Under siege – God’s men in Zimbabwe

Archbishop Pius Ncube
Archbishop Pius Ncube (© Eric Beauchemin)

In Zimbabwe at the turn of the century, Christian leaders were coming under increasing pressure because of their criticism of President Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian rule. The Church was one of the few remaining democratic spaces in the country, but even its leaders were facing growing threats.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: September 23, 2003


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Under Siege: God’s men in Zimbabwe”. Because of the severe restrictions placed on foreign journalists, Eric Beauchemin traveled undercover to Zimbabwe.

Zimbabweans realise that it is their own government that is fully to blame. It has nothing to do with God.

We cannot hold God responsible for the incredible amount of suffering that has been brought upon this nation by a small clique of power-hungry politicians.

I’m first a priest and I am answerable to God. And if that does cost me my earthly life, then so be it.

It’s not easy to be a man or woman of God in today’s Zimbabwe. More and more religious leaders and ordinary priests and ministers are criticising President Robert Mugabe (1924-2019) and his ruling ZANU-PF party. They’re echoing the discontent and anger of many ordinary Zimbabweans. 3 years ago, this mounting dissatisfaction led to the creation for the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC. Now the government is harassing, beating, torturing and murdering people who belong to the MDC or who even express their opposition to the ruling party. In these dark times, more and more people are turning to the church for solace and spiritual sustenance. 80% of Zimbabweans identify themselves as Christian, but they’re having a hard time of it. Most people are now struggling simply to survive. The average salary is 40,000 Zimbabwean dollars…that’s less than €15…a month. 80% of people are unemployed, so they don’t get even that. Pius Ncube, the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s 2nd biggest city, sees the consequences every day.

Whenever I go out in town and in the country and ask them how is the situation, and they say, no, really, our only trust now is in God, that things can be no worse than they are. I was in the country for about three or four weeks ago. The people were saying, the next time you come here, you’d better try and get some organisation to feed us, otherwise you might find that we are dead here, especially we old people. Sometimes outside my door here, people gather, and they tell me stories. ‘My child, we went for diagnosis. The dispensary there has no drugs. Could you please fund us?’ But this is getting impossible. The drugs are so expensive. I also feel powerless. And whenever I go out to visit my church members, I find them suffering so much that I am so depressed. I’m beginning to wonder whether I should visit at all. Each time it just breaks my heart what is going on.

I think it’s impossible to be a minister at this time without being exposed to the pain and the hurt of the people.

Graham Shaw is a Methodist. With support from Christians around the world, the Methodists have set up a trust fund to help those who are in greatest need, particularly those who are being deprived of food because of their political affiliation.

Reverend Graham Shaw
Reverend Graham Shaw (© Eric Beauchemin)

You would expect in such a crisis, such a humanitarian crisis, that the government would do everything in its power to encourage individuals and groups who had access to such resources to remove obstacles from the importation of food and the distribution of food, but we have actually found completely the reverse. This regime has a desire to be totally in control of the situation, the food distribution, they have actually imposed very serious obstacles in the way of those who would help. So that as a church for example we have tried but we have not been able to import food, despite the fact that we have the resources to do so, we’ve not been able to obtain the necessary permission. And even within the country it is an extremely difficult and hazardous business to acquire food and then to distribute it to those in need.

It is absolutely shocking what is going on right now. For instance, this morning I went to conduct funeral. And this funeral should have taken a short time. I should have been over in about 2 hours. Instead it took 4 hours because when they had buried this man – his family they are quite well off. On the grave wall, they put bricks and then they put a little slab, and then they put concrete. And then one man said ‘well don’t be surprised that we are taking so long’. I as a minister was expected to be standing there all the time, while the ladies were singing.

The problem is coffins have been stolen. They just come and empty the body, take the coffin, brush it up, clean it, and go and sell it again and make money this way. And this sort of thing is continuing. Not so long ago in one of my churches in town, they stole a big, big bell. The priest tells me that this bell would have needed 4 or 5 men to lift it. At night while the priest was sleeping, they climbed up and they stole it. And we suspect that they stole it to go and melt it so as to make handles. Now there’s this grabbing mentality and money mongering that is going on in Zimbabwe.

