Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Wolfgang Schonecke {*}

No Change in the System

Zimbabwe is not yet back in the World Community


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2008, P. 585-589
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The still unstable situation in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe's reign of terror and the long powerlessness of the church can only be understood by looking into the history of the country. The ideology of the liberation struggle until today determines Mugabe's policy. Also the new political system is far too unsoundly based to induce the West now to give enough money for a real new beginning.


In the seventies Idi Amin Dada was the archetype of the African dictator, about whose stupidity one could crack one's racist jokes. In the new millennium Robert Mugabe is regarded as the epitome of a tyrant who wages war on his own people; nobody can laugh about him, least of all the citizens of Zimbabwe. Nearly four of the twelve million inhabitants have fled abroad from his reign of terror. Those who cannot go away lead a daily struggle for survival. Mugabe could find his place in the Guinness Book of Records for he leads a country with an incredible inflation of 11.2 million percent, which is world record.

When in 1980 Zimbabwe after a long and extremely brutal struggle for freedom won independence, the then Rhodesia was a prosperous country, the granary of southern Africa. Today agriculture is ruined, the industry stands idle, and the shelves of shops are empty. What is the recipe with the help of which one can govern a country so quickly and thoroughly into the abyss? And why could the churches, to which almost half of Zimbabwe's population belongs, not stop the disaster? A look into history can give information.


Waves of Immigrants

The natives of the region came from the people of the San. They were forced away to southern Africa into the Kalahari Desert by the migration of the Bantu peoples. The peoples which from the fifth to the tenth century settled in what is now Zimbabwe are called with the collective term Shona. The first Europeans who ventured into Africa's interior were the Portuguese, who were looking for a route between their colonies Angola on the west coast of Africa and Mozambique on the east coast. Fifty years later they were followed by missionaries, and King Negomo Chirisamhuru Mupunsagutu was baptized. But that first attempt of Christianization failed.

A second wave of migration took place in the middle of the 19th century when the Matabele, who had fallen out with the notorious Zulu King Shaka, fled to the north and became established as the new masters in the country. They regularly attacked the local Shona peoples and robbed them of their women and cattle, which is until today unforgotten.

In the course of South Africa's colonization in 1889 Cecil Rhodes founded the British South Africa Company to explore the area north of the Limpopo. On the way the British established several fortified military stations, the last was Fort Salisbury, today's Harare, where Rhodes in 1890 hoisted the British flag.



The historian David Kaulemu shows how much the fort, the "camp", moulded the colonial conquerors' and their successors' mentality. They saw themselves as endangered, beleaguered group, which feared and despised the local population. Both the Shona and the Ndebele under their King Lobengula rebelled against the occupation of their country. Rhodes could at last talk them into a peaceful agreement and gave the country his own name Rhodesia. Rhodes promoted a systematic settlement policy, and with the help of generous promises he enticed white farmers into the country. In 1905 12.500 European settlers lived in Rhodesia. In a referendum in 1922 the then already 34.000 white settlers decided in favour of self-government and against a union with South Africa. By the "Land Apportionment Act the distribution of land between the indigenous population and the settlers was regulated: One million Blacks got 16 million hectares of land, the white farmers 11 million. The land conflict was so programmed. Until the year 1953 the population of European origin had increased up to 157.000. They created a modern agriculture and developed mining.


The Churches with Varying Intensity Sided with the Freedom Struggle

By the end of the Second World War, in which thousands of Africans had fought and died on the side of the colonial powers, the winds of independence in Africa began to blow stronger and stronger. In Rhodesia various resistance movements formed. When in 1963 the neighbouring countries Malawi and Zambia achieved independence Prime Minister Jan Smith came under increasing pressure at all events to prevent a take-over of power by the Africans. In 1965 Smith unilaterally declared independence. The African population responded with a guerrilla war, which was organized by Robert Mugabe from Mozambique and by Joshua Nkomo from Zambia. On both sides cruel war crimes were committed.

Although also church institutions and employees became victims of the civil war the churches' commitment to the freedom struggle was of varying intensity. In 1979 the white minority found itself forced to open in Lancaster House in London negotiations with the resistance groups. On 18 April 1980 they led to the independence under Prime Minister Mugabe. The war was over, but until today the ideology of the liberation struggle determines politics.

In a recently published article under the heading "The Story of a Lonely, Angry Boy who Became a Monster" the Jesuit Oskar Wermter, who works as parish priest on the outskirts of Harare, tells interesting details about the young Mugabe who grew up in the Catholic Kutama Mission 90 km from Harare. "He was a lone wolf, held always a book in his hand, even when he herded cattle, and became angry when his comrades teased him."

