Mawarire got noticed when he posted a video online ranting against government
Mugabe calls the pastor a "fake"
“You are watching this video because I have either been arrested or have been abducted.” With those words, Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire announced his own arrest by the government of Robert Mugabe.
Mawarire was detained July 12 for “inciting public violence,” – a count that was subsequently amended to a much more serious charge of subversion – but was released the next day under immense public pressure, when the court ruled the police had violated his rights.
In just a few months, this innocuous man of the cloth has become a symbol of hope for thousands of Zimbabweans dissatisfied with the direction their country has taken.
It began in April this year, when Pastor Mawarire draped himself in a Zimbabwean flag and railed against the government in an online video. In the process, he started a movement, #ThisFlag, that hopes to end corruption and bring transparency and accountability to the government and its long-running President.
Now aged 92, Mugabe has been in power for 36 years, and shows few signs of leaving office.
Under Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabweans have lived through periods of extreme inflation, empty shelves and biting hunger. Now, these protesters say they are fed up with rampant corruption and unpaid wages.
Since the pastor’s first video, Zimbabwe has seen rare anti-government street protests and widespread strikes in the form of so-called “stay-away days” – and Mawarire vows they won’t stop.
“We should never again retreat from this space where we say, ‘No, we are the ones that appointed government, so we are the ones that should hold you to account.’”
As Mawarire told CNN’s David McKenzie, the suffering in the country may not always be visible, but is undoubtedly real.
“This very moment Zimbabweans are suffering. It’s not a myth and sometimes when you look at Zimbabwe during the day, you would be fooled into thinking that everything is normal.
“But when the curtain comes down on the day, when night falls, the real Zimbabweans show up; and I’m talking about Zimbabweans that go back home… and look at each other and have to answer the questions, ‘What are we going to eat for the night?’”
At first, the government mocked the movement. In May, Higher Education Minister Jonathan Moyo tweeted, “#ThisFlag thing is a pastor’s fart.”
More recently, President Mugabe has warned that protests against his rule “don’t pay,” and has accused opponents of trying to topple him in a violent uprising “like in the Arab countries.”
Mugabe has called the pastor a fake, and said he is “foreign sponsored.”
Mawarire denies the link to the so-called Arab Spring.
“I have concerns about that. Part of it for me is that violence is something that will destroy Zimbabwe going forward. Whatever we get with violence we are going to have to keep with violence,” he said.
Zimbabwean businessman and publisher Trevor Ncube backs the movement and has called for a non-political “National Transitional Authority” to take over running the country until fair elections can be held. Following this, he said, three men in military fatigues visited his home in Harare August 10 and harassed his staff, as two others in civilian clothes did the previous week. “I see both incidents as harassment/intimidation,” he tweeted.
Meanwhile, Mawarire has left the country for a tour of the United States, leading to criticism from some in Zimbabwe that he may be abandoning his fellow protesters.
A statement tweeted by Ncube dismissed such attitudes: “We must move away from the personality cult politics of our country that have got us to a place where we look to one man to be our messiah.”
Yet Mawarire remains an important figure, and his absence from the country may be prolonged.
“I am thinking about when I will go back because recent developments have threatened our security in Zimbabwe – especially when the President mentions you by name and mentions that you should leave and that you should go away,” he told CNN.
“I am afraid of going back home, because when you look at first and foremost the charges that the State then brought against me… you start to see that the agenda may be a little deeper than at least I expected. So the fear of going back home is there because I fear a re-arrest, and… I fear that somebody may attack me or somebody may want to bring harm to myself or my family.”