Why a modest pastor with a flag is so threatening to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
The Zimbabwean flag in Evan Mawarire’s office seemed to taunt him. He was a humiliated father. His children’s monthly school fees were due, but he had no money.
In another country, he would have those fees, he thought. He would get the things his wife, Samantha, and his two daughters needed. Why, at the age of 39, he’d even have a house by now.
He hunched over his webcam that April evening and poured out a visceral howl of frustration for Zimbabwe, the flag with its garish yellow, red, green and black stripes draped around his neck.
The Baptist pastor was hours away from launching the first grass-roots protest movement his troubled country has seen in years.
There is at times a note of absurdity to Zimbabwe’s problems. Its 92-year-old president, Robert Mugabe, dozes off in meetings or reads the wrong speech in parliament. An embarrassing Internet meme sprang up after Mugabe tripped in 2015, while his handlers denied he ever fell. After spectacular hyperinflation and the printing of a $1-trillion bill, Zimbabwe dumped its own currency in 2009. It regularly runs out of the American dollars it adopted, so soldiers, police and teachers don’t get paid on time.
Through all this, Mugabe is living out his vow to rule until the age of 100, and rival factions are jostling for his position, anticipating the old man’s death. His wife, Grace, nick-named the “First Shopper,” seems to be maneuvering to take over.
For a nation where many people have long since ceased to feel much civic pride, Mawarire’s four-minute video monologue has an unexpected beginning: He kisses the flag.
“This flag. This beautiful flag. They tell me that the green is for the vegetation and for the crops. I don’t see any crops in my country.” The yellow in the flag, diamonds, gold and platinum, have been sold off or stolen, he laments. The red, blood shed for freedom, was wasted.
“They tell me that the black is for the majority, people like me. Yet for some reason, I don’t feel that I am a part of it,” he continues. “This is the time that a change must happen.”
He hesitated six hours before posting the video online, sensing it would get him into trouble. “That sort of thing is something that I’d never done in my entire life,” he said. “When I did it, I watched it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, am I sure I’m going to post it?’”
It immediately took off online. Zimbabweans draped themselves in the flag and posted selfies in response. The enthusiasm Mawarire’s rant generated coalesced into a political movement, rallying around the hashtag #ThisFlag.
Mawarire led a national strike last month, a rare success in a nation fearful of protests. Something in Zimbabwe seemed to be shifting. The normally reticent middle class became suddenly hopeful that Mawarire could be their savior.
But enemies of Mugabe often end up in jail, die in unexplained fires or accidents, or mysteriously disappear like activist Itai Dzamara did in March 2015.
In July, Mawarire was arrested and charged with treason. He fled to South Africa, just as Mugabe once fled to Mozambique in 1975, during the bush war against the white minority regime of Ian Smith.
Mugabe has made it almost impossible for Mawarire to return to Zimbabwe. But the pastor’s canny use of social media and regular video speeches allows him to send his message deep into Zimbabwe’s discontented cities — though he acknowledges that reaching rural areas, where people cannot even afford to buy a newspaper, let alone a smartphone, is difficult.
The preacher continues to inspire a blossoming of courage in Zimbabwe, and protests continue to bubble up there. On Aug. 17, protesters in Harare marched on a reserve bank, angry at plans to introduce worthless local “bond” notes to replace the dollar — only to be violently put down by riot police. Activists have also pledged a general strike on Aug. 31.
Many now wonder if a humble pastor can lead a successful mass movement for change where opposition leaders have failed — or if Mugabe, wily and ruthless, will swat Mawarire, the way he has dealt with many threats before.
When Mawarire strides into a South African shopping mall, the flag draped around his shoulder, there’s a moment of frozen disbelief and delight.
Waiters and shop assistants, some of the millions of Zimbabweans who have crossed the crocodile-infested Limpopo River into South Africa to escape a long stagnant economy, race to shake his hand and take selfies with him.