Father Barnabus Nqindi
Father Barnabus Nqindi (© Eric Beauchemin)

Here’s an example of how we have become as Zimbabweans: there is a bank teller comes out and tells the people who are staying in line ‘I’m going to give you all 5000 Zim dollars’. In a normal situation, we are supposed to react and say, ‘no, you are mad’. But in Zimbabwe, we say ‘oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!’ And somehow we have to break that culture. 5000 Zim dollars is a little over 2 US dollars. Yes it is, and we are very thankful when the bank teller tells us we are giving you that today. And somehow we need to break that childish culture.

Long queues at a petrol station
Long queues at a petrol station (© Eric Beauchemin)

For instance you spend maybe 7 nights in a petrol queue and the petrol comes and we are all jumping up and down ‘the petrol has come!’ That’s madness. That’s sickness. We are supposed to be saying no to that. We are supposed to drive to a garage and get our petrol, not line for it. It’s supposed to be there. We’re supposed to go to the bank, line for it, but get the money, whatever amount it is. Not to be thankful because some guy has given you 5000 dollars and you’re supposed to be grateful. We’re sick. We’re not normal.

I grew up in the rural area, and there was very strong education of the African child on respect, respecting your elders, not distressing your parents in any way. But now I’m told that youngsters, they will steal chickens from their parents, and steal goats, and go and roast them. And they steal also blankets from their own parents and go and sell them so as to get some intoxicant or some drugs. So you see, the whole moral fibre of Zimbabwe is being ruined terribly and by this situation. People have become such opportunists. The amount of lies that people are telling. Lies, crookedness, cheating, and twisting of things. This all comes from Mugabe who has become untruthful and a liar.

We have been living through this crisis now for three years and more. And in all of that time, people have been living very close to the edge, I think, and now we can do that for a certain time, but when it goes on, you do see a fatigue setting in and also a despair. I think there’s no doubt that this regime has done everything possible to encourage people to give up. When you see the large number of young and able people leaving the country also that adds to the sense of despair.

I’m afraid that most of the young people who I talk to are leaving. And who can blame them? Some want to start families and they can’t even get a flat. Some just finished university degrees, one of the best degrees in the world, and they can’t even get a job. And to be naïve on my part, you know, stick around, things will be better. But at the present moment there is no future unfolding. So my advice to them is you are at a road junction and you have to think seriously about staying in the country. And if you do stay, what are the consequences of that decision, and if you do go, also what are the consequences of that decision? But if you do stay, don’t be docile. Don’t moan. Get involved. Be an activist. OK, it’s dangerous in Zimbabwe to do that, but at least you are contributing something to the process. You are not being somebody who’s just watching part of the football game. You are actually part of the football. That is my approach. That is why I am here. I refuse to moan. If I begin to moan, I will take my passport and say goodbye.

EB: Do Zimbabweans feel like God has abandoned them? No. Zimbabweans feel that this is a mistake due to government. Some of them are aware that the mistake is theirs. They made Mugabe, they put him too much on a pedestal and spoiled him. The common man– even before Christianity came – they always blamed anything going wrong on ancestors, that the ancestors are not looking after them. It’s a very, very rare will Africans blame God.

We cannot hold God responsible for the incredible amount of suffering that has been brought down upon this nation by a small clique of power-hungry politicians who are sacrificing the lives of their people to their own political ambitions. So I think that this is a part of the task that is before the church is to make people aware of what is the real cause of their hunger, their homelessness, their suffering and when they become aware of that, then they are actually strengthened and empowered to make a stand against that. And actually it is a strengthening of their faith in the end because they have the assurance, as I said, that the God of justice and truth is with them in this struggle and will prevail.

The church in a way is the one small democratic space that is left within the country, where people can come together and actually talk about the reality of their lives. Under the Public Order and Security Act, as you probably know, public meetings of more than 2 people require police permission. But people meeting together for Christian worship is a recognised exception to this and so we don’t as of this time have to get permission to hold a service of worship. And therefore the church is the one remaining small space. Even that has been seriously eroded by this government.

Last June, a group of religious leaders who call themselves Christians Together for Justice and Peace organised a service where victims of government repression and torture could speak. It was presided over by Archbishop Pius.

The police were obviously aware of what was going to happen. Nothing happens virtually without their being aware of it. They were aware that they didn’t have the powers to all together ban that worship event. But they could make him feel and others who were taking part uncomfortable. They advertised their presence there in the service and generally they sought to influence what was going to be said and not going to be said that afternoon.

