By Kudzayi Zvinavashe | Washington Post |
When Evan Mawarire finally returned home to Zimbabwe last Wednesday, the police were waiting for him at the airport. He was arrested on the spot. And though a Harare court later denied him bail, meaning that he’ll stay in prison until at least Feb. 17, the amount of time he ultimately spends behind bars is almost certain to be much longer than that. The government is charging him with “subverting the constitutional order” — treason, in other words. That could mean decades in prison. Will he find a way to fight back?
Mawarire, a pastor by profession, rose to fame virtually out of nowhere last spring, when he published a Facebook video in which, enveloped in the national flag, he eloquently bemoaned the state of the nation. The ensuing #ThisFlag movement, which spread rapidly on social media, soon became the focus of popular resistance to the regime of President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980.
The movement peaked on July 6, when Mawarire called upon Zimbabweans to stay home from work to register their discontent with the country’s disastrous economic and political situation. Hundreds of thousands followed suit, virtually shutting down the entire country.
It was a remarkable moment in Zimbabwe’s recent history. Zimbabweans had become deeply disillusioned with the official political opposition in 2009-2013, when its long-established leaders decided to enter a coalition with Mugabe’s ruling party. The resulting “unity government” was plagued by scandal and infighting, leaving many citizens skeptical that anyone could be trusted to mount a sincere challenge to the president’s power.
That helps to explain why the country’s people were so enthralled by Mawarire’s extraordinary message to the nation last year. The pastor, who was 39 at the time, had never shown any particular interest in political engagement before — so his decision to record a powerful act of protest on his personal cellphone proved especially resonant to Zimbabweans who are deeply cynical about political professionals.
His relative youthfulness endeared him to young people, who are a large and growing constituency; his stress on positive values such as love and religion gave him an aura that more divisive full-time politicians would have a hard time claiming. (Some of his followers compare him with Martin Luther King Jr.) In the video, Mawarire laments the nation’s sorry state by evoking the colors of the national flag, which are supposed to symbolize prosperity and freedom:
It was a message that hit home with his audience. Most Zimbabweans have to get by an on average of $2 per day, and good jobs are few and far between. Corruption is rife, and the public sector is virtually bankrupt, with the government struggling to pay its own employees. All these problems are compounded by an acute shortage of cash that forces citizens to spend hours in line trying to withdraw money from their own accounts.
Mawarire’s video struck a corresponding chord, and it quickly went viral. (Despite their troubles, more than 6 million Zimbabweans now own cellphones, which enabled the video to spread across the country in a matter of days.) Mawarire soon produced more videos, urging his compatriots to share their own views with each other. In keeping with his Christian teachings, he also urged his listeners to refrain from violence of any kind. Riot police cracked down on protesters nonetheless, arresting large numbers of them.
On July 12, the government arrested Mawarire on subversion charges. Thousands of activists and churchgoers showed their loyalty by surrounding the courthouse, singing and chanting for hours. Yet Mawarire was clearly shaken by his encounter with the law. After he was freed on a technicality, he suddenly turned up a few days later in South Africa, where he proceeded to tour the large Zimbabwean émigré community there. Later in the summer he traveled to the United States.
Mawarire’s decision to leave the country disillusioned many of his erstwhile fans. Some accused him of deserting the cause, while others ferociously defended him against any criticism. In his absence, the #ThisFlag movement has faltered. Now that he’s back, his followers hope that he’ll somehow find a way to resume his role. “Within hours [of his return], #ThisFlag, which hasn’t been trending on social media since his departure, resurfaced, and now it’s trending again,” said activist Munyaradzi Dodo. “What I’m wondering is if he’ll be able to capture the same momentum that he had last year.”
All this is happening as Zimbabwe is gearing up for its presidential election in 2018, with Mugabe’s increasing age (he turns 93 on Feb. 21) adding a major uncertainty factor. If Mawarire — who once said that he would not “be closed to the idea of getting into politics” — can find a way to make his voice heard once again, it’s conceivable that he could become a force to be reckoned with.