“It feels as though the poor has no one to defend them. They don’t seem to feature in the national agenda. Their cries for an improved health system go unheeded..…It is not clear to your bishops that the national leadership we have has the knowledge, social skills, emotional stability and social orientation to handle the issues that we face as a nation. All we hear from them is blame for our woes on foreigners, colonialism, white settlers and so called internal detractors”.
This is taken from a powerful pastoral letter from Zimbabwe’s bishops that has hit the Catholic headlines this week. Though talk of ‘the Church’s prophetic voice’ is commonplace, we are unaccustomed to such forthright documents from Church leaders. It is easy to talk vaguely about peace, justice and reconciliation. Nobody takes much notice. Nothing much happens. But for African bishops living under corrupt regimes, their countries plundered, their freedoms lost, the choice is stark: to speak out or, by their silence, become complicit.
The Zimbabwean Bishops’ Conference have made their choice and, on 14 August published, “The March is not Ended”, a pastoral letter about the current situation in Zimbabwe. Drawing on Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah and Micah, and on Catholic Social Teaching The March is not Ended points to the gulf between a small elite which has benefitted from Independence, who think they have ‘arrived’, ‘ended their march for freedom’, and the suffering majority of Zimbabweans faced with a multi-layered crisis. This metaphor of ‘the march’ and biblical references, if properly understood, might not have created a Church-State crisis. But the forthright, detailed, factual description of human rights violations, apparent implicit support for public protest, and their description of the political, economic and social situation in Zimbabwe, did create just such a crisis.
The next day, 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Monica Mutsvangwa, responded by accusing the President of the Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Robert Nhlovu, of leading the country towards a Rwandan-type conflict, describing him as an ‘evil bishop’, and deliberately trying to isolate him by ignoring the fact that all the members of the Bishops Conference had signed the pastoral. Archbishop Nhlovu, who before being appointed to Harare was formerly Bishop of Hwange, comes from an Ndebele-speaking region where from 1983-1987 massacres had occurred, led by Robert Mugabe’s North Korean trained 5th. Brigade troops who killed some 20,000 Ndebele-speakers. The brief mention in the pastoral of these former human rights violations added to the government’s fury. The man who is widely thought to have masterminded the Ndebele pogroms, Minister of State Security at the time, was Emmerson Mnangagwa now President of Zimbabwe. He was the favoured candidate of the UK for the Presidency after the coup in 2017 which toppled Robert Mugabe.
Catholics and other Christians have found the courage to defy the government and support their leaders. The Catholic Professionals Network of Zimbabwe in an open letter emphasise that the bishops acted “collectively not individually and that the reference to Archbishop Nhlovu’s ethnicity – it was not the first tribalist attack on him from ZANU-PF – was “needlessly brought to the fore and is singled out for a venomous attack as if the pastoral letter was his own initiative or creation”. The Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations Sabbath Call message in October 2019 had appealed for unity in the face of Zimbabwe’s spiraling crises. In 7 August this year The Platform of Concerned Citizens (PCC) deplored the insulting responses to the African Union’s concern about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and to a similar expression of concern by the ANC from South Africa. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches are now urging the government to retract its insulting response to Archbishop Nhlovu. The Catholic Bishops are not a lone voice but their message to Zimbabwean Catholics, read at Sunday mass, is by far the strongest and clearest.
How can anyone help? It is clear that Britain’s track record in the country means any protests will be dismissed by the Zimbabwe government. But the Church in Zimbabwe urgently needs tangible international signs of solidarity. This means more than statements of support from Churches around the world however much they are appreciated. The Archbishop clearly needs attention to his security. The Bishops’ Conference premises will need competent guards. This should not be seen as an in inappropriate form of funding from, say, Aid to the Church in Need, or Catholic development agencies. I was in Rhodesia when the Bethlehem Fathers Moto Press was burned by Ian Smith’s thugs and in South Africa when the Bishops Secretariat was burned out by apartheid agents. It happens.
South Africa is geographically in a position to intervene – it has a refugee problem from destitute Zimbabwean migrants - but there is little support for strong action elsewhere in the region. Zimbabwean opposition parties, however disorganized, need support from their sister Parties in the international community and particularly from the Commonwealth, or the last possibilities of democratic change will disappear. And instead of anger, abuse and calumny the Zimbabwean government needs to listen to those who love their country and cannot bear any longer to see it destroyed and its people impoverished.
See also The Tablet On-Line 17/08/2020