The Politics of #ThisFlag

 

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The year 2016 has seen an explosion of online activism and hashtag movements in Zimbabwe, with #This Flag and #Tajamuka/Sesjikile being arguably the most prominent social media hashtags in the country.

 

Generally speaking, Zimbabwean online activism in 2016 has been characterized by impulsivity and emotionality, mostly in reaction to the thorny socio-economic circumstances currently experienced by many people within the country.

 

By Definition, social media activism, or hashtag activism means “supporting a cause through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other networking websites.”

 

In addition, hashtag activism “is the kind of activism that does not require any action from the person other than sharing or “liking” a post or “retweeting” tweets.”

 

It must be observed that online or hashtag activism is different from political activism, which often takes the form of street protests and picketing.

 

In this regard, it should be noted that the popular Zimbabwean-born hashtag: #this flag, is an example of online activism, while the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile Campaign is actually a political movement.

 

In this article, I will explain why the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile Campaign is an organized political group designed to achieve political outcomes.

 

I will also explain why the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile Campaign should be differentiated from other spontaneous online movements like #ThisFlag.

 

Hashtag Movements and Online Activism

Protesting and picketing on the street has been the common method of raising consciousness and awareness around political and social issues for many years.

 

Even today, civic and political groups still organize pickets and demonstrations to raise consciousness.

 

However, owing to the advent of smart phones and the global proliferation of the internet, consciousness can now be raised online using hashtags, live video posts, like buttons and memes instead of loudspeakers and picket placards.

 

Some of the most popular online hashtag movements that I have come across in the last few years are listed below.

 

#Black Lives Matter

 

In 2014 police brutality in Ferguson USA and other parts of America led to an outcry on social media.

 

The deaths of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Laquan McDonald (African Americans who were killed by white American Police Officers) inspired the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s momentum throughout 2015.

 

As a result #BlackLivesMatter was tweeted over 9 million times, and now in 2016 the hashtag movement that started on social media, has become a social movement aimed at achieving social justice and racial equality across the USA.

 

#Pray For Paris

 

After terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 129 people in Paris in November 2015, over 70 million people from 200 countries took to social media where they expressed their prayers and support for France. The number one trending social media hashtag was #PrayForParis.

 

#I Stand With Ahmed

 

This became a popular social media hashtag in America when 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested in September 2015 by Texas police for taking a homemade clock to school.

 

The police assumed the clock was some kind of bomb.

 

#I Stand With Ahmed became a symbol for the issue of American islamophobia and racism.

 

#Oscars So White

 

This hashtag was created to protest the under-representation of black people at the annual Academy Award nominations.

 

The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was meant as a response to the lack of racial diversity in the 2015/2016 Oscar nominations, and what started as a small comment on social media became an American social media awareness campaign.

 

Eventually, Mainstream American media picked up the hashtag, and some celebrities announced they would boycott the Oscars in protest of the under-representation of black people.

 
#This Flag

 

#ThisFlag is a Zimbabwean hashtag movement that rose to prominence in mid 2016 when Pastor Evan Mawarire spontaneously started posting videos online, lamenting Zimbabwe’s socioeconomic circumstances.

 

Consequently, he managed to organize a national stay way in July that was perceived as successful. He did this all online.

 

Today,  #ThisFlag has about sixty thousand online followers.

 

#This Flag versus #Tajamuka/Sesjikile

Now, here are some things that have been particularly interesting to me.

 

Around the time when #ThisFlag rose to prominence in mid 2016, we started to hear more and more from a group called #Tajamuka/Sesjikile.

 

In fact. not many people knew about #Tajamuka/Sesjikile before Pastor Evan Mawarire came to prominence.

 

However, the more Pastor Evan Mawarire and #This Flag gained mainstream popularity, the more it seemed the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile Campaign tried to associate itself with #ThisFlag.

 

I found this quite curious because the two are quite conflicting creatures.

 

While #ThisFlag is an online movement led by a shepherd, on the other hand, #Tajamuka/Sesjikile is perhaps a political pressure group of wolves in sheep’s’ clothing.

 

In fact, earlier this year, members of the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile Campaign told a South African Media house that “President Mugabe should quit immediately…[that] they would do anything to make sure this happened.”

 

Furthermore, when asked his opinion about Pastor Evan Mawarire and #This Flag, the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile spokesperson responded by saying: “The objectives are obviously the same… but at the same time, we believe that Tajamuka brings in the value of real leadership on the ground.”

 

He also stated that the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile Campaign comprised of 14 political parties including MDC-N and MDC-T.