Before the service, a number of agents of the CIO, the Central Intelligence Organisation – Zimbabwe’s secret police – paid a call on the archbishop. They effectively told him what should and should not be said during the gathering. It wasn’t the first time the authorities had tried to influence the Catholic primate.

I had one of them sitting here, on my sofa, trying to convert me. I was offered a piece of land myself. I refused. I said if this land is being acquired in this evil manner, where farmers have been killed, where property overnight is taken and where the facilities that were producing enough food for the country are being destroyed, all for the sake of keeping in power, then I reject it. This is Mugabe’s device: divide the people, then you can rule them nicely. Mugabe is like a night thief going around, paying people to support him.

We must expect the pressure to increase upon the churches from the state. Hitherto they have been careful. They are aware that a huge proportion of this population are at least nominally Christian, and so the government has been careful not to antagonise the churches. But I think they make a careful calculation as to where their best interests lie, and certainly when they feel that they are threatened by the outspoken views expressed by individual churchmen, they can act and will act decisively against those individuals. However, they’ll have a hard time, and in the future this will be the case I’m sure as the church unites. It’s relatively easy for them to pick off one or two individuals and to deal with them, but if the church is united in standing for issues of truth and justice, then the state will be taking on a formidable force, if they actually challenge that authority.

Unfortunately you get some clergy, even in the Catholic Church, who are siding with the government. We find ourselves divided, some favouring the Mugabe regime and the evil system which they are perpetrating, and others standing up against it.

EB: Do you yourself feel under threat? I’m aware as a church leader who has spoken out regularly about the situation that I am being observed, that I’m being carefully watched, that even among my own congregation, there will be those who will report directly to the CIO, and so you live with that realisation that every word that you say will be reported somewhere to the powers that be. I don’t know about any further threat. The state operates through its agents in a sinister sort of way, not with any open or direct threats, but it certainly gives those who are proclaiming truth and justice issues, it gives them cause to pause and to think before they make any statements, the knowledge that they are being listened to very carefully, and at the appropriate point, no doubt, the state would take further action. EB: But that doesn’t frighten you. No, I don’t feel frightened by it. I truly believe in what I am doing. I happen to believe that is right. As a Christian, I believe in a god of truth and of justice and therefore I don’t need to seek the authority of this illegal regime for what I say or what I do. I have a clear mandate as to what I must be doing.

I don’t stop speaking. It’s the right which I will exercise fully. I do exercise it and if Mr Mugabe doesn’t like it, then tough luck. But I’m a priest. I’m first a priest and I am answerable to God. One day all of us, that’s my belief anyway, will die and meet the maker. So I must do my responsibility to do my part as a priest, and if that does cost me my earthly life, then so be it. But at least I don’t want to be found on the wrong side with God [chuckle]. I can be found on the wrong side with Mr Mugabe, that’s no problem, but not with God. No, not with God. I must be on the right side with him. It sounds like fear is paralysing Zimbabwean society and Zimbabwean people. Yeah, fear is the root. It’s the main enemy. If we can conquer the fear, then we have already overtaken Mr Mugabe. But Mr Mugabe that we are a fearful lot and he uses that.

I think that what we have learned through the ongoing crisis is that it has been individuals within the different denominations who have actually spoken out courageously, who have shown, the way, shown the lead. Until quite recently, the large ecumenical groups, which bring together the different denominations, had remained very silent. There are very clear signs now that the situation is ending and that even these groups are willing to speak out. And they have now after a long time of silence and avoiding the issues, they are showing clear signs that they are going to engage seriously with the situation. So these are signs that the church is awakening to its very clear responsibility. EB: Why do you think it’s taken so long for the churches to wake up? Fear is the obvious factor. I think you really have to live in this country for a time to appreciate how fear weighs on the people. We’re living under a totalitarian regime. This is a police state. The police have awesome powers and they don’t even have to act in accordance with the law, and frequently they do not. Individuals who are known to be supportive of the opposition or one of the protest groups are almost at the mercy of the police. And some have suffered very badly in torture, abuse and intimidation. So people are aware of this, and it is this fear that has weighed upon the church, I think, until now, as it has upon other groups in society. I mean, I think the business community have been very slow to react. They have been very silent in the face of these serious injustices, but the largest factor of all is the fear factor.

And these people who do evil are never brought to justice. To make things worse, the judiciary which was independent is no longer independent. It has been tailored to the government. The police force has been tailored to the government. That’s how they go about everything. Even the distribution of farms, it’s distributed to their own friends and so on. So the whole lawlessness situation is a very sad sight. It will be very, very difficult to lay down foundations of ethics, of proper behaviour. We’ve become animals in Zimbabwe.

We were raised to be submissive and somehow it spills into our lives. I wish they would get angry because it’s getting bad in this country, and we can’t depend on those few people who are angry. I think the whole country needs to be angry. It’s high time we got angry. It’s high time we said we are fed up. It’s high time. EB: Are you angry? Very angry, even though I am laughing, but I’m pretty angry that we continue to walk in a shop and everything is high, the prices are going up every day. there’s nobody to help us out of this mess, apart from ourselves. There’s me, 29 years old, and am I working towards a future that will never arrive? And that’s my anxiety at the present moment. Do I live in a country like this or do I bail out like others?

We are also partly to blame. We’ve allowed the party to get away with so much. So the depression is a part of the bitter medicine, which we must swallow because if we were pro-active nation, involved in the human rights, I don’t think we would have got to this situation. But we allowed it to say ‘oh OK, they know best. They are from the war.’ The war, the war of independence you mean. Yes, the war of independence. When they did come from the bush, there was a sense of ‘oh yes, we have got liberation now. We are now free’. But freedom entails responsibility. We didn’t make the present government accountable for every action. They were allowed to change the constitution, allowed to change many laws. They weren’t challenged about many of the things they were doing. They were allowed to have a free hand. That free hand which we gave them as a nation is what we are getting now, the penalties of saying you can do what you want. You are the leader. That was a mistake, a big mistake on our part. Zimbabweans from the grassroots are saying we need to change. Enough is enough. And that’s enough.

It’s sad but I have to admit that for too long the churches have tried to keep themselves away from the fray. They have tried to close their eyes to the gross human rights abuses and the gross injustices in the situation. They have held back and have been silent, and this is very much to their shame.

I don’t know if it has to do with our culture where we can’t tell our adults off when they’re supposed to be told off. That may contribute to it, that cultural aspect where you can’t tell your old man that he’s sleeping with a neighbour’s wife is the wrong thing. We tend to say, ‘ah but he’s an old man. We can’t upset him’. But somehow we need to upset Mr Mugabe because he’s upsetting the whole population. For goodness sake, we are a population of 11 million people. Somehow these 11 million people need to begin to say our future is in our hands, not in the hands of Mr Mugabe.

When you look around you today and see just how far we have gone down the road really towards anarchy and how deep and intense is the suffering of the people, it is not easy to see at all how the situation can be pulled back, how law and order can be established again. And this is a very real concern that many of us have because the longer the anarchy and the lawlessness and the violence continue, the more difficult it will be to retrieve the situation. However, my Christian faith compels to say that I don’t believe that it will be impossible. And I believe that when this country has made that major and radical turn away from the course of violence, corruption and lawlessness which we are presently embarking upon, I think we will see attitudes changes, and I believe that by the grace of God, it will be possible to move back towards some semblance of justice and peace, with reconciliation.

I think Mugabe himself, if he has any heart at all, I think he suffers, when he sees people suffering so much. So many Zimbabweans have left this country: some 3 million, a quarter of the population has left the country. And people are beginning to tell him, even his own followers: ‘hey, what are you doing with us? How long shall we continue this way? We can’t live anymore. I mean what’s the point of running a country where your citizens are suffering? Of course they themselves live comfortably. You go to their houses. They are living in palaces. They can steal all the state money and keep themselves comfortable. But I do think that there is hope because they know that they cannot continue repressing the people in this way.

Mr Mugabe, for goodness sake, he’s 79 years old. He can pop off at any time. Some of us are still living, hopefully, after this interview [chuckle] and somehow we need to put our future in our hands and challenge Mr Mugabe. Yes, they are going to kill, but they are not going to kill 11 million of us. They’re not going to do it.

“Under siege” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. Additional recordings were provided by Edwina Spicer. This has been a Radio Netherlands” presentation.