The face of Zimbabwe's #ThisFlag protest campaign has dismissed critics of his tour of the United States, saying they should focus on removing President Robert Mugabe rather than his itinerary. This comes after Zimbabweans, who support the movement, voiced their "confusion" and said they feel "betrayed" by the campaign's leader Pastor Evan Mawarire's failure to return to Zimbabwe.
After a stint in neighbouring South Africa, he announced last week that he was going to the US, but did not confirm he was settling in the US, instead saying he was visiting to "meet with fellow Zimbabweans and to take time to think what will be my next move".
As critics of his departure from Zimbabwe started using the hashtag #ThisAsylum – after claiming the pastor had seemingly abandoning the cause to seek safety in the US – a video of the pastor emerged, apparently showing him allegedly mocking former supporters and calling them "haters".
In the clip, the clergyman is asked whether he has "anything to say to the haters", to which he answers, "Yeah, you are so quick to tell me to come back home but you can't tell Bob (President Robert Mugabe) to go away."
A number of former supporters took to social media to denounce his comments. A Zimbabwean user, Fiso Marihoho, said "I'm one of those who were not impressed by your haters video. It was embarrassing and allowed the enemy to worm his way in."
In an answer to the fierce debate, the pastor on Monday (15 August) evening posted another video on his Facebook account, in which he is seen apologising for the earlier clip. He is seen saying: "In the last few day I may have upset some of you...". For Marihoho, the pastor must be commended "for being the bigger person and apologising publicly".
Some pockets of Zimbabwean society have heavily criticised his tour of the US – which first stop was Atlanta, Georgia – claiming there was "no need" for him to leave. Facebook user Frank Tatenda Takawira, a Zimbabwean living in Hangzhou, China, said: "(There) was no need for him to run away (because) of the support he got. Even Mugabe was afraid of him (that's) why he gave Mawarire Mari (money, in Shona)".
On Sunday, blogger and women rights activist Jean Gasho, highlighted how she now felt let down by Mawarire's decision to emigrate to the US. "I thought you were extremely brave and courageous (...) However fast-forward four weeks later, I haven't got a clue as to what's happening anymore. Each time I watch your recent videos I feel confused and somewhat betrayed," Gasho wrote in a blog post. (Read more: #ThisFlag followers 'confused and betrayed' by Pastor Evan Mawarire's US move).
Supporters: Mawarire's whereabouts are 'irrelevant'
Others, slammed critics who "known what will happen if he gets back to Zimbabwe" but "still insult him for running away".
A user living in Cape Town, South Africa, Sam Mukori, said Mawarire's whereabouts were "irrelevant" as he had "been posting his videos on social media" to encourage Zimbabweans to speak out. "If he goes to Zim he will be locked up and his part in#ThisFlag will be dead. Pastor, asylum is a necessary concept if you are fighting a desperate (government) – even Bob at one time was on exile. The problem with some people who feel 'sold out' or 'let down' is either they have nothing to contribute to the movement or are serial abusers of the 'political asylum' concept."
For others in Zimbabwe, the clergyman, who is expected to tour the US and carry out speaking engagements at universities, remains an ambassador for the movement even overseas. Matthew M. Chikoto from Murewa (Mashonaland East Province), said: "Mawarire does not own this #ThisFlag. It belongs to the citizens of Zimbabwe. As our spokesperson in this movement his word will forever remain relevant. He understand this battle more than many of us on this platform. Keep encouraging us Pastor Evan Mawarire".
Facebook user Grace Sibanda echoed this view: "You don't have to be in Zimbabwe to fulfil what God has planted in you".
Zimbabwean diaspora shows support
Zimbabweans from the diaspora have also shown their support, with the likes of Cindy Tarirah, a Zimbabwean from Harare who lives in Atlanta, writing: "(I) am a Zimbabwean citizen living in USA, the same people call us cowards for leaving Zim (Zimbabwe) yet it is the money we send that is backing Zim economy. Any presidential candidate will have to win my vote because I am a citizen and will no longer stand and watch while Zimbabwe collapses. That is what #This flag is about – not a political party."
Shamiso Magayisa, a Zimbabwean from Mutare (Manicaland province) who now lives in London, UK, thanked Mawarire "for rallying up Zimbo's around the world – there is 7 million of us in the diaspora and we are also Zimbabweans who are desperate to come back and rebuild our nation".
She added: "We can't wait to meet with you so we can also be instrumental and be a part of the foundation of this new Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans abroad have the funds, exposure and expertise that will be necessary to build a world class wonder called Zimbabwe. Remember the prophecy that said Zimbabwe is going to be a source of good governance and leadership, this is exactly what you are doing, this has never been done before, it's new to a lot of people so some don't understand that it's necessary to engage as well as to build friendships and bridges with world power countries."
Described the pastor as "simply rallying Diasporans to participate in the Zimbabwean cause", Takesure Pambuka from Chipinge (Manicaland Province), meanwhile, said his departure may not have a huge impact. "Not that the struggle needs him. It needs Zimbabweans who want change. He didn't lie to you that he would lead. I remember him saying his intention was to get everyone bold to speak against the evils of government and he consistently said he had no other plan beyond that. I think he achieved his aims. You are bold to post your videos and to comment on political issues like never before."
In Zimbabwe, meanwhile, opposition heavyweights Joice Mujuru and Morgan Tsvangirai vowed to end reign of Mugabe's Zanu-PF in a historic show of unity, and voiced their hopes to challenge the ageing President in the 2018 poll.