April 19, 2016, following a cash shortage and the subsequent economic collapse of Zimbabwe, evangelical pastor Evan Mawarire released a video of himself wrapped in the national flag. He lamented each color’s defiled symbolism and then attributed alternative meanings to them. The video went viral in Zimbabwe, a nation that has been ruled by 92-year-old Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party since its independence in 1980.
Much to Mawarire’s surprise, #ThisFlag erupted into a mass movement, galvanizing not only activists and preexisting movements, but also everyday citizens. Threatened by Mawarire’s skyrocketing influence, the Mugabe regime pushed him into exile. When the “protest pastor” returned to Harare on February 1, he was detained at the airport and charged with subverting a constitutionally elected government, which could result in a 20-year sentence. After another court appearance on Friday, he spoke to me about the spontaneous eruption of the #ThisFlag movement, its structure and the political climate in his homeland.
Today you returned to court facing subversion charges. Tell us what happened.
It was not a very drawn out affair. The state said they were not ready to go on with the case because they were still investigating [the charges]. They asked for a postponement to March 16. My lawyer agreed to the adjournment. However, the state’s affidavit says their investigations will be finished by February 28. So, if they are not ready to argue the case on March 16, my lawyer will ask for my bail conditions to be lifted, enabling me to retrieve my confiscated passport.
Last year you shared a video via social media that went viral and launched the #ThisFlag movement. Did you expect this video to mobilize as broadly as it did?
Not at all. It was a very personal rant, and I meant everything I said. It was the day after Independence Day. I had hoped a couple hundred people in my circle would watch it. I did not expect it to have the reach it did.
This presented me with a lot of challenges, including the response from our government. It was surprising to receive threatening phone calls, harassments and harsh reactions from the state. I got caught up in a fast-moving current and was not prepared the way an activist or politician or member of civil society might be.
Whether you like it or not, many now perceive you as a charismatic leader. In what ways does this aid or weaken the Zimbabwean struggle?
I think charisma is certainly a gift from God, if I indeed have it. I believe ordinary people are becoming more articulate, and this is why #ThisFlag is growing very quickly. I was fortunate enough to strike a chord with the everyday person on the street.
If we depend too heavily on one person who may leave, as in my case, there can be a slowing down [when that person is gone]. A lot of my work upon my return has been to deflect or defer the attention and opportunities.
Share one example of how you have done this.
Part of our communication strategy is #ThisFlag Thursdays. Every Thursday we interview someone in government or public office about what they have done for the country or how they have used the money allocated to them. It is run by a young lady, Fadzai Muhere. I don’t have any hand in it. Originally, I had started the Facebook page and was the one updating it. Now it is in other hands and is managed from multiple locations.
I make no decisions on my own. A team always sits around and deliberates before moving forward with something.
Tell us more about the structure of #ThisFlag. How are decisions made? How is leadership understood?
Our team is made up of people with training in different areas. Some are strong in strategy or mobilizing or social media or administration. These arms work together to create campaigns and rally support and disseminate information. This team determines the direction we take. It is citizen-based, a “popcorn strategy” where any member can spontaneously generate a campaign. Ideas come from the periphery, from the grassroots.
In one example, a young man decided people should gather at a prominent cricket game, wearing flags, to sing the national anthem in unison at a particular point in the competition. Without any single person coordinating this, it happened. For me, that is the success of #ThisFlag.
There are some very confrontational and agitated movements in Zimbabwe, such as #Tajamuka/Sesjikile. What is the relationship between #ThisFlag and such movements? Are you allies or in competition with one another?
We have found many points of convergence. This is because our problems are the same. Methods may be different, but we are speaking to the same challenges. Where one has had a strategy that is working, we have tried to get behind that strategy. Lots of collaboration and sharing of ideas. Right now we have a movement partnering with us to reach out to rural areas. This movement is doing very well, although it is not on social media. It is very committed to nonviolent struggle and engaging local authorities.
Is it necessary to see Mugabe out of power?
Our challenges in Zimbabwe are much bigger than Mugabe. He is a figurehead of a system. I don’t want to take away from the fact that the individual had a role to play in these challenges, but there is a system of corruption and abuse. He could die tomorrow or next week, and then what?
Do you have any personal political ambitions? Would you run for public office?
It is a question I have had to answer now, particularly because in Zimbabwe everyone is asking about the question of leadership. Public office is something I hold in very high regard. I have chosen to keep that door open and to be available for the job of public office.
Does this include Mugabe’s throne?
Yes, it does.
You are a pastor. Many parts of Africa have been led astray by a sort of prosperity and celebrity religion, particularly in charismatic and evangelical communities. What advice do you have for clergy and laypeople like yourself in Africa who feel drawn to work for social justice, but face challenges in acting on these convictions, even from their own religious circles?
I think, for me, the key lies in being somebody who does not play to the choir. You must believe in what you stand for, even if you are the only one standing for it. People saw my courage and commitment to the cause. Even when people look like they are not watching you, they are watching you. If you have a cause, run with it.