#ThisFlag Pastor Evan Mawarire was barely known beyond his small congregation in Harare when he posted an unscripted video on the internet in April passionately denouncing the failures of Zimbabwe’s government.
The clip of Mawarire wearing a national flag around his neck marked the birth of the “ThisFlag” protest movement that has shaken the all-powerful regime of President Robert Mugabe.
Mawarire, who stresses he has no political affiliations, spoke out in desperation after struggling to pay school fees for his two young daughters in a country that has suffered years of economic collapse.
Now he finds himself as the public face of a wave of opposition to Mugabe — and his family fear the consequences.
“You could really call him an accidental activist, he has never been into politics,” his sister Telda Mawarire, who is a researcher based in Johannesburg, told AFP.
“This is not something that was planned or that he had a prior discussion about with anyone.
“As a family we are alive to the danger that he is in, but this is not about making him a hero or thinking that he can fix things overnight — he can’t.
“My brother is really an ordinary person. He is not immune to fear, he is a very sensitive person, he cries easily if he is upset.”
Telda said their parents are devout Christians who had two sons and four daughters and who still do church community work in Harare.
Their eldest child, Evan, is now 39 and married to Samantha.
He was a clever youngster, taking the role as “president” in Zimbabwe’s youth parliament in 1994 and becoming a young pastor with the evangelical Celebration Church.
The couple worked for the church in Britain between 2007 and 2010, and returned to Zimbabwe to set up their own church called “His Generation” that has a congregation of about 90.
– An unexpected role –
“He is dedicated, hardworking and lots of fun,” Tutsirainyasha Kativhu, a church administrator, told AFP.
“He knows how to speak to the young. He is always running around as he juggles his multiple roles. The guy does not sit still.”
Mawarire preaches most Sundays and patches together an income working as a master of ceremonies at weddings, parties and other functions and as a motivational speaker.
He has also written a frank book about marital relations called “What He Wants”, and was known to some before his current fame for video clips doing comedy impressions of President Mugabe and Nelson Mandela.
Since the ThisFlag movement took off, Mawarire has embraced his unexpected role — though he steers clear of directly criticising Mugabe.
Instead, Mawarire has focused on calling for non-violent shutdowns — when workers stay at home and shops and offices are shut in a passive expression of protest.
“I ask as many Zimbabweans as possible to carry our national flag as a way of saying to our government ‘enough is enough’. This is how political reform is going to happen,” he told AFP last month, describing himself as “just a regular guy who likes to express himself.”
Mawarire’s profile rocketed this week after he was arrested by police, held overnight and then released when a judge threw out a case against him of attempting to overthrow the government.
He was engulfed by a jubilant crowd of thousands outside the courtroom.
“Reminiscent of the Arab Spring, Mawarire appears to have no political program beyond overcoming Zimbabwean passivity about a rotten regime,” analyst John Campbell wrote on Thursday.
But the stakes are high for Mawarire, who was held in handcuffs while his home and office were searched on Tuesday.
His calls for further national shutdowns this week fell flat however and the ThisFlag movement faces a difficult challenge to keep up momentum.
With Mugabe aged 92 and increasingly frail, Zimbabwe looks on the brink of change.
The protest pastor may play a prominent part in its future. AFP