On the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations last month, Evan Mawarire was a little-known Harare-based pastor, but as of last week his messages were reaching a staggering 133 000 people on Facebook.
In less than a month, Mawarire (39) has risen to be the face of a cyber movement driven by Zimbabweans weary of corruption and poverty.
The pastor first came into the limelight after posting a video on Facebook lamenting Zimbabwe’s decay under President Robert Mugabe, stocking patriotic fever with a hashtag #ThisFlag on Twitter.
He caught the eye of one of Mugabe’s trusted propagandists Jonathan Moyo and it was clear one of Mugabe’s most vocal defenders was rattled.
Moyo tried a counter narrative with his own hashtag #OurFlag and even resorted to Zanu PF tested smear tactics of labelling Mawarire a regime change activist sponsored by the United States and European Union.
Information Communication Technology minister Supa Mandiwanzira resorted to a physical confrontation against Mawarire after an attempt to discredit him through an interview on his radio station, but only added fuel to the fire.
Mandiwanzira’s associate, Tafadzwa Musarara, who had been sent to do the demolition job on the ZiFM interview was embarrassed by angry Zimbabweans and before long, he had been forced to quit Facebook and Twitter in shame.
When he posted the video, Mawarire only had a few hundred followers on Twitter but last week they rose to 8 000
“My personal Facebook page cannot accept any more friends because I have reached 5 000 while the page has 11 000 followers and a reach of 133 000 people,” he said.
His followers believe the campaign is a reminder of all things that have gone bad about Zimbabwe in the past 36 years and a clarion call for action.
“It [#ThisFlag campaign] has become significant because it remains the only tangible symbol to identify with the Zimbabweans after our currency died a natural death seven years ago,” one of the followers only identified as Takurian wrote on News24.
“The discussions are building up on social media platforms without any fear,” he added.
“It is a reminder to the new generation of Zimbabweans, mostly the born frees, who were not there when the flag was designed, that our vision as a country and where we stand in the world was created in the Zimbabwean flag.
“While the economy, which is the heart of the nation, continues to bleed and not showing any signs of recovery, #ThisFlag has ignited that dream of 1980 and how it became a reality all the way into the 90s.”
Moyo has tried to play down the impact of Mawarire’s campaign but United Kingdom-based social media expert and journalism lecturer Hayes Mabweazara warned that politicians can only ignore the “flag pastor” at their own peril.
“This [social media] has impacted upon the broader ecology of political forms of expression and participation in Africa and the wider developing world,” he said.
“As we see in Zimbabwe, these developments have challenged and redefined the centralised traditional forms of political engagement.
“Politicians of all form and colour can no longer eschew engaging directly with citizens on social media,” Mabweazara said.
“In fact, the direct interactions between citizens and politicians via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter point to the disintegration of deep-seated political barriers.
“In particular, the traditional culture of fear associated with publicly challenging and confronting the political elite has been deflated, albeit in dispersed digital spaces”.
Mabweazara said despotic regimes were terrified by the potential of social media to mobilise against their tyranny.
“Of course, despotic regimes have a lot to fear from these developments — the nature of the discourses that circulate on social media confront the very issues they would rather keep under wraps,” he said.
“It’s the very reason there is a rise in internet censorship such as we have seen in Uganda recently in the run up to the elections and post elections.
“#Thisflag is a striking case in point — the direct involvement of key politicians in the debate on Twitter in itself points to their realisation of the significance and potential of social media.
Mawarire’s campaign has echoes of the Baba Jukwa phenomemon that left Zimbabweans spell bound ahead of the 2013 elections.
The Baba Jukwa Facebook page gained popularity for its alleged exposé of Zanu PF and state secrets.
The phantom blogger published details of corruption by Zanu PF officials and Mugabe’s failing health on his way to amassing over half a million likes on Facebook.
Moyo was one of the prominent people questioned by police during their investigations into allegations that the unknown Baba Jukwa wanted to topple Mugabe.
Former Sunday Mail editor Edmund Kudzayi was arrested on banditry charges after police claimed he was the one behind the page, but he was acquitted after losing his job at the State-controlled newspaper.
Another UK-based journalism lecturer, Bruce Mutsvairo argued that although Baba Jukwa was not able to take his campaign offline, his influence could not be ignored.
He said Mawarire’s #ThisFlag campaign could achieve what Baba Jukwa failed to accomplish — that is to influence change in Zimbabwe.
“Findings of a research we conducted two years ago showed that even though it contributed to citizen awareness, the infamous Baba Jukwa Facebook page had not succeeded in advancing offline political participation among citizens,” Mutsvairo wrote.
“The situation now appears slightly different. While accessibility was a major issue, the majority of digital activists sampled then were living outside the country, more and more local, especially urbanites appear to be in possession of a smartphone.
“And with everyone clicking and sharing on Whatsapp, it’s clear social media truly has the power to transcend traditional boundaries.”
Some point to Moyo’s rants on Twitter as an indication that the Zanu PF regime was running scared.
Moyo last week threw a tantrum against US ambassador Harry Thomas Jnr, accusing him of trying to push for regime change by showing support for #ThisFlag campaign.
Both Moyo and Mandiwanzira revealed that they knew Mawarire personally and they appeared surprised that he was determined to take the government head-on.
Mawarire revealed that he was a master of ceremonies at a wedding for Moyo’s daughter last year. He also interacted with some government officials as child president between 1993 and 1994.
“It is true, I served as child-president back then after having been elected child MP for Mashonaland West’s Hurungwe constituency,” he said.
“Moyo is correct to say I was master of ceremonies at his daughter’s wedding.
“However, he did not know me. I had been hired by his daughter and in turn he had hired two other master of ceremonies and they paid me like any other professional.
“I work as a professional master of ceremony at all sorts of functions, including corporate [ones].”
He said Mandiwanzira was lying that he once pestered him as he sought access to Mugabe. The minister also accused the pastor of being ungrateful after he donated chairs to his church.
“As for Mandiwanzira, we went to the same church and that is how we got to know each other. I never asked him to facilitate the so-called handshake with the president,” Mawarire said.
“After we started our own church, he called me and asked if we wanted chairs he had pulled out of one of his cinemas in Avondale and I accepted.
“That is the only interaction I had with him until the fracas on Monday [last week].
“I have never benefitted from any association with those close to or in power and I would want to challenge anyone who has evidence to the contrary to come forward.”
Mutsvairo said with Zanu PF known for being sceptical of technology, activists still had a daunting task to translate online activism into offline political action.
“The majority of his [Mawarire’s] followers, however, may well be thousands of miles away in diaspora luxury,” he said.
“Zanu PF knows it cannot control what goes around on the internet, which is why Mawarire isn’t considered as a threat yet.
“They surely will be worried when his message transcends into an offline political action.”
Mugabe recently hinted that his government would try to regulate the use of the internet using technology from China.
He claimed some Zimbabweans were abusing the internet.