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Guest Contributor: Critical Reflections on #ThisFlag campaign

Editorial note: This is a guest contribution by Mfundo Mlilo reflecting on the current #ThisFlag campaign currently trending among Zimbabweans within and outside the country. We welcome guest contributions on any issues of interest, particularly tin relation to Zimbabwe.


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#ThisFlag campaign has taken Zimbabwean social media by storm, thanks to the efforts of a young clergyman, Pastor Evan Mawarire who started the campaign a few weeks ago. It has gained huge momentum in recent days. Pastor Mawarire has been in the news, has been interviewed by international media organisations including the BBC World Service. Also this week, Pastor Mawarire had an opportunity rare to government critics, when he was interviewed by ZiFM, one of Zimbabwe’s very few private broadcasters. It was an explosive interview in which he and citizens who called in the phone-in segment of the programme articulated the pain and frustrations of Zimbabweans.

Fueled by and exploiting spaces in social media and mobilizing a younger generation hitherto on the periphery of public participation, the campaign has attracted a great deal of attention. Predictably, some in government have shown their discomfort with the campaign, while others are already asking questions and expressing doubts about the campaign’s endgame. I argue that this is a significant development, the likes of which has not been seen before in Zimbabwe. Those who are doubting or questioning it are most probably informed by a fear of the unfamiliar and unconventional. It is not the campaign they are used to or expect. It does not fit the template; hence, they are unsure.

His political career might have been blighted, but speaking at one of his charged rallies Arthur Mutambara once said, “Zimbabweans are ZANU PF positive.” By this, he meant our national consciousness has transmogrified into a ZANU PF complex. There is a Latin expression, argumentum ex silentio, which means argument from silence – the fallacy that if something is not said, therefore it cannot exist. Likewise, if certain kinds of thinking do not conform to ways that we are used to or that we know, we end up thinking it cannot be right or true.

There is also a related binary complex of “them” and “us” that has characterized our politics for a long time – that if you are not with us, therefore you must be with them and vice versa. The in-between does not exist. There is no-one outside them and us category – but this is a fatally flawed way of thing, which #ThisFlag campaign is seriously challenging. It is telling politicians and their supporters alike that there is a huge layer in between, and beyond, that does not belong to those categories or solely to those categories. I raise these complexes and fallacies about some of the criticisms that I have heard over #ThisFlag Campaign.

  1. One criticism, for example, is that the campaign does not have an “endgame strategy” or “we do not know” where is it going, therefore it’s a weak campaign

  2. Another is that because it has no “ideology”, then it is unidirectional and taking us nowhere.

  3. A third criticism is that a “herd mentality motivates Zimbabweans following #ThisFlag.”

They are not illegitimate concerns when looked at through the lenses of conventional campaign wisdom. Conventional campaign wisdom has certain core elements: campaigns must be time specific, have clarity of message and have a solid ideological standing, and in the context of Zimbabwe, they must be about electoral politics. This is what conventional wisdom teaches campaigners in current campaign spaces. It’s a template, taught again and again via workshops and conferences.

However, what many in this zone of conventionalism have failed to realize is that #ThisFlag campaign is actually about defying conventional wisdom. It rejects the template thinking about the national psyche and asks questions in an unconventional sense. This is why naysayers across the political divide are confused as to what is going on and how to understand this phenomenon. On the one hand, it is anchored on the very praxis that has defined ZANU PF and nationalist discourse – in simple words conventional patriotism while it embraces a new form of patriotic opposition. It is challenging the state using its tools – or more directly, its symbols. It is a new kind of connection that has allowed Pastor Mawarire to find connection and meaning in a country divided and ravished by party politics. #ThisFlag campaign is not a product of careful planning or organization – it is organizing itself and planning as it moves and this has caught both the seasoned political actors and even the security establishment by surprise.

In essence, those searching for its endgame and its ideology have missed the train. It’s the equivalent of disruptive technology or similar modes of thinking in business. Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe an innovation which creates a new market and value network, which in time disrupts a pre-existing market and value network. In the process, established market leaders are displaced. It has happened with mobile telephones, and in Zimbabwe mobile money transfer is doing similar things to traditional banks while mobile phone companies themselves are now struggling due to the proliferation of social media. In places like New York, the famous Yellow Cabs are struggling to cope with UBER technology. This is what happens when the old fails to cope with the new. This Flag campaign is new and still in its infancy, but it is doing an outstanding job of challenging conventional wisdom about campaigns and mobilization which established political and civil society organisations have hitherto been used to.

Evan Mawarire’s campaign may take whatever direction it takes, but it has already left an indelible mark on Zimbabwe. There are critical lessons to be learned by the established actors. It has raised a new form of consciousness that had anchored the 1999 civic movement, except that now it is using social media spaces which did not exist in 1999. It is a kind of organic consciousness that has connected people across the political and class divisions to reject the excesses of the regime. It means different things to different people. It has provided a new avenue for the national expression of the deep-seated anger that is simmering in our country.

For the regime and security analysists, it’s a clear warning of the deep-seated feelings out there. People are tired, frustrated and unhappy. To the opposition and civic activists, it’s a time for reflection – are we stuck in old modes? Have we lost a whole generation? There is a need for a new kind of thinking and strategies that defy conventional wisdom if they are to survive.

Mfundo Mlilo is an Urban and Regional Scholar at the London School of Economics and also the Chief Executive Officer of the Combined Harare Residents Association.

If you would like to add or respond to Mfundo’s article, we welcome guest contributions.

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