 

Now here is the thing. As I mentioned earlier, a hashtag movement has specific characteristics.

 

Firstly, a Hashtag Movement is born online, it is spontaneous, and it combines diverse groups irrespective of race, political persuasion, gender, ethnicity, or nationality.

 

Furthermore, the purpose of a hashtag movement is to raise awareness around a specific issue.

 

While #This Flag fits the definition of an online/hashtag movement, #Tajamuka/Sesjikile is the opposite.

 

#Tajamuka/Sesjikile is in fact, politically organized, and comprises of political activists that seek to achieve political goals.

 

Unlike #ThisFlag that constantly speaks of non-violence, and non-partisanship, the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile is confrontational, abrasive, partisan and has demonstrated its willingness to participate in violent protests.

 

I supposed that is what the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile leader meant when he said, “Tajamuka brings in the value of real leadership on the ground.”

 

Also, ironically, when Pastor Evan Mawarire decided to seek refuge in the USA, it appeared as though most of the people disappointed by his departure felt hard-done-by, because they assumed that the plight of #ThisFlag was synonymous with the plight of the #Tajamuka/Sesjikile Campaign.

 

In other words, most of the people who criticize Pastor Mawarire for skipping the country are people who identify with the narrow interests of the political outfits comprising #Tajamuka/Sesjikile.

 

Perhaps they thought that in the pastor, they had found an unsuspecting sacrificial lamb that could be slain on the altar of political expediency.

 

Yet from where I stand, Pastor Evan did well by leaving the country.

 

At the end of the day, I suggest that #ThisFlag dissociates itself not only from #Tajamuka/Sesjikile, but also from politics in general.

 

As Pastor Evan Mawarire said in an online post recently, #ThisFlag seeks to accommodate supporters from across the political spectrum.

 

#ThisFlag should therefore detach itself from the narrow political interests of radical groups, and rather focus on constitutionalism and providing key social services.

 

It is in that light that calls by #ThisFlag to mobilize resources for hospitals without medicine are welcome.

 

Ultimately, a citizen’s movement should seek to serve all citizens. If  #Thisflag is a citizen’s movement, it should therefore be cautious not to be lured into the arena of narrow political interests.

 

Tau Tawengwa

 

Executive Director

 

Email

zimrays@gmail.com

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#This Flag Movement: Modernity versus Traditionalism in Zimbabwe

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Recently in Zimbabwe, a young pastor named Evan Mawarire started a social media movement popularly known as #This Flag.

 

The pastor began by posting a series of videos on social media. The videos exhibited the pastor bemoaning various socio-political and economic ills currently affecting Zimbabweans at large.

 

According to reports, Pastor Evan Mawarire started posting these videos online in April 2016, after struggling to pay his children’s school fees on time.

 

His videos are usually expressions of frustration with what he perceives to be systemic corruption in the Zimbabwean government, injustice and widespread poverty in Zimbabwe.

 

A few months after his first post, Evan Mawarire’s #This Flag movement has evolved into a social media movement which is followed by tens of thousands of people in Zimbabwe and outside.

 

Now in early July, Pastor Mawarire’s movement went a step further than social media posts, and called for a nationwide “stay away” protest.

 

In other words, Pastor Evan called for all productive Zimbabweans across sectors to stay at home, and not report for work as a means of expressing dissatisfaction at the country’s current socio-economic and political circumstances.

 

The set date for the “stay away” was 6 July, and according to reports, most urban centers across the country took note of that protest call and did not report for work.

 

Now, what’s interesting about the July 6 protest is that both business and labour participated , despite their traditionally contradictory marketplace perspectives.

 

Furthermore, it’s notable that the calls for the July 6 “stay away” were conceded by all urban-dwelling ordinary Zimbabweans.

 

In fact, the 6 July “Stay away” projected an impression of shared disgruntlement among Zimbabweans despite their varying political perspectives, racial and class differences.

 

Even vendors did not open shop in Harare Central on July 6.

 

Nevertheless, it must be observed that the 6 July “stay away” protest coincided with a civil service strike organized by Zimbabwean trade unions.

 

It’s also worthy to note that early on 6 July violent commuter-taxi-protests erupted in Epworth, which is one of Harare’s most notorious slums.

 

In the midst of those Epworth taxi protests, a police officer was assaulted and the ensuing riot-police’s heavy-handed response was captured and published on social media, and those visuals went viral.

 

In the end, the Epworth commuter taxi demonstrations were inadvertently and mistakenly associated with the non-violent July 6 “stay away” called for by #This Flag.

 

Therefore, it could be argued that the fear, intrigue and anxiety inspired by the Epworth taxi-demonstrations contributed to the success of the 6 July “stay away.”

 

Simply put, after seeing visuals of the Epworth commuter-taxi demonstration most Harare based business owners, workers and vendors alike chose outright not to report to work on 6 July, predominantly because of fear of violence.

 

This point is reinforced by the fact that #This Flag’s call for a peaceful two-day “stay away” on 13 and 14 July was largely ignored by vendors, ordinary workers and business owners alike.

 

In fact, one local newspaper had this to say about #This Flag’s 13 and 14 July protest:

 

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“Zimbabweans… largely ignored calls for a national stay-away by pro-democracy activists, with business open as usual despite a slow start by entrepreneurs who feared an explosion of violence.”

 

Now, despite that it was clear on 13 July that the calls for the “stay away” had been largely ignored, the originator of #This Flag social movement, Pastor Evan Mawarire was arrested.

 

He was initially charged with “inciting public violence and disturbing peace” and was later charged with “subverting a constitutional government in contravention of section 22 (2) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.”

 

As widely documented, the arrest of Pastor Evan Mawarire and his subsequent appearance in court shifted the Zimbabwean public’s attention from the “stay away,” to Pastor Evan Mawarire himself.

 

In fact, after his arrest thousands of #This Flag supporters were mobilized via social media and physically gathered at the Harare magistrate’s court where Pastor Evan Mawarire’s matter was being heard.

 

According to reports, people gathered outside the court with the national flag. They sang songs and prayed outside the courthouse until the charges against Pastor Evan Mawarire were finally dropped and the pastor was released.

 

What ensued after his release has been widely reported and will not be discussed here.

 

Modernity versus Tradition

Now, from an analytical perspective, I find it curious that the young pastor was arrested in the first place.

 

I mean, as I mentioned earlier, it had been widely acknowledged that the July 13/14 “stay away” was unsuccessful, and that people had reported to work.

 

With that in mind, why, then, would anyone in authority insist that Pastor Evan be arrested despite that his call for a two-day “stay away” had been largely ignored?

 

If the authorities had let him alone, #This Flag would almost certainly have gradually dissipated. Yet, conversely, arresting him has brought more attention to #This Flag as a social movement and consequently, Pastor Evan is now one of the most popular people in the country.

 

This brings me to the issue of tradition versus modernity in social theory and the dynamics of Zimbabwean social change.

 

Modernity, put plainly, refers to modern societies characterized by democratic political structures, urbanization, technological progression, education, rationality and free market capitalism to name a few.

 

On the other hand, the traditionalist approach refers to beliefs and practices common in organizations economies or communities which are economically and technologically undeveloped and therefore fairly static within their structures and practices and tend to be predominately rural instead of urban.

 

Now when I analyse Pastor Evan Mawarire and #This Flag, as a social movement, all I see is people who strive for, and subscribe to modernity. These are people who want to catch up with the world and compete globally.

 

On the other hand, those who are denouncing Pastor Evan Mawarire and his #This Flag movement seem to lean towards traditionalism, and would prefer to remain in a state of de-industrialization, underdevelopment and stagnation. Essentially, they perceive #This Flag as contradictory to their pseudo revolutionary ideals.

 

It seems to me, however, that the country has reached a crossroads.

 

The thing is, #This Flag is a collective expression of the desire for modernity in a country that seems to be in a perpetual state of stagflation.

 

Yes, Evan Mawarire is the originator of #This Flag, but targeting him personally, doesn’t change the nature of the movement or the motivation behind it. The more anyone trys to silence Evan Mawarire, the louder that movement will become.

 

What’s needed in Zimbabwe right now is for those in authority to understand and appreciate that a significant proportion of Zimbabweans do not subscribe to the traditionalist ways of doing things anymore.

 

It is a fact that the majority of the population is below 40, and therefore in more cases than not, the majority of the population can empathize with pastor Evan Mawarire and the grievances that #This Flag conveys on behalf of citizens.

 

This is true in business, politics and social relations alike.

 

People want to move forward. People want to able to fulfill their potential. People want to be able to express themselves economically in their own country. I believe that is what #This Flag is about.

 

It’s a loud call for those in charge to embrace modernity in politics business and community alike. Zimbabwe can’t survive in a vacuum. We need to catch up with the rest of the world.

 

Tau Tawengwa

 

Executive Director

 

Email

zimrays@gmail.com

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