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World

Baptist Pastor Inspires Protests Against Zimbabwe's Authoritarian Leader

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Zimbabwe has been ruled by one man since independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe. The one-time liberation fighter has morphed into an authoritarian who opposes dissent and is overseeing a crushing economic crisis. And a very unlikely rival has emerged from that turmoil - a flag-wearing, media savvy 39-year-old Baptist pastor. Peter Granitz has the story.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: On April 20, Zimbabwean preacher Evan Mawarire decided he had had enough. Frustrated that he could not pay his daughter's school fees, he wrapped himself in the Zimbabwean flag, turned on his camera and unloaded about corruption and misrule while taking off the colors of the flag and what they represent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRANITZ: The yellow is for all the minerals, (foreign language spoken), diamonds, platinum, chrome. I don't know how much of it is left, and I don't know who they sold it to and how much they got for it.

GRANITZ: He didn't post it immediately.

EVAN MAWARIRE: I did it, and then I watched it. And I thought to myself, oh, my God, am I sure I'm going to post this?

GRANITZ: By the next afternoon, the video had gone viral. He posted more videos and hash-tagged them #ThisFlag. Those, too, went viral. He told followers to wear the flag as they went about their days. On July 6, he called for followers to stay at home to protest the government's management of the collapsing economy. The strike shuttered businesses in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, and was the largest act of disobedience against the Mugabe regime in years.

MAWARIRE: The group of people who are not afraid in Zimbabwe is growing by the day. It's growing by the day. And this has been the job of this flag - is to help citizens scale the wall of fear because that's the thing that has held us back.

GRANITZ: However, shortly after the strike, Mawarire was arrested for inciting public violence. After a night in jail and a brief court hearing, he was released.

MAWARIRE: When I saw people gathered outside the courthouse in their thousands, I knew at that very point that even if they did arrest me - God forbid, even if they killed me - this would never die.

GRANITZ: But he feared for his life and fled to South Africa. Mawarire says he never travels alone. He checks in with people throughout the day to let them know he's safe. His pregnant wife and two daughters have recently joined him. We meet in a crowded coffee shop in a crowded mall in Johannesburg. Mawarire says he's worried he's letting down his supporters.

MAWARIRE: I had someone write, and they said, you know, I hope you haven't left us. You know, in fact, someone said, you know, you drew us out to the battlefront.

GRANITZ: Before and after we talked, Zimbabweans living in South Africa flocked to the pastor to snap selfies with Mawarire and his flag. At a recent address to Zimbabwean students crowded into a University auditorium in Johannesburg, Mawarire urged his countrymen to imagine a better Zimbabwe.

MAWARIRE: Imagine a Zimbabwe where no one dies because the hospital was ill-equipped, where life-saving medications are easily available and affordable. Yes, as the Bible says, we are confident of this - that we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

(APPLAUSE)

GRANITZ: Graduate student Tanaka Makonese says she's grateful someone is willing to stand up, and that's what makes this movement different from any in the past.

TANAKA MAKONESE: We've all had these thoughts. They've been bubbling in us. And we think the same things, and we say the same thing. But someone has decided to stand up and represent us and say that we are tired.

GRANITZ: She's also nervous. She finishes school in six months, and since she's unlikely to get permanent residence in South Africa, she'll have to return to Harare, where she knows she won't find work. President Mugabe says Mawarire is no longer welcome in Zimbabwe, and it remains to be seen if Mawarie's social media push can force Mugabe out of office. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.