“The only man who can save Zimbabwe,” one man says.
A tall, thin, bespectacled man with an earnest air, Mawarire introduces himself as “a father and a husband and the accidental founder of a movement.”
Some nights he is too excited to sleep, thinking about the thrilling possibilities of peaceful revolution. Others, he can’t sleep for paranoia, worrying about what might happen to him. “When … the whole system of the whole government zeroes in on one person and you start to feel the might and the weight of the repressive regime, it scares you,” he says in an interview in the back corner of a Johannesburg cafe, two weeks after leaving the country. He says he is being followed by agents of the Zimbabwean intelligence services in South Africa.
The speed with which the movement has taken off, and the hundreds of emails he gets, have surprised Mawarire. “Those emails make me feel scared. There’s days when I think I feel like I don’t own my life anymore.
“This is a hugely new world for me,” he added. “Sometimes people want to elevate me to that savior position, and that’s what got us into trouble in the first place.”
This is a hugely new world for me.
— Evan Mawarire
Mawarire says he has never been an activist. As a boy, he revered Mugabe as the country’s liberating hero after independence in 1980. The oldest son of civil servants, an auditor and a matron, he went to a top private school but when he failed one exam, his father sent him to a rural high school with no sports fields or toilet doors. He saw how lucky he was, compared with children who walked 10 miles to school. He later trained as an auto-electrician, and became a motivational speaker and set up his own church.
He says he has no desire now to become a politician and believes he inspires hope because he doesn’t look, sound or act like a politician. “The average politician doesn’t relate to the daily struggle, which is what it takes to put a meal on the table,” he says.
His one objective is to inspire Zimbabweans to “scale the wall of fear,” and demand change from their leaders. “There’s a sense of something really powerful moving in the hearts of Zimbabweans. Catastrophe has been our story for far too long,” he says.
Mawarire acknowledges that his plans are vague; he doesn’t have a clear ideology, a strategy or policy proposals. He poses a threat, analysts say, because Mugabe fears that his calls for sweeping change could be powerful enough to spark a popular revolution like the “Arab Spring.”
“He represents something that I think many Zimbabweans have been hungry for,” said Piers Pigou, an analyst on southern Africa for the International Crisis Group. “He’s been a bit of an enigma and it allows him to cut across a whole range of different constituencies.”
Mawarire’s lack of a central political organization made it difficult for authorities to categorize him, Pigou said, and his movement risks losing focus without more structure. “Ultimately a movement of this nature at some stage is going to require political direction.”
Students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, cheered wildly last month when Mawarire addressed them. He broke into song, belting out one of the stale liberation anthems that celebrate the victory in the war against white minority rule, often sung at Mugabe rallies.
He choked back tears describing his drive home each night along Robert Mugabe Way, seeing old women vegetable peddlers and their grandchildren bedding down on the roadside, huddled against the cold under thin blankets because they didn’t sell enough that day to afford a commuter minibus ride home.
Tapiwa Muzvidzwa, a commerce student from UNISA in Pretoria who came to hear Mawarire speak, voiced a fear that many feel: that as in the past, fear will win and Mawarire will be crushed.
“You have started something that has been burning in all of our hearts. We want to say, ‘In 2016, we were there, when it started.’ The movement must not die,” he urged Mawarire, to cheers.
Some of the students, who have seen no other ruler but Mugabe, are skeptical of Mawarire's calls for peaceful protest. They believe the way to change Zimbabwe is through some form of violent revolution. The pastor brushed off the students’ calls.
“If there’s one thing our government is very good at, trust me, it’s violence. If you take to the streets with violence, they’re waiting to give you such a beating, it will destroy every brick of courage,” Mawarire said. “Our strength is in our numbers.”
As Marawire finished, students surged to the front, pressing to get close to him, to talk to him, and soak up some of his hope. For a moment, everything seemed possible. Then he climbed into a small anonymous car, and disappeared into the night.
MORE WORLD NEWS
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.