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#ThisFlag campaign inspires Zimbabweans to speak out

Evan Mawarire, a Zimbabwean pastor, recently started #ThisFlag, a social media campaign that has united a huge number of his compatriots as they speak up on the poor governance, alarming corruption and poverty in their country.

#ThisFlag is a campaign that has inspired a large percentage of Zimbabweans and given them the courage to speak out online about their grievances. Using the hashtag #ThisFlag, they post selfies in which the flag of Zimbabwe is draped around their neck and talk about the problems they are faced with because of the failures of the Robert Mugabe government.

 How #ThisFlag started flying

A few days after 18 April, Zimbabwe’s Independence Day, Pastor Evan Mawarire was sitting in his office, wondering where he would get the money for his daughters’ school fees. He had nowhere to borrow from. He found himself staring at the Zimbabwean flag in his office and began contemplating its symbolism.

Evan Mawarire

The yellow is for the country’s mineral wealth, yet there was nothing to show for it ($US15billion in diamond revenue is unaccounted for); the green is for the vegetation and crops. “Yet,” Mawarire says, “I don’t see any crops in my country.” In fact, this year the country’s food needs will be met by donors. Mawarire decided to make a video about his situation and his thoughts – and it attracted 125 000 views in three days. This overwhelming response took him by surprise, for in the past he had made videos only for his circle of immediate friends and family.

Following up on the success of the video, he launched a seven-day campaign, calling on Zimbabweans to use the hashtag, post their selfies and air their views on the state of the nation. Again, the response was overwhelming. A day before the end of the campaign, he decided to extend it so that it would end on 25 May, which is Africa Day.

Speaking to This is Africa, the 39-year-old pastor said, “I had no idea people that people would pin hope on the campaign. I am sitting here and I am burdened… People have never spoken out in a united way, saying enough is enough, but that is what is happening right now.”

‘We are not afraid’

Zimbabwe’s cybersphere has been activated and people are waiting to see whether the movement will move from social media to the ground. But Mawarire says, “We will not go into the streets, I know that many people say we should end up there, but even one human life is a huge price to pay for this. We will continue engaging government in a peaceful way.”

evan

Mawarire has made it clear that the campaign is apolitical, but that hasn’t stopped threats from coming his way. He has been threatened with arrest for subversion and an anonymous caller called him to say that he would be strangled with the flag.

The campaign’s taglines have been Hatichada and Hatichatya, Shona for “We are fed up” and “We are not afraid anymore”, but the threats have in fact made Mawarire fearful. “I have never been as watchful of what is happening around me as I am now. I am scared for my life and for my loved ones. I have stopped travelling at night and I avoid travelling alone all the time. I check in with my loved ones every now and then to let them know I am okay.” He has reason to fear, for in the past activists have been murdered or they died in mysterious circumstances. For example, Itai Dzamara, an anti-Mugabe activist, disappeared over a year ago and hasn’t been seen since.

#ThisFlag campaign was recently amplified when Mawarire was invited onto Zi FM, a radio station owned by Supa Mandiwanzaira, the current Minister for Information, Communication and Technology and a regime functionary. So overwhelming was the listenership via live streaming that the station’s website crashed. Later, 70 000 people listened to the interview on the station’s SoundCloud account before the interview was pulled down.

After the interview, Mawarire met the station owner in the car park. “I can’t definitely say he was waiting for me, but I met him there and he was fuming, saying ‘Mfana iwewe wakapusa (You are foolish)’ and ‘Why are you insulting us on air? You should be taught a lesson!’ Our interaction didn’t go well.”

Clashes have happened in cyberspace as well. Jonathan Moyo, a government minister and former party propaganda chief, has alleged that #ThisFlag was an initiative ‘founded and funded’ by the West.

“What they do not get is that #ThisFlag is not about me; it’s about the people. Nowadays I don’t fight my battles online. The people protect me because the view is that if you touch me, you touch all Zimbabweans,” explains Mawarire.

A counter campaign is launched, but fails

Moyo has made efforts to counter the campaign by initiating a counter hashtag, #OurFlag, but Zimbabweans on social media have largely ignored the minister’s counter campaign.

The number of participants in the #ThisFlag drive keeps increasing and some of Zimbabwe’s opinion leaders, including Zimbabwean publisher Trevor Ncube, have rallied behind the movement, propelling it further. Religious leaders have often kept a distance from the country’s political landscape but #ThisFlag has been a spark that has pushed them to speak out against the governance of the country. In fact, #ThisFlag has gone viral and attracted the attention of international media platforms like the BBC, The Guardian and Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster.

Going forward…

Because #ThisFlag is an online campaign, it has left out huge swathes of the rural community that have little or limited access to the Internet. However, Mawarire says his long-term plans involve engaging citizens on the ground. This will include awareness campaigns in both rural and urban areas, teaching people what speaking out means, what being a citizen means. “The word ‘citizen’ has been absent from our political discourse for a long time. We speak more of ‘voters’.”

Mawarire is a former child president (1993-94) and says he is open to the idea of entering mainstream politics. “It’s not an easy decision. The people in politics are career politicians and have done this for 30 years. This is what they do daily… Making that decision would be a tough one, but I will not be closed to that idea.”

The #ThisFlag campaign comes at a time when Zimbabwe is busy crafting a piece of legislation that will regulate social media use – and, by implication, campaigns such as this. However, it’s possible that by the time that law is enacted, this movement could be off cyberspace and right in the thick of it, on the streets.

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