Zimbabwe’s churches are no longer silent, writes Paul Keenan
How far is too far in a country which prizes the separation of Church and State? The question is one that taxes religious leaders in any functioning democracy on a regular basis as politicians work to create their legacies or shift and bend to popular will for the sake of votes over logic. The question is no less one for politicians as they skirt the edges of freedom of religion issues in attempting to realise their visions for the countries they helm.
One leader who appears immune to such considerations, albeit his native Zimbabwe boasts of cleaving to the separation of Church and State is President Robert Mugabe.
That most enduring of despots, now 92 but with the fiercest of grips yet on the levers of power, has time and again displayed a nature impervious to the polite boundaries of statehood, not to mention the niceties of international diplomacy – many will recall the raised eyebrows at his attendance at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005 (when he brazenly challenged the willingness of leaders to enact an international arrest warrant in his name).
Now in Zimbabwe, church leaders of all stripes appear to be united in the conviction that, in the face of an unfolding economic and therefore human catastrophe, if polite boundaries do not apply to Mr Mugabe, then they are free to overstep the mark in defence of a struggling people.
“Listen to the cries of citizens, which are loud and clear,” the united leaders of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe and other leading organisations have most lately urged as Zimbabwe begins a steady spiral towards bankruptcy and chaos, a situation only replicated by modern Venezuela.
At the heart of events, which are becoming steadily more violent, is the simple fact that Zimbabwe is running out of money. Too many years of misrule and outright corruption have seen the country shift first to the dollar in an attempt to steady a rocky boat, but with little impact on an unemployment rate surging at 90%.
Police and civil servants have been paid late or not at all, hospitals cannot purchase necessary medications and pensions have dried up.
Meanwhile, Mr Mugabe’s policies have simultaneously driven out successful farmers and overseas investors, severely damaging the country’s ability to feed itself and to export.
Against the harsh realities of unemployment, ordinary citizens import goods – mainly from South Africa – which they can then resell for everyday survival.
But now even this lifeline has been severed. In hopes of stimulating local production, in mid-June the government ordered an immediate end to imports from South Africa, effectively stripping countless Zimbabweans of their livelihoods.
Slowly and steadily, Mr Mugabe has steered his country towards outright disaster, dealing harshly with dissenters and leaving it to the normally silent churches to organise relief for their struggling communities. But things have become so bad that even the threat of brutal treatment at the hands of the security forces is not enough to dissuade angry opposition to the president’s strategies to deal with the malaise.
Violent confrontation is on the rise, most recently in early July when minibus drivers protested at an increase in police roadblocks at which unpaid officers are allegedly strong-arming motorists for bribes.
“Life is unbearable now for most people,” Fr Frederick Chiromba, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference, recently told Catholic News Service, his comments coming as the combined Churches issued their appeal for sense from government and a measure of relief for desperate and angry citizens.
Those angry people, increasingly unafraid of confrontation, have today found a voice enunciating their disaffections in a figure no longer willing to play Mugabe’s old game. Christian Pastor Evan Mawarire has emerged as a figurehead around whom Zimbabweans are rallying for an antidote to Zimbabwe’s plight.
Having begun a campaign, #ThisFlag, on social media to highlight the concerns of citizens and to prompt action from the government, Pastor Mawarire (pictured) has, since April, become a thorn in the side of President Mugabe with his call for people to shut down Zimbabwe until five key demands are met: Pay civil servants on time; reduce roadblocks and stop officers harassing people for cash; the president should fire and prosecute corrupt officials; abandon plans to introduce bond notes as a cash replacement; and remove the ban on imported goods.
Zimbabweans have clearly responded to the pastor’s call. Two weeks ago, a mass ‘stay away’ protest resulted in a one-day closure of schools, shops and businesses nationwide in a strike that was the biggest mass mobilisation of the people since 2005.
Falling well short of a call for violent action, Pastor Mawarire’s message has nevertheless crossed something of a red line in Zimbabwe by declaring forcefully that “Enough is enough…it has gone on too long, gone unchecked for too long, the situation has become untenable.”
Daring indeed. And enough to draw that harsh reaction that Mr Mugabe is known for. Last week Mr Mawarire was arrested on charges of inciting public violence. By the time he reached court, the charges had somehow increased to those of subversion and attempting to unseat a constitutional government, with a likely penalty of 20 years in prison.
To the joy of supporters massed outside the courthouse, however, the presiding judge ruled that Mr Mawarire had no case to answer and dismissed all charges. One report offered a picture of people outside the court dancing as though ‘celebrating independence’, a telling image.
More telling, though, is the reaction of Mr Mugabe and his inner circle to the rise of these ‘turbulent priests’ unwilling to be silent. At a Million Man March in May to gather Mr Mugabe’s supporters together in a show of strength, the president’s wife spoke pointedly in religious terms in defence of her husband’s ‘right’ to rule.
“You were chosen by God because you are faithful to God, he chose you before you were born,” she said for the benefit of the assembled masses. (No separation of Church and State here, apparently.)
This statement, more than any political diatribe against opponents, demonstrates the tickle of uncertainty that President Mugabe must be feeling for the first time.
Ever the wily operator, however, he appears to be playing the religious at their own game and attempting to appeal to their base, but has the elder statesman already moved too far beyond his people (and unpaid police force) to counter a truth being shouted from the pulpits?
Just like the churches, the question must be asked of Mr Mugabe, how far is too far even for him?