Who is the pastor inspiring Zimbabwe's #ThisFlag demonstrations?

Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire has risen to prominence after posting a video mourning the country's social and economic woes, inspiring the #ThisFlag hashtag. 

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Evans Mawarire, a young pastor, shown here with a Zimbabwean flag in Harare, Zimbabwe in May, has become a prominent figure calling for reforms in the Zimbabwean government.

Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire's passionate viral video contrasting "the promise of my flag" with the country's economic and social problems has gained international attention and started a protest movement against Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe.

A #ThisFlag hashtag went viral among Mr. Mawarire's supporters, who have been calling on President Mugabe and his government to improve human rights conditions and address the country's struggling economy – risky decisions under Mugabe's 36-year regime, not known for tolerating dissent. 

In the video, Mawarire, a Baptist preacher in Zimbabwe's capital city of Harare, urged his fellow Zimbabweans to speak out against current conditions, and build a more inclusive Zimbabwe that delivers on the flag's promises. 

"This flag, everyday that it flies, is begging for you to get involved, is begging for you to say something, its begging for you to cry out and to say 'why must we be in the situation we are in,'" he said. "This flag. It's your flag. It's my flag."  

The video does not criticize Mugabe by name. 

The 92-year-old president, however, accused Mawarire of being "foreign sponsored" and not being a "man of religion."

"Beware these men of cloth, not all of them are true preachers of the Bible. I don't know whether they are serving God. They spell God in reverse," Mugabe said at a funeral for a senior government official, the first time he has publicly addressed the #ThisFlag movement.

"You can't urge people to adopt ... violent demonstrations as a way of solving grievances," he said, according to CNN. 

Mugabe does have supporters, and tens of thousands marched Wednesday in a party-organized march in Harare, the Associated Press reports. 

Pro-democracy protests erupted nation-wide over the past week, according to Zimbabwe's Daily News, as protestors call for the resignation of Mugabe and his cabinet ministers. Earlier this month, mass strikes called the #ZimShutdown2016 took place in Harare, started by unpaid government workers. Economic woes have made many Zimbabweans fear a repeat of the 2008-2009 hyperinflation crisis, when prices rose by 500 billion percent, and the government stopped printing currency.

In response to the efforts, Mugabe and his government have been cracking down against leaders of groups associated with the protest movements. 

Mawarire was also arrested last week, but was quickly released after a court ruled his arrest was in violation of the constitution. A large demonstration was held outside the courthouse before Mawarire's arrest.

"The demographic and racial character of the swelling crowd of Zimbabweans showing solidarity with Pastor Evan Mawarire of #ThisFlag at the Harare Magistrates's Courts is humbling and gives a sense that something could happen in Zimbabwe," Pedzisai Ruhanya of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a local think tank, told the Daily News.

Mawarire posted the video on April 19, the day after Zimbabwe's independence day. He made the video after being frustrated that he had been unable to pay for his children to attend school, which he blames on Zimbabwe's economy, now half as large as it was 15 years ago, according to Newsweek.    

"We have had a same government with the same system and the same ideas for 36 years," Mawarire told Newsweek. "As a young Zimbabwean, my desire is to see wholesale change – we just want something new and we know we can't do it with the same people."

Taking an anti-government stand in the country can be dangerous in Zimbabwe. In recent months, a leading opposition leader was abducted and hasn't been heard from since, and more than 100 people were killed with many more abducted in the lead-up to the country's 2008 election, as Newsweek reported.  

"I would be lying to you if I said I’m not concerned [about my safety]," Mawarire said. "But at this point I don’t know what else to do. I can't keep quiet any longer and this is what I've been urging the citizens – let us not remain silent."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.