It was a great shock for Robert when his father moved into the city and married another woman. At an early age he was already the head of his family. "Gifted and ambitious, but in his nature angry, lonely and insecure - that characterizes the young Robert. Apparently he has not changed", Wermter sums up. Under Jan Smith Mugabe spent eleven years in prison, a time that he used to study law and economics. When his only son Nshamo, what means "suffering", died in Ghana he got no permission to go to his funeral; he has never got over that.

Like almost all liberation movements, Mugabe used the Marxist ideology to convince his fighters and his people of the historical necessity of violence. Unlike other liberation fighters, who, after independence had been gained, took over a more pragmatic approach, Mugabe sees himself even with more than 80 years still as a fighter against colonialism and imperialism. After 30 years Zimbabwe was again at the beginning, so Wermter. As already in 1978 during the liberation war the freedom fighters fought against the white colonial rulers, so the ruling party today again fought against colonialism and imperialism - but this time in the form of the opposition party. Acts of violence, such as brutal beatings, rape, torture and murder were no atrocities, no violations of human rights but part of the ongoing "anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist struggle".

Nothing, neither law nor Constitution must be an obstacle to this historic fight. The original "Lancaster House Constitution" of 1980 has up to now been changed 18 times, in order to secure the power of the party and Mugabe's historical mission.


In Africa Land is of Almost Mystical Significance

Somebody who has been deeply hurt in his life often has a tendency to do harm to others. Aware of his historical mission Mugabe led the liberation war against the regime of Ian Smith (1972-1979) with extreme brutality. That he was ready with the same severity to take action against his own people became first visible in the brutal suppression of the Matabele in the years 1983 to 1987. The "Fifth Brigade" trained by North Koreans caused a blood-bath in Matabeleland. At the end of the operation 20.000 people were dead. The campaign took place with the public excluded; Western media too did not report in those days.



It is a great merit of the Catholic Church that the then "Commission for Justice and Peace" collected information on the spot and in 1999 documented the extent of the massacres in the report "Breaking the Silence". Mugabe was angry; the relationship between the Church and the regime began to get worse.

For one decade Mugabe was the undisputed Father of the Nation and won all elections hands down. But the economic decline let slowly go down his popularity. In 1998 there were first disturbances and strikes. The deployment of the Zimbabwean army in Congo on the side of Dsite-Laurent Kabila (probably in order to protect Mugabe's private investments there) cost much money. In the foundation of the opposition party MDC under the trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai the growing discontent in the population found expression. Faced with declining confidence in the population Mugabe tried to perpetuate his position of power by a constitutional amendment and to sanction that by a referendum. The attempt failed, the majority voted against Mugabe's proposed constitutional amendment.

For the second time Mugabe resorted to violence to maintain his popularity and his power. For it he used the extremely delicate land issue. Even after independence the overdue reorganization of the colonial land distribution had never progressed very far. Only a few white farms were bought up by the government and their land redistributed. The British Government had originally committed itself to pay for it, but later the payments were stopped, allegedly because of corruption in the country.

Mugabe endeavoured to win back his popularity. White farms were forcibly occupied by his "war veterans", who were rather thug squads of the ruling party, and the farmers driven out. The pictures of the farm owners' maltreatment went through the world media. The image of the cynical brute Mugabe made an indelible impression on Europe's collective memory, but by no means in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa. Wherever the colonial occupation had led to land expropriation Mugabe was celebrated as a hero. An African head of government had at last dared to stand up to the former white colonial masters. In Africa land is of almost mystical significance, and the land robbery by the Europeans probably was - after the slave trade - the most deeply felt injustice. That Mugabe on the continent also today is still celebrated with ovations has to do with the fact that he dares to resist the pressure of the West.

He probably had not taken into account that his veterans were no farmers.



A part of the occupied farms was given away to the prominent figures of the party. Most farms were no longer cultivated. Without the agricultural backbone the economy rapidly went downhill. A tremendously fast rising inflation made the money worthless. Without foreign exchange for oil and spare parts the industrial production stagnated. Even the helper in need China gave up. The hunger began to bite.

The presidential elections in 2002, in which Mugabe despite electoral manipulation got only 57 percent of the votes and his rival Tsvangirai 42 percent, showed that the political hegemony was crumbling. Even the party youth, called "Green Bombers", which by means of terror was to make the population submissive could not prevent the loss of power.

When in the parliamentary elections in 2005 the urban population voted against Mugabe, he took revenge through the notorious "purge" Murambatsvina (literally: refuse disposal). The security forces mercilessly destroyed houses and kiosks in the poor districts of the cities. 700.000 people were left homeless. The promise that the government would build new homes for them was nothing but cynical propaganda. The suffering of the population was growing and many were looking for possibilities of survival outside the country. A third of the 12 million Zimbabweans is said to live abroad, many in South Africa.


