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Is the #ThisFlag Online Campaign Reshaping Political Activism in Zimbabwe?

A screenshot of a YouTube video of Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire launching his onlin movement #ThisFlag.

A screenshot of a YouTube video of Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire launching his online movement #ThisFlag.

Frustrated by poverty and corruption under the leadership of the longest serving African president, pastor Evan Mawarire is leading an online campaign against 92-year-old Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party using the hashtag #ThisFlag.

The hashtag, launched on April 19, a day after Zimbabwe's Independence Day, has become one of the key organising hashtags for internet-based activism against Mugabe's regime.

On that day, Mawarire, wrapped in a Zimbabwean flag, posted a video on YouTube and Facebook, asking:

This flag, this beautiful flag, they tell me that the green is for the vegetation and the crops. I don't see any crops in my country. The yellow is for all the minerals… I don't know how much is left. I don't know who they sold it to and how much they got for it. They tell me that the black is for the majority people like me and yet for some reason I don't feel like I am a part of it.

Since then he and other Zimbabweans at home and abroad have been posting videos and photos of themselves with the Zimbabwean flag online calling for change.

The authorities have dismissed the campaign, with controversial Higher Education minister Professor Jonathan Moyo saying that the pastor is funded by the US goverment.

He went on to launch the #OurFlag hashtag to counter #ThisFlag narrative:

Zimbabwe's economy is in a very poor state. It is estimated that unemployment in the country may be as high as 80 or 90 percent.

There is a severe cash crisis in the country where people have to queue for days to withdraw money from the banks. The government has decided to print its own version of the US dollar to lessen the crisis.

Zimbabwe has been using the US dollar since 2009 after its own currency became worthless.

The use of  to initiate a new citizen-based politics and discourse in the country has created a new non-partisan dimension to opposition to Mugabe's rule, Talent Chademana noted:

The wearing of the flag is very symbolic on many levels; firstly – it brings back the question of national interest as a project of all Zimbabwe instead of a clique of ruling elites. By wearing the flag Zimbabweans are reaffirming their commitment to the country and also the benefits of nationhood. Secondly, all the other parties including ZANU (PF) have their different party emblems and regalia but #thisflag has appropriated the symbol of the nation thus making it a more legitimate force than the political parties. In other words #thisflag equates to Zimbabwe and not a political party – so it’s a struggle for the nation by all. This partly explains even why the speaker of parliament was struggling with #thisflag. Thirdly and related to the above when #thisflag challenges political elites to perform as according to the electoral promise that they made it is not because of a potential contest for power which can be used to delegitimize these demands but rather it is saying [they] are failing Zimbabwe.

Chademana further explained why #ThisFlag movement has changed politics in Zimbabwe:

These are indeed strange times. They could be the worst of times or the best of times depending on your perspective. Our politics, for too long dominated by the public bickering, trading of insults and accusations amongst ZANU (PF) elites is slowly changing due to the entry of other unusual actors – #thisflag. Whilst previously it was easy to dismiss voices of discontent using the foreign sponsorship tag – this time those responsible for mudslinging will have to dig deeper. The new narrative is unusual and it starts off with the acknowledgement that there is a government in place but it has failed to deliver on its electoral promise. The accusation is not coming from an opposition party but from ordinary citizens who keep on making the refrain that they are not interested in entering into politics. They are not foreign sponsored NGOs as well. How do you delegitimize those demands – especially when the economic decline is very apparent to see? The shortages are back, it always starts with cash and you know the rest of the story. We have had since 2015 more companies closing down than opening – unemployment is at its highest since 1980 and preparations for mitigating the effects of the drought are moving at a very small pace. Allegations of corruption amongst the political elite abound-the environment is ripe.

The movement also represents a peak in social media mobilization in the country, said Mfundo Mlilo, Urban and Regional Planning Scholar at the London School of Economics:

Fueled by and exploiting spaces in social media and mobilizing a younger generation hitherto on the periphery of public participation, the campaign has attracted a great deal of attention. Predictably, some in government have shown their discomfort with the campaign, while others are already asking questions and expressing doubts abou the the campaign's endgame. I argue that this is a significant development, the likes of which has not been seen before in Zimbabwe. Thos who are doubting or questiong it are most probably informed by fear of the unfamiliar and unconventional, it is not the campaign they are used to or expect. It does not fit the template; hence, they are unsure.

The campaign, Mlilo argued, is challenging the “them” and “us” mentality in Zimbawe's politics:

There is also a related binary complex of “them” and “us” that has characterized our politics for a long time – that if you are not with us, therefore you must be with them and vice versa. The in-between does not exist. There is non-one outside them and us category – but this is a fatally flawed way of thing, which #ThisFlag campaign is seriously challenging. It is telling politicians and their supporters alike that there is a huge layer in between, and beyond, that does not belong to those categories or solely to those categories.

While some Zimbabweans are skeptical of any political change resulting from an internet-based campaign, Natasha, a Zimbabwean blogger and communication strategist, says the campaign has already justified itself, whatever it achieves:

If the #ThisFlag campaign ends as just being an anger-venting space, so be it. That is valid too.

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