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Heribert Zingel {*}

Commitment to the People

Church and Politics in Zambia


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2011, P. 588-592
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In Zambia, located in Southern Africa, the Catholic Church is the largest religious community. In recent years she repeatedly came into conflict with the ruling party because of her commitment to social justice and democracy. Now, in the presidential election in September, the opposition candidate has won. This may hopefully initiate a turn for the better.


All attempts were useless. Neither personal election gifts, nor the repair work on roads and public facilities such as hospitals and schools started in the last months before the election on September 20 or the propaganda battle for the ruling "Movement for Multiparty Democracy" (MMD) on state television and state-run press were able to convince the Zambians to elect again President Rupiah Banda to the office of President. The new president of the since 1964 independent country in southern Africa is Michael Sata. He belongs to the largest opposition party "Patriotic Front" (PF).

It was uncertain up to the end whether this time he would get enough votes. Particularly in view of the fact that the alliance which had been forged between his party and Hakainde Hichilema's "United Party for National Development" (UPND) had been broken by the latter - for reasons that have yet to be clarified. The clear victory of Sata by about 6 percentage points compared to his strongest competitor Banda is perhaps also the result of a wrong electoral strategy of the hitherto ruling MMD. During the election campaign, it had vehemently attacked the Catholic Church and some of her representatives and had thus, against its own expectations, driven the Catholics into the arms of the political opponent.



It seems almost impossible to review all the steps and facets of the conflict between the ruling MMD and the Catholic Church in Zambia. We will therefore rather focus on some happenings in order to make clear the tense situation between these two rivals.

In public, most attention was given to the attacks by members of the government, as e.g. by the Minister of Education and Press Officer of MMD, Dora Siliya, or by other high-ranking party members such as the former and recently deceased president Frederick Chiluba or the chairman of MMD for the province of Lusaka, William Banda on the Archbishop of Lusaka, Telesphore Mpundu, and the bishops Paul Francis Duffy of Mongu or Alick Banda of Ndola. The attacked bishops had criticized the government's policies on different occasions. Especially the late Bishop Duffy had expressed a definite opinion on it. He had in a special way incurred the wrath of MMD: in a statement spread by the media he had blamed the for 20 years ruling MMD for neglecting the development of the western province. As a result, the youth organization of the MMD, which is also otherwise well known for its attitude to take political tolerance not too seriously, had publicly threatened him with physical violence - without being called to order by the party leadership.

While the just mentioned attacks on several Catholic bishops were targeted criticism with a topical background, other forms of the argument were more general and aimed to disavow the Catholic Church as a whole. These include statements by Information Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha, who accused the Catholic Church of complicity in the genocide in Rwanda in the nineties and of inciting violence. While the first accusation must stand up to historical review, the latter is particularly serious in a country that prides itself on its "peaceful and harmonious coexistence."

This culminated in the television series of the journalist Chanda Chimba. It was titled "Patriots vs. Troublemakers" and accused the Catholic Church and some of her most pithy priest and organizations of siding with the opposition PF and, according to the title of the program, of unpatriotic behavior. While the church in the form of the Episcopal Conference had always been silent up to this time, with this TV show a point had probably been reached where no longer only the party-political independence of the Church was emphasized like a mantra. The "Zambian Episcopal Conference" (ZEC) went now on to the offensive and published under the title "Where there is hatred let me bring your love" a pastoral letter that was read out in all Sunday services.

What is particularly noteworthy in this letter is the fact that the bishops made it clear: they regard the repeated attacks against some of their representatives as attacks against the whole Church, and assess the verbal injuries not as a "gaffe" of some politicians or journalists but as "co-ordinated and planned attacks" of the MMD against the Catholic Church. Even though the letter ends with a call for dialogue and reconciliation, the highest body of the Catholic Church in Zambia has made it clear that between it and the ruling MMD a deep ditch exists, which cannot be covered up simply by a few gestures of reconciliation.


The Negative Side Effects of the Structural Adjustments

You could attribute these attacks of the government or of the ruling MMD to the election campaign, where you need not take every word literally, if there were not a lot of profound differences over substantive issues between the Catholic Church and the MMD, which is in power since the end of the one-party rule of Kenneth Kaunda in the early nineties.

In 2007 the government had appointed a commission to draft a new constitution. The Catholic Bishops Conference had been invited to participate in drafting a new constitution but had rejected the invitation, as the largest opposition party PF, too, had done it. The bishops gave as a reason the lack of democratic representation in the Constitutional Commission: Because the dominance of the ruling party in Parliament and Commission would not guarantee a Constitution of the Zambian people but only such a one of the government. Moreover, since a public debate on the draft constitution was not planned, the bishops doubted the democratic legitimacy of the Constitution and consistently rejected to cooperate in the project.

The current draft constitution, which did not get the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament, was rejected in this form by the Conference of Bishops and other church organizations, because in their eyes key aspects have not been implemented.



These include above all the social and economic rights written down in the human rights declarations, as e.g. the right to food, adequate housing, access to clean water and clean sanitation. The ruling MMD had not only rejected but treated with scorn and derision the inclusion of these "economic and social human rights", which was mainly demanded by the "Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection" (JCTR). This caused head-shaking and indignation not only in Catholic organizations and the Episcopal Conference but also in other parts of civil society.


Freedom of Press and Information à la Zambia

Another issue is the necessary legitimation of the president. Not only the Catholic Church but also many civil society groups criticize that it is possible since the end of President Kaunda's one-party rule to elect the president by a simple majority and that the absolute majority of votes is not needed. Another point of criticism concerns the president's power: it should - not only in the opinion of the Bishops' Conference - be reduced and shifted to Parliament. These demands are not new. They can be found already in the declaration of the Bishops' Conference on the occasion of the elections of 2008.

Thanks to the high world market price for copper, Zambia's main export commodity, continued foreign investment in the mining sector in Zambia, and a low inflation rate between 6 and 8 percent, the economic growth - measured by economic growth rates - seems to be relatively stable. Foreign investors emphasize the "business-friendly climate" and the political stability - compared to other African countries. This development, which was even interrupted only briefly by the global financial market crisis of 2008, is praised by international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and has catapulted Zambia to the fourth place in the economic prosperity index of all African countries.

In always new variations, the government wrote this "economic success" on its own flags. But the economic success stories do not change the fact that the normal population and especially the poor get nothing of this "blessing". The infrastructure is in poor condition, medical care and education especially in rural areas have important shortcomings. The "trickle-down effects", which the government was hoping for, have not occurred. This particularly affects the majority of the rural population.



At the national and diocesan level, these and other socio-economic aspects are time and again made a subject of discussion in sermons or statements by individual bishops, but above all by church organizations such as Caritas, or commissions such as Justice and Development.

They clearly show the negative side effects of the structural adjustment policy since the early nineties of last century: even according to statements of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) they exceed by far the requests of the World Bank and of foreign donors. In this context the Zambian tax policy has been criticized particularly clearly.


"The Voice of the Voiceless"

The omission of the under the former President Levy Mwanawasa established "windfall taxes" is seen particularly critically. This profits tax which is levied in case the global market price for copper reaches a certain amount had been stopped in the financial market crisis of 2008 / 2009 when the copper price had dropped, in order not to endanger foreign investment in the mining sector and to attract more investors. However, the copper price has meanwhile risen sharply, and so the suspension of this tax seems to be no longer justified. The tax losses have in so far an explosive force as the Zambian national budget suffers from a persistent deficit, which has to be covered by foreign budgetary assistance.

Also in the church statements the persistent corruption and embezzlement of public funds is made responsible for the divergence of a prosperous economy on the one hand and increasing impoverishment of the population on the other hand. Especially the case of Chiluba, the late second President of the Republic ( 18 June 2011), had caused resentment in large parts of the population: A London court had found him guilty of embezzling 46 million dollars. Under President Mwanawasa he was placed under house arrest but was then acquitted by a Zambian court and had even been included in the election campaign team by President Banda. Also church bodies take up this case and the still existing practice of corruption and bribery and make them a matter of discussion - to the chagrin of the till now ruling MMD.

Another point of criticism concerns the Zambian media landscape. The right to freedom of expression and press freedom are admittedly given in the Zambian Constitution and there are also private radio stations and newspapers. But a look at daily news broadcast on state television ZNBC or the equally state-controlled newspaper "Times of Zambia" or "Daily Mail" clearly shows what press freedom and freedom of information à la Zambia means. Their reporting has so far been nothing else but state propaganda. Critical voices from the political opposition or the Zambian civil society do not even appear, and if it is the case, then only in the form of rejecting or disparaging commentaries, but there is no strict information.

The aforementioned critical points of government policy are not only denounced by the Catholic Church but also by the political opposition and other civil society organizations. They can therefore not be the sole reason for the until now ruling MMD to quarrel especially with the Catholic Church. Several components have contributed to the strained relations.

The practice of political (not party political) commitment of the Catholic Church is by no means new. It can resort to a history that goes back to the time of the independence movement in the fifties and sixties. Besides other civil society organizations, the church was one of the driving forces behind the abolition of the one-party rule of Kaunda, and a strong advocate of democratic reforms in the early nineties. With the same determination with which she supported the transformation of political power of the still young Zambian history, she also opposed the attempts of the second