A movement that started with a video posted on Facebook railing against corruption is now shaking the Zimbabwean political establishment to its core. For the first time since the contested and violent elections of 2008, long-time president Robert Mugabe’s hold on power appears shaken. What remains to be seen is whether the months of protests against government corruption and Mugabe’s regime will continue, and more importantly how it will all end.
The movement, called #ThisFlag both on and offline, started after Pastor Evan Mawarire posted a short video on his Facebook page lamenting the current state of Zimbabwe on the country’s 36th independence day. With the Zimbabwean flag wrapped around his neck, he lamented on the wasted promise of the country, the corruption of the government and called for change.
The video itself was quite simple – less than five minutes long and only involved Mawarire looking into the camera talking. But in a country suffering from a severe drought, facing yet another economic crisis and amidst a nasty fight with the country’s political elite over who will ultimately succeed Mugabe, Mawarire’s impassioned plea soon went viral and launched a protest movement that the government has struggled to stop.
As Mako Muzenda previously reported last month from Harare, the most obvious impact of the movement resulted in a national “stay away” protest on July 6 where businesses shut down to protest the government. Coinciding with a national strike by teachers and medical staff over unpaid wages, the stay away action left the capital city deserted. More telling, however, were social media reports of towns and cities seen as traditional strongholds of Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party also largely closed for business, demonstrating that these protests go beyond the normal partisan politics that have defined the country for the last 15 years.
Plans for a second stay away protest later in the month faltered when the government arrested Mawarire on charges of inciting political violence. The government released Mawarire just days later, but the profile of this previously unpolitical pastor had already risen to the ranks of infamous dissenters, many of whom spend their lives fighting one criminal charge after another, go into exile or turn up dead.
During a speech at the funeral of a former ZANU-PF politician, Mugabe called Mawarire out by name, accusing him of being foreign sponsored and urging him to leave the country. In Zimbabwe, such a public display of animosity by Mugabe never bears well for the recipient. Under the cover of night, Mawarire left Zimbabwe for South Africa, telling The Globe and Mail that he doubts he will be able to return to Zimbabwe any time soon and still has to be careful to avoid Zimbabwean secret police even as he is in exile.
Even in his absence, the movement has endured.
That is perhaps what is most surprising about #ThisFlag: the stakes in Zimbabwe for political protest against the government are always high, especially when Mugabe feels like he is losing. The three major political events of Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 – the Gukurahundi military campaign of the mid-1980s to root out dissidents of a rival ethnic faction, the violent farm invasions that started in 2000, and the election violence of 2008 after Mugabe lost the first round of the presidential election – all demonstrate this. And Zimbabweans know how deadly these actions can be.
However, this time around, there are some new voices standing with the protesters. War veterans of the independence struggle that saw Mugabe come to power have often been the strongest pillar of support for Mugabe’s policies. Mugabe places a significant amount of his legitimacy in his role as a freedom fighter, and the war vets are the living embodiment of that legacy. It was in the name of the war vets that the farm invasions occurred, even though very few war vets themselves participated and it is unclear how many ultimately benefited from the land reform policies. For the past 36 years, despite economic hardship, rampant corruption, political violence and numerous broken promises it have been the war vets who have supported Mugabe the most.
And now they don’t.
In a surprising turn of events, days after Mugabe denounced Mawarire the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) returned the favor by denouncing Mugabe. In a statement issued by ZNLWVA’s leadership, the organization called Mugabe dictatorial, outlined numerous ways they believe Mugabe has failed the country, and withdrew all support.
The government responded by arresting two prominent members of ZNLWVA and launching plans to oust key war vets from ZANU-PF. The military also responded by saying it was ready to deal with the threats posed by the protests. With more and more splits emerging from within ZANU-PF on the succession issue and the approach to the protests, and many of Zimbabwe’s opposition parties in equal disarray, no one knows what to expect next.
Western governments and human rights watchers have long contemplated what could lead to Mugabe relinquishing power short of his natural death. But it is unlikely that a five-minute vlog from a hereunto-unknown pastor posted on Facebook was on their list of possible causes. It is still unclear if that will be the outcome. While more of Zimbabwean society getting behind #ThisFlag in a show of unity between ethnic and language groups, political parties, classes and regions not often seen in the country, it seems like it is at least a possibility.
At the same time, Mugabe’s track record and the military’s official entrance into the debate signals that much darker days may be ahead. In any case, after months of protests and vibrant debates across multiple social media platforms, Zimbabweans are marching ahead into the unknown, draped like Mawarire in the flag of the country they are trying to save.