At Last Unambiguous Words Make the Church the Target of the Security Service

The Catholic Church, which had shown a clear profile in the liberation war, was for a long time at odds with itself. The Archbishop of Harare, Patrick Chakaipa, personally was on close terms with President Mugabe and prevented critical positions of the Bishops' Conference. In contrast to him the Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, appeared as a courageous and firm critic of Mugabe - at home and abroad. The other churches too were divided on the question what strategy was possible in that increasingly deteriorating situation. One part was in favour of an open confrontation with the regime, while others believed in a possible dialogue with Mugabe.

The Protestant "Christian Alliance" tried to steer a middle course and wanted to mobilize the population by a consultation and so to bring about a political rethinking. The results of the survey were published under the title "The Zimbabwe We Want". That at the last minute passages in which the government was criticized were mysteriously cut out of the document damaged the credibility of the action.

Appointments of bishops brought new life into the paralyzed Catholic Bishops' Conference. The new archbishop of Harare, Robert Ndlovu, was a greater critic of the regime than his predecessor. By the appointment of the Berlin-born Jesuit Dieter Scholz as bishop of the still young Diocese of Chinhoyi in northern Zimbabwe in spring 2006 new momentum came into the conference. Under Jan Smith Scholz had, because of critical remarks, been banished from the country.

A pastoral letter "God Hear the Cry of the Poor" of the year 2007 left nothing to be desired regarding clarity and unambiguity. Without mentioning the ruling party ZANU-PF by name the bishops analyzed the catastrophic situation of the country as a spiritual and moral crisis, as an abuse of power. As a way out of the crisis they suggested a new Constitution in which the people has a say. The pastoral letter described the ruthless struggle of the regime to stay in power as a continuation of the colonial reality. The security laws with the help of which Jan Smith in those days wanted to maintain the white supremacy had even been tightened by the new elites, "Soon after Independence, the power and wealth of the tiny white Rhodesian elite was appropriated by an equally exclusive black elite, (...) It is the same conflict between those who enjoy 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." Those unambiguous words made the church a target for the security apparatus.

That the elections of 2008 would become a showdown was clear from the outset. The ruling party ZANU-PF had done everything to hinder the opposition: restriction of the freedom of the press and an information monopoly of the government, obstruction of the civil society by drying up their financial sources, the successful attempt to split the opposition party, brutal violence and intimidation against opposition politicians.

The most spectacular blow against his opponents was Mugabe's success in putting out of the way the most eloquent of all critics of the regime, Archbishop Ncube. Time and again a video of the secret police was on television showing the archbishop in compromising positions with his secretary. Ncube resigned from his office and withdrew from the public.

Despite many manipulations and massive intimidation Mugabe lost the elections. In the past that would have been corrected by falsification of the results. The modern information technology made that more difficult. For by means of the everywhere present mobile phones the results posted at the individual polling-stations were immediately photographed by the opposition and non-governmental organizations and within seconds via e-mail sent to the party headquarters.



On the evening of Election Day the first unofficial election results were published. Mugabe's disgrace was obvious. In Parliament the ZANU-PF had lost the majority. For the presidential election a run-off was necessary.


A Dubious Compromise

Mugabe again banked on sheer force to stay in power. For weeks the security forces moved through the country, beat and tortured MDC supporters and, with a cartridge in their hands, threatened the population to shoot everyone who would vote against Mugabe. In order to avoid further atrocities Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew his candidacy.

The only power that would have been able to stop Mugabe was South Africa. Its President Thabo Mbeki increasingly met with criticism when his shuttle diplomacy showed no results. That after weeks of negotiations at the end an agreement was signed was probably due to the fact that all parties had their backs to?? the wall. Mugabe had no longer money in the public purse, Tsvangirai saw as a result of the massive intimidation the shattered remains of his party apparatus, and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa struggled for his political survival.

The now again questioned compromise provides for a power-sharing between Mugabe as President and Tsvangirai as Prime Minister. But whether Mugabe will actually give up a part of his power is doubtful. In the Cabinet he stays in the chair and is also in future commander in chief of the army. Tsvangirai is the head of a new Council of Ministers and controls the police. How that is to work in practice nobody really knows. The only real advantage for the battered and hungry population is that now aid of the international community will probably come into the country. But the new political system stands on all too shaky legs for the West to give now enough money for a real new beginning. Before Zimbabwe again finds its way into the world community much time will pass.


    {*} Wolfgang Schonecke (born in 1938) is since 2001 head of the Network Africa Germany in Bonn ( From 1965-1982 he worked in the pastoral care in Uganda; from 1982-1992 Schonecke took over tasks of leadership for his Order of the Africa Missionaries - White Fathers; from 1994-2001 he led the Pastoral Department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA).



Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'