Evan Mawarire, the pastor who has emerged as leader of Zimbabwe’s new protest movement, has called on citizens to “scale the wall of fear” and speak out over the country’s mounting crisis.
Talking to AFP by telephone in Johannesburg, he denied going into hiding in South Africa after he was released by a Harare court last week over charges of trying to topple President Robert Mugabe’s government.
Mawarire, who said he has no political ambitions, became the public face of a wave of protests in Zimbabwe as founder of the popular “ThisFlag” internet campaign and an organiser of a national strike.
The country’s long-standing economic troubles have deepened in recent months, with Mugabe — aged 92 and increasingly frail — now struggling to pay soldiers and civil servants.
“The biggest goal that we have (is) to get citizens to be awake again, to move away from apathy, to be patriotic and to feel responsible for their country,” Mawarire said in the interview on Monday evening.
“We have to get citizens to scale the wall of fear and to get a place where they are not afraid to speak, not afraid to stand up and be open.”
The pastor said his visit to neighbouring South Africa was a “pre-planned” business trip and that he would soon return to Zimbabwe.
“I know it gives rise to rumours about ‘him having run away or gone to seek asylum’,” Mawarire said. “(But) as soon as I have exhausted my work, I will be heading back there.”
Mawarire, whose wife and daughters are still in Harare, has avoided criticising Mugabe directly, instead appealing for Zimbabweans to express their frustration peacefully over the chronic shortage of jobs.
Mugabe, who has crushed almost all signs of dissent in his decades in power since 1980, has vowed to stand again for re-election in 2018, while his wife Grace is tipped as a possible successor.
The pastor said he hoped to focus on voter awareness ahead of the poll, and to tackle the pessimism bred by violence and vote-rigging that have kept Mugabe in office.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Mawarire, who often wears the national flag tied around his neck.
“As a pastor, it is natural for me to stand for justice and for righteousness and mercy and for me to demand integrity, and I feel I’m in my element doing that.
“I don’t at this point feel a calling to go into politics.”
He described the sudden surge of protests in Zimbabwe as something “nobody could have imagined”.
“There are things we didn’t necessarily plan, but we were just ready for opportunities,” he said.
Several hundred noisy young supporters rallied all day outside the court before Mawarire was released, in a rare display of public anti-government activism in Zimbabwe.
Mawarire at the weekend posted a video assuring his followers that he was safe after a truck of unidentified men showed up at his Harare office and house looking for him.
Fear runs deep among Zimbabwean activists.
Last year leading opposition activist Itai Damara was abducted by unknown men and his whereabouts are still unknown.
“The question of security is a very tough one to deal with,” Mawarire said.
“Even when I am there, I fear for my family.
“I am an ordinary citizen who cannot afford intricate security systems,” he said, adding he believed God protects him and his family.