The government tried to ridicule the phenomenon with Minister Jonathan Moyo dismissing it as a “pastor’s fart” and calling its supporters “nameless, faceless trolls”.
The regime further tried to paint it as a Western-funded initiative and started the vain counter-campaign #OurFlag.
And yet, the movement continued to gain momentum in a country known for its repression of dissent.
Inspired by Mawarire’s message, activists organised large-scale non-violent protests including strikes and marches in which protesters donned the flag or its colours.
Demonstrators emulated the pastor’s emotive use of Zimbabwe’s national standard, which quickly became a symbol of defiance.
Following a few tumultuous months of this, the Justice Ministry issued a statement warning citizens that anyone who brought the flag into “disrepute” would face jail time of up to six months or a $200 fine.
In October 2016, an opposition MP Trevor Saruwaka, was refused entry to Parliament for wearing a jacket in the colours of the flag.
The next month, police forcefully ejected another opposition legislator from Parliament for wearing a similar outfit.
In a short space of time, the #ThisFlag movement had fundamentally reshaped the country’s mindset with its assertion that Zimbabwe is for all Zimbabweans.
It reclaimed the flag as a symbol of the nation rather than of the ruling ZANU-PF government.
It emboldened citizens to redefine their national identity and challenged the notion that patriotism only means blind loyalty to the government.
In the face of the state’s “business as usual” approach and dismissal of widespread legitimate concerns, it gave citizens an outlet for their hopes as well as their grievances.
This made #ThisFlag a real threat to the ZANU-PF, whose usual reflex of using force and arrests seemed inappropriate for such a broad-based movement.
The government was frightened by the phenomenon’s wide and flexible appeal, its amorphous yet inclusive ideology, and its unpredictability.
Many in power remembered only too well how potent a mass rejection of a repressive establishment could be from their own previous roles in Zimbabwe’s popularly-driven liberation from colonialism.
The government eventually took the wind out of the movement by targeting Mawarire, who went into exile following arrest, judicial harassment and death threats; but the image of Zimbabwe’s flag continued to signify defiance.
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