Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Outspoken Zimbabwe pastor chided for leaving country

Published:Monday | August 22, 2016 | 8:00 AM
In this July 28, 2016 file photo Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, holds his country's flag whilst singing the national anthem before addressing his supporters at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mawarire is fighting accusations of being a coward after he left South Africa, citing safety concerns, before going to the United States. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

HARARE(AP):

From a symbol of resistance and hope, a pastor who galvanised thousands of Zimbabweans into anti-government action has become a subject of derision, fighting accusations of being a coward.

Evan Mawarire became an instant hero after he organised the southern African country's biggest shutdown protest in nearly a decade through a social media campaign last month. His #ThisFlag campaign against economic stagnation and corruption concerns earned him criticism from the country's long time president, 92-year-old Robert Mugabe.

Then Mawarire left for neighbouring South Africa, citing safety. Now he is in the United States and promises to lead anti-government protests outside an annual United Nations gathering of heads of state next month.

Many of his supporters have been fuming on social media. They vent their anger, confusion and feelings of betrayal, not least because one of Mawarire's most popular hashtag campaigns in the local Shona language was #Hatichatya, or "we are no longer afraid."

"I wonder how your 11-year-old fan who penned a heartfelt letter would feel when she realises you left," one supporter, Stewart Muchapera, wrote on Facebook, questioning whether the #ThisFlag movement wasn't a farce.

Others have defended Mawarire. "Ask not what Evan can do for u but what u can also do," Paul Nyikaz wrote.

In one of his social media posts, Mawarire seemed to take a dig at his critics.

"You are so quick to tell me to come back home but you can't tell Bob to go away," he said, using Mugabe's nickname. Mawarire later apologised for the statement, promising to grow the protest movement by adding youth and student wings.

"The public anger is understandable in that the youth thought they had found a leader in Mawarire. They had found their voice, now they feel deserted," said Gabriel Shumba, a human rights lawyer and chairman of the South Africa-based Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.

"But then, he is more useful alive than dead, plus the movement has already taken root," said Shumba, who fled Zimbabwe in 2003 alleging torture by state security agents.

Frustrations over a rapidly deteriorating economy have been boiling over in Zimbabwe, the once prosperous but now economically struggling former British colony.

Mawarire's first #ThisFlag video was posted in April. He ranted about how the Zimbabwe flag's colours have lost significance because of alleged political mismanagement. The video attracted over 120,000 views on the day it was posted. The campaign then took on a life of its own.