Six months ago, a Zimbabwean pastor named Evan Mawarire posted some videos on YouTube. He was fed up with the corruption and brutality of his country’s government, which has been led by Robert Mugabe for more than 36 years. Mugabe is now a frail 92-year-old, but he retains a stranglehold on power.
In the videos, Mawarire is draped in Zimbabwe’s flag. The videos were accompanied by the hashtag #ThisFlag, which became the name of a nascent movement, instigating protests over the past few months that were met with police brutality and widespread arrests. In the videos, Mawarire calls on his countrymen to join him in working for change and to reclaim their flag.
On Tuesday, it appeared that the movement has done just that.
Responding to the use of the nation’s flag in the protests, the Zimbabwean government made the highly unusual move of banning private citizens from using their flag — at least in any way the government might disapprove of.
“Members of the public who participate in any action or activity involving the national flag or to bring the national flag into disrepute are warned that they are liable to prosecution,” Virginia Mabiza, a senior official in the Justice Ministry, said in a statement. She added that the government would begin enforcing an existing law that bans production and sale of the flag without the Justice Ministry’s permission. Offenders could face a fine of approximately $200 or up to a year in jail.
Mawarire is currently in self-imposed exile after Mugabe and other government officials threatened him by name. Other activist leaders in Zimbabwe have gone missing in the past, such as Itai Dzamara, who disappeared last year after leading protests in the capital, Harare. Mawarire is currently in New York, leading protests at the U.N.’s annual General Assembly meeting, where Mugabe is in attendance.
“The ban is a sign,” Mawarire said in an interview. “Let me register it as a victory for the citizens of Zimbabwe. This flag belongs to the citizens now, not the government.”
Mawarire was joined at the protest by Dzamara’s brother, Patson, as well as Thomas Mapfumo, one of the country’s most popular and politically charged singers, who lives in exile in the United States.
Zimbabwe is in the midst of a total economic meltdown. It doesn’t have a currency of its own. Drought has ravaged the country and left millions in need of food aid. Mugabe has been long rumored to be in declining health, and members of his ZANU-PF party have been jostling for years over his eventual succession.