What Zimbabweans say about Zimbabwe: Article by Peter Henriot
April 3, 2007
The following piece, in response to the Zimbabwean Catholic bishops’ statement, was written by Fr. Peter Henriot, a Jesuit who has lived and worked in Africa for decades. He currently works at the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Lusaka, Zambia. This article was published in The Post, Lusaka’s newspaper, on April 3, 2007.
What can one say about Zimbabwe? First and foremost, let’s hear what prominent Zimbabweans are saying about the current difficult situation. Let’s hear from some Zimbabweans now living in different parts of the country, close to the people, especially close to the poor. Zimbabweans known for their stance on justice and fairness and who have demonstrated with their lives a commitment to the liberation struggle, without a partisan identification either with [the] ruling party or opposition.
The Zimbabweans I’m speaking of are the Catholic bishops of that country who [recently released] a powerful and moving pastoral letter entitled, "God hears the cry of the oppressed." One trembles to read the letter, so cogent and convincing is its argument, “affirming with a clear and unambiguous Yes our support of morally legitimate political authority. At the same time we say an equally clear and unambiguous No to power through violence, oppression and intimidation.”
The bishops speak of the anger of the people that daily grows because of a collapse of society around them, causing immense suffering and hardships. Yet even in the midst of such suffering amidst the majority, “a tiny minority of the people have become rich overnight.” The bishops acknowledge that there are Christians on all sides of the conflict, and so they make an effort to speak fairly and to accurately discern the causes of the crisis threatening the future of the nation.
Crisis of governance
Government’s responsibility is to serve the people and their legitimate needs. But in Zimbabwe, according to the pastoral letter, the national health system has disintegrated, the educational sector has come to a standstill, public services and infrastructures in the towns and cities have crumbled, and thousands of the victims of the “urban cleanup” of two years ago remain homeless.
Some might find such a description untrue or exaggerated. Well, I suppose that they should then give us concrete facts that directly contradict the bishops’ appraisal! Are these church leaders being untruthful when they report that “over 80 percent of the people of Zimbabwe are without work,” and “[i]nflation has soared to over 1,600 percent” making “the life of ordinary Zimbabweans unbearable, regardless of their political preferences”?
Because of this crisis of governance, “[t]he list of justified grievances is long and could go on for many pages. The suffering people of Zimbabwe are groaning in agony: ‘Watchman, how much longer the night?’” (Isaiah 21:11)
Crisis of leadership
The bishops see a tragic consequence of “such overtly corrupt leadership as we are witnessing in Zimbabwe today” in the impact on youth. They bluntly say: “If our young people see their leaders habitually engaging in acts and words which are hateful, disrespectful, racist, corrupt, lawless, unjust, greedy and violent in order to cling to the privileges of power and wealth, it is highly likely that many of them will behave in exactly the same manner.”
As you read the letter, you will notice that leaders of ZANU-PF are not explicitly named. So this is a strong indictment of whatever leader or group of leaders -- ruling party or opposition – that fits the description I have just quoted. The call is clearly non-partisan: “Being elected to a position of leadership should not be misconstrued as a license to do as one pleases at the expense of the will and trust of the electorate.”
Spiritual and moral crisis
“Our crisis is not only political and economic but first and foremost a spiritual and moral crisis.” The bishops speak of the “structures of sin” that grow from personal sins and create even greater sins that influence people’s behaviour. Therefore there is urgent need to identify the roots of the current crisis.
Here the language of the pastoral letter is honest and blunt – avoiding all the rhetoric about “foreign influences.” According to the bishops, “The present crisis in our country has its roots deep in colonial society. Despite the rhetoric of a glorious socialist revolution brought about by the armed struggle, the colonial structures and institutions of pre-independent Zimbabwe continue to persist in our society.” As evidence for this assertion the bishops say that none of the unjust and oppressive security laws of the Rhodesian State have been repealed. In fact, these laws have been reinforced by even more repressive legislation, in particular the Public Order and Security act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
So the bishops ask the obvious question: why was this done? And here the analysis of the pastoral letter is especially sharp courageous and worth quoting in full:
“Because soon after independence, the power and wealth of the tiny white Rhodesian elite was appropriated by an equally exclusive black elite, some of whom have governed the country for the past 27 years through political patronage. Black Zimbabweans today fight for the same basic rights they fought for during the liberation struggle. It is the same conflict between those who possess power and wealth in abundance, and those who do not; between those who are determined to maintain their privileges of power and wealth at any cost, even at the cost of bloodshed, and those who demand their democratic rights and a share in the fruits of independence; between those who continue to benefit from the present system of inequality and injustice, because it favours them and enables them to maintain an exceptionally high standard of living, and those who got to bed hungry at night and wake up in the morning to another day without work and without income; between those who only know the language of violence and intimidation, and those who feel they have nothing more to lose because their Constitutional rights have been abrogated and their votes rigged.”
Steps to be taken
So what do the bishops call for in their pastoral letter? First, for “a new people-driven constitution that will guide a democratic leadership chosen in free and fair elections that will offer a chance for economic recovery under genuinely new policies.” Second, for the recognition that God is always on the side of the oppressed, as is so very evident in the Old and New Testaments. Third, for those responsible for the current crisis to repent and listen to the cry of their citizens. And fourth, for a national Day of Prayer and Fasting for Zimbabwe on 14 April, followed by prayer services every Friday in all parishes in the country.
Will the pastoral letter make a difference for our suffering neighbour to the south? Something that must be recognised by all, especially the country’s leadership, is that this set of analysis, critique and recommendations comes not from Tony Blair or George Bush or opposition leaders but from loyal Zimbabweans who love their country as deeply as anyone else!
Please God, their voice will be heard before it is too late!