Savage attacks on peaceful demonstrators have put Zimbabwe in the news again. Hopes of change have been dashed. For the army and police, extreme violence remains the sole recourse for dealing with grave social and economic problems inherited from One Party rule under President Robert Mugabe.
I became acquainted with the Zimbabwe story forty years ago just before Mugabe came to power. In 1978, I went to Salisbury, now Harare, to discover who was killing missionaries from the progressive Bethlehem Mission in Immensee, Switzerland. Of course Bethlehem Fathers were not the only people being killed at that time. Rhodesia was almost at the end of a brutal civil/liberation war. Ian Smith’s security forces had budded off a counter-insurgency unit, the Selous Scouts, which sometimes dressed up as vakomana, Mugabe’s ZANLA (Zimbabwe National Liberation Army) guerrilla forces, in order to catch ZANLA sympathisers. They called it “dragging”. A significant number of the Bethlehem priests supported the liberation struggle. But it was unclear which side in this bitter struggle was responsible for their killings.
Working with the courageous Rhodesian Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, we were led a merry chase: we finally discovered that the private detective ‘helping’ us was taking his instructions from Smith’s security forces, so not surprisingly bodies disappeared from wells, and we always seemed to arrive a day or so too late. But you learnt fast. In such wars it is often impossible to know who is on which side. The old man with a bicycle stubbornly standing on your side of the road, refusing to get out of the way, was most likely stopping a mission vehicle going over a mine. The missionaries always put me in the second vehicle on mined roads. Years later it became evident that the missionaries’ deaths were caused by ZANLA commanders many of whom had personal grudges, like being expelled from school, against individual clergy.
The war was terrible with atrocities on both sides; the insurgents should neither be romanticized nor demonised. Elderly women were denounced as witches to the vakomana and summarily executed. Sadistic area commanders could wreak havoc. Even if they were reported to ZANLA headquarters in Mozambique, it could take a long time to get rid of them. Yet support for ZANLA and Mugabe was overwhelming. Bishop Abel Muzorewa, part of the Executive Council of Smith’s short-lived Interim Government 1978-1979, would never be able to win an election or capture the dominant Shona-speaking vote. I told the Foreign Secretary, Dr. David Owen, as much after my visit. He listened.
The offices where I worked in London were a drop-in for exiled Zimbabweans struggling for independence, seemingly idealistic young men and women. I did a television programme with one, Simbi Mubako, a law lecturer at Southampton University, to highlight the human rights abuses in his country and the need for the British government to act. After Independence in 1980, Simbi was appointed Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. In January 1983, Mugabe’s North-Korean trained 5th brigade began to eliminate members of ZIPRA, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, the armed wing of the largely Ndebele-speaking rival ZAPU, (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union) under the leadership of the old nationalist Joshua Nkomo. This was followed by the killing of suspected ZAPU members. In the Bulawayo area more than 20,000 people were killed and many more detained during a purge lasting from 1983-1987, called Gukurahundi, (the early rain that washes away the chaff).
I wrote to Simbi asking him to speak out against these human rights abuses as he had done in Britain against those committed by the Smith regime. His reply was saddening. I must return to Zimbabwe and he and I would go round Matabeleland together and I would see that all the allegations were either false or exaggerated. I replied that he must know that if we travelled around, as we would, in a government vehicle with an escort, nobody would dare say a word. With the now President Emmerson Mnangagwa as Minister of State Security in charge of the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation), widely believed to be complicit in the massacres, it was probably more than Simbi’s life was worth to respond otherwise. He later became a High Court Judge.
The Mugabe regime illustrated with terrible clarity what political life meant in a one-Party state: the accumulation of wealth. And wealth in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe meant amongst other things extensive land-holding. Politics had very little to do with justice, the wellbeing of citizens, or the electoral promises made at independence. In 1978 I imagined it had. Democracy and elections are supposed to enable citizens to get rid of governments that destroy their economy, society and political life. But Zimbabwe’s birth in violence meant that democracy did not have a chance; with most other institutions, except the Churches, eroded and struggling, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces were, and remain, the country’s unelected rulers wedded to extreme violence.
The words of a pastoral letter from the Zimbabwean Catholic Bishops distributed on 17 January 2019 show that they, at least, have not abandoned hope. “While for many, hope for a better Zimbabwe might appear lost, we reaffirm St. Paul’s message that when all else fails, there are three pillars that remain to hold on to: Faith, Hope and Love. We believe in a God of second chances…” Many also believe that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But Lord Acton’s is not necessarily the last word. He was, incidentally, writing about Popes as well as Kings.
So, on the one side, there’s Acton’s unromantic “certainty of corruption by authority”, on the other the Bishops’ virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. Zimbabwe has to play for its future with this loaded dice. Africa has so often been the graveyard of idealism. And the God of second chances has so often seen them squandered.