A social movement this week successfully managed to shut down the capital Harare in a series of protests against bad governance from President Robert Mugabe's regime, amid fears of "economic collapse" in the nation of almost 16 million.

The civilian-led demonstrations, a rarity in Zimbabwe where activists are routinely targeted by the authorities, was publicised with the hashtag #ThisFlag, and described by many as the most subversive movement in Zimbabwe's recent history.

The movement's architect is apolitical, and many in Zimbabwe now describe him as the nation's Martin Luther King, Jr. Like the Baptist pastor who led the US Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s, Evan Mawarire, 39, also a Baptist pastor unwittingly began the movement in May when he spontaneously posted a video online, in which he expressed his frustration at the state of his nation, wearing the Zimbabwean flag around his neck.

"When I look at the flag it's not a reminder of my pride and inspiration, it feels as if I want to belong to another country," Mawarire – known as Pastor Evan – can be seen saying in the clip that was uploaded using the hashtag ‪#‎ThisFlag. Everything grew rapidly from there, and the social media campaign lasted 25 days.

The video was seen and shared thousands of times, and other social media users became converts - posting pictures or videos of themselves wrapped in the stripped flag, using the same hashtag. On his Twitter account, which has over 16,000 followers, Mawarire recalled how users told him he was voicing concerns and feelings they thought they could not express, through fear of repression.

Pastor Evan Mawarire
Pastor Evan Mawarire accidentally started the #ThisFlag social movement in May 2016 when a video in which he spoke of his frustrations went viral Reuters

'Reclaiming our love for Zimbabwe'

"I saw the video a few days after it came out – it was deeply moving. You can see why it struck a chord with people. The brilliance of the video and of the whole campaign was that it reclaimed love of Zimbabwe and patriotism of Zimbabwe, even for those who are frustrated with the government," Doug Coltart, a Zimbabwean lawyer and the son of prominent Zimbabwean lawyer and founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Welshman Ncube, told IBTimes UK over the phone.

"For so long, (the ruling party) Zanu PF has almost said that you can only be patriotic if you support Zanu PF, which had taken the flag for themselves as if it was the party's symbol. But the video and campaign reclaimed those ideas."

The clergyman made it clear from the outset that he was not pushing any political agendas. #ThisFlag started with him venting his frustrations and it has snowballed into the movement being a platform for everyone to vent their own discontent.

The campaign developed organically from there, and became a central rallying point for Zimbabwe - both at home and the diaspora - the vast majority of whom, while they are opposed to what is happening in the government, have also been disillusioned by or pushed out of opposition politics.

"The platform that emerged was a truly non-partisan and grassroots movement," Coltart, who supports the movement, explained.

While members asked IBTimes UK not to reveal the structure of their movement and how it operated, they said community leaders had rallied around the Pastor to provide him with strategic advice. An unlikely outlet for many frustrated Zimbabweans, Mawarire has kept filming his #ThisFlag video series, in which he criticises the government's failure to provide basic services and to stem economic decline and corruption.

Pastor Evan Mawarire
This photo taken on May 19, 2016 in Harare shows Zimbabwean cleric Evan Mawarire, wrapped in the Zimbabwean National flag, recording an installment of his #ThisFlag video series JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

Pastor's life may be 'at risk'

"He really has emerged as a leader and I'm assuming, a selfless one, not someone who is seeking leadership or that kind of a position, just someone who found himself in a leadership position and has taken that on," Coltart said.

The lawyer highlighted consultations the Pastor had been carrying out - particularly with youths in the country, who have largely been disenfranchised and excluded - to demonstrate that the leader "is willing to listen and hear the cries of ordinary people".

Supporters also salute the Pastor's "remarkable bravery because he is putting himself at risk". The March 2015 abduction of Itai Dzamara, the head of the Occupy Africa Unity Square protest movement and a prominent critic of Mugabe still lingers in Zimbabweans' memories. The authorities deny any involvement in his disappearance but Dzamara is still missing, and his supporters and family fear he may have been killed.

Pastor Evan Mawarire - Quick facts

  • Born in 1977
  • A qualified auto electrician from the Harare Institute of Technology
  • Married with two children
  • Member of the Celebration Church in Zimbabwe

Mawarire admits to have received death threats at the beginning of his social media campaign. In a threatening call, he was warned that "the flag around your neck can strangle you". But the married father of two, who says he wants to enable Zimbabweans to speak out, is not looking to topple the regime.

"Now that the movement has taken on a whole new life and moved from social media into people's home and into the streets, he's only more at risk now than then. Now the movement is a threat to the establishment," Coltart, a human rights and constitutional lawyer, analyses.

Supporters, meanwhile, described the Pastor's "stay away" days of action as somewhat safer alternatives. "You are not exposed: you are at home and it's very hard to identify who is who, whether you stayed at home because you are protesting against the government or because there were no taxis to get to work," Coltart explained.

At first, the government openly ridiculed the #ThisFlag social movement - higher education minister Jonathan Moyo on Twitter described it as a "stinking (...) pastor's fart"- but it has emerged some politicians desperately want to it block it. Others have alleged the pastor was only campaigning to make money or to grow his congregation.

But the pastor, whose pinned Tweet reads: "We shall not be divided by the politics of our country, we will now be united by the dreams of our children", in return said he wants the citizens to be able to hold their leaders accountable.

After two members of Tajamuka-Sesijikile Campaign, which organised the crippling 'stay away' day of action together with the pastor, were allegedly abducted by suspected state security agents on Thursday (7 July) afternoon, Mawarire told followers on social media the arrests were designed to intimidate activists.

IBTimes UK was unable to obtain any comments on the matter from the Zimbabwean Embassy.