A Zimbabwean pastor is being hailed by many of his countrymen as a hero on social media for calling for an end to the country’s economic woes.
With no known political credentials but with a toxic mix of religion and patriotism, Evan Mawarire seems to have won over Zimbabweans who are sick of politicians from all political parties.
In the wake of the pastor’s appearance in court this week, when a magistrate threw out charges by the state prosecutor that he was trying to overthrow President Robert Mugabe, one Zimbabwean in the UK spent hours on Photoshop to create an image of Mr Mawarire as superhero “Captain Zimbabwe”.
“I did it with the younger generation of Zimbabwe in mind who might not understand what the struggle in Zimbabwe is about,” Tawada Sibotshiwe told the BBC after sharing the picture on Twitter.
“I did it so they can visualise the man who has inspired Zimbabweans to seek dialogue with their government in a peaceful manner.”
The pastor has galvanised people outside and inside Zimbabwe, where the governing elite is viewed by some as ruining a once-thriving economy and where the opposition is fractured and ineffectual.
Through his social media movement, which uses the hashtag #ThisFlag, he has been backing a stay-away campaign this month to protest about perceived corruption and economic mismanagement
So does the Baptist preacher have any political credentials?
He told the BBC’s Brian Hungwe in the capital, Harare, that his first brush with politics was as a child after a naughty spell at school in the mid-1990s.
After getting bad grades one term he was moved to another school where he thrived – so much that he was nominated as a child parliamentarian to represent Harare.
The child parliament mirrors Zimbabwe’s real legislative chamber with each constituency having a representative on the body.
Mr Mawarire was then made child president and met the real president.
He described his first encounter with Mr Mugabe as full of “respect and admiration”.
“It’s 23 years now since I met him. He was my hero then,” the 39-year-old told Zimbabwe Independent.
“Today I look back and say: ‘What changed?’ Either I grew up or he messed up big time for sure.”
‘Green is for crops’
After leaving school, he qualified as an auto electrician before starting his church, getting married and having two daughters.
His social media fame came after he spontaneously posted a video online, expressing his frustration at the state of the nation.
He told the Daily Maverick that he filmed the unscripted speech in April in a moment of clarity after a day of struggling to work out how to pay his children’s school fees – most of his income comes from his bookings as a master of ceremonies.
“I was very disappointed. I remember looking at this flag [in my office]. I thought if I was in another country I could not have failed to have what I need,” he told the Zimbabwe Independent.
The video that went viral started with the pastor saying: “I’m not a politician; I’m not an activist… just a citizen.”
Wrapped in the stripped Zimbabwean flag, he then pointed out what each of the flag’s colours was supposed to represent.
“They tell me that the green is for the vegetation and for the crops. I don’t see any crops in my country,” he said, leaning over to fit in the frame of the phone camera while emotive music played the background.
After listing all the ways the flag had let him down, he turned to each colour again stating how it should be an inspiration.
The green “is the power of being able to push through soil, push past limitations and flourish and grow”, he said.
He ended by promising to stop standing on the sidelines and start fighting for his country.
He has gone on to produce many videos posted to Facebook and Twitter. An inspiring orator, he delivers one sentence in English and then repeats it in Shona, Zimbabwe’s most spoken language.
But in all his messages urging people to refuse to pay bribes and to stand up for their rights, he stipulates that all protest must be peaceful.
“Our protest – non-violent, non-inciting, stay-at-home – is the best because it is within the confines of the law,” he told the BBC.
Shutdown activists’ five demands:
- Pay civil servants on time
- Reduce roadblocks and stop officers harassing people for cash
- President Robert Mugabe should fire and prosecute corrupt officials
- Plans to introduce bond notes to ease a cash shortage should be abandoned
- Remove a recent ban on imported goods.
The flag and the bible are his symbols – and the only two things he carried with him when turned himself in for questioning before his arrest on Wednesday.
At his hearing a day later – with crowds of supporters, many draped in the national flag, spilling out of the court, singing and praying for him outside – the case was dismissed.
Prosecutors first charged him with inciting public violence and then at the last minute added subversion, which his lawyers successfully argued would deny him a fair trial.
His critics complain that the preacher does not speak for everyone and there has been no proof of how widespread his support is.
“A Facebook wall or Twitter feed does not equate to a polling booth granting him an electoral mandate,” writes Bernard Bwoni in the state newspaper The Herald.
Mr Mawarire argues that it his religion that has given him the courage to continue, despite attempted abductions and threats, including one to strangle him with a flag.
“I go back to the bible,” he told the Zimbabwe Independent.
“It says unless the watchman watches with God, he will watch in vain. The God factor is driving me.”-BBC