The pastor behind the #ThisFlag freedom movement in Zimbabwe has finally been released, but back in South Africa his sister, Teldah Mawarire, believes trouble still lurks.
Teldah has watched from afar as Zimbabwean citizens rally behind her brother, pastor Evan Mawarire, naming him their hero. Through this single man, Zimbabweans have had the courage to speak out against the ruling party, Zanu-PF.
But he wasn’t always an activist.
“When we were younger we fought a lot,” Teldah, the head of policy and research at Civicus in Johannesburg, laughs. “As he grew older, he chose to become a pastor, that’s when I really started seeing his caring side.”
The pastor founded the #ThisFlag movement three months ago. It started with a few short selfie videos where he gave motivational talks and posted them to his Facebook profile. Then, one day three months ago, he caught himself staring at the Zimbabwean flag.
“He was sitting there looking at the flag of the country and the promises that it held for anyone who is a citizen. He started thinking deeply about it to say, ‘what has this flag delivered to me?’,” Teldah recalls.
The movement is determined to remain peaceful and this, Evan says, is the reason why stay-aways were the form of protest Zimbabweans chose. Just over a week ago, Zimbabwe was brought to a near standstill as #ZimShutDown commenced. The campaign called on citizens to stay home instead of attend work in protest against the Zimbabwean government’s lack of accountability.
The Zimbabwean government’s response? To arrest Evan. He was released on Wednesday to rapturous applause in Harare, but his sister believes he’s not safe just yet.
“I don’t believe anyone who is an activist in Zimbabwe can say they are out of the woods. The government is not happy,” Teldah says.
She says that her family is happy that Evan has been released, crediting media pressure as part of the reason why her brother is now out of jail. Zimbabwean journalist and activist Itai Dzamara has yet to be found even though he has been missing for more than a year. Teldah says that increased media attention on the human rights violations in Zimbabwe will help to encourage justice.
Her brother, she says, relies on Zimbabweans for his protection. #ThisFlag is a movement of citizens, and the pastor has entrusted his safety to the people who uphold the movement, she says.
“My brother is not a rich person, he’s a very ordinary person and he can barely afford even a security guard. It’s just about boldness and saying this is what I stand for,” Teldah says.
But support from South Africa has been scarce. Clashes recently broke out at the Beitbridge border, where Teldah says South Africans fought alongside Zimbabwean citizens. The ANC’s response to the protests unfolding in their neighbour’s borders has left Teldah disappointed.
Earlier this week, ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, said that “sponsored elements” were behind the protests in Zimbabwe and the ANC “will never support destabilisation of Zimbabwe”.
“It’s very disappointing because that sounds like it’s straight out of a textbook written by Zanu-PF. If you’ve lived under Zanu-PF, you know the language of Zanu-PF and this is exactly it,” Teldah says.
“People [in Zimbabwe] have genuine concerns about their well-being, their economic condition, about the services they receive from the state, about police brutality, and violations of human rights. Anyone who attempts to speak out is labelled an agent [by Zanu-PF],” she added.
Although South African citizens have shown sympathy for their neighbours, Teldah believes that not enough solidarity exists simply because South Africans haven’t been given the opportunity to show solidarity. So far, two protests have taken place in the country, where people in Cape Town and Johannesburg marched to the Zimbabwean consulates in those cities.
Teldah says that the past weeks have been difficult for her family, who are worried about Evan’s safety. The pastor, who is also a husband and father to two young children aged 5 and 3, is still at risk, but his family have found strength in their religion. Initially, Teldah says, there was some tension in the family when Evan’s videos became more outspoken, but now there is no question about where their support lies.
“The worse thing you can do as a family is to stand against that person. We stand together, we support him, if we fear, we fear together, and if we are victorious, we are victorious together,” Teldah says.