HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s national flag is furiously flapping in the center of a heated social media war over what the flag means and people’s frustrations with President Robert Mugabe’s government.
The hashtags #Thisflag and #Ourflag now determine one’s political loyalty in this deeply polarized southern African country.
A young pastor in the capital, Evan Mawarire, in April launched the #Thisflag campaign to protest alleged government failures. He said he was struggling to raise money for his children’s school fees when he looked at the flag sitting on his office desk. He questioned its relevance, and from there the idea was born.
Mawarire went onto social media and challenged people to post pictures and videos of themselves with the national flag and to drape the flag around their shoulders in public. His first video, in which he rants about how the flag’s colors have lost significance because of alleged political mismanagement, attracted over 120,000 views on the first day it was posted.
He has since posted several videos, and the campaign has taken on a life of its own. Other people now post videos of themselves wrapped in the flag and venting about their everyday problems.
“I was just frustrated,” Mawarire told The Associated Press. “My own country is standing in front of my dreams. That’s how I started the campaign.” He said he has since received death threats that say the flag should be used to choke him.
Gone viral, the campaign is now a full-blooded political war that has engaged cabinet ministers, members of parliament and diplomats in the social media conflict.
To counter Mawarire’s movement, supporters of Mugabe’s government have coined their own campaign, #Ourflag. That campaign extolls Mugabe’s virtues and the successes of his ruling ZANU-PF party, but it has struggled to take off.
The five colors of the Zimbabwe flag, adopted at independence in 1980, are loaded with political and economic significance. Red represents the blood shed during the 1970s war to end white minority rule, yellow is for the country’s gold and mineral resources and green stands for Zimbabwe’s rich agriculture and its rural areas. Black is for the country’s majority population and white stands for peace. The flag also features a rendering of the historic Zimbabwe bird which is on top of a red star, symbolizing the Marxism espoused by the ruling party at independence.
The dueling flag campaigns have sparked some skirmishes in parliament.
“This is the Zimbabwean flag. Just put it down,” speaker of the House of Assembly, Jacob Mudenda, said to opposition MPs who wore flags over their shoulders during a session last month. “Place the Zimbabwean flag down. We have to treat it with some respect.”
Opposition chief whip Innocent Gonese responded by pointing out the small flag pins worn by ZANU-PF supporters: “Where is the difference with those wearing the flag over their shoulders and those with flags on their jackets?”
Diplomats have entered the fray, with the United States and European Union ambassadors to Zimbabwe retweeting some of the campaign messages. U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas drew the anger of pro-Mugabe officials, who began calling him #dirtyharry, after he tweeted in May: “Wonder if #Zimbabwe’s #ThisFlag movement will spread to the US y other nations?”
Others in Zimbabwe think it’s a wasteful campaign.
“The only person benefiting from this is the guy selling the flags,” said Blessing Vava, a government critic activist based in South Africa. “If Zimbabweans are bold enough, then they should just demonstrate in the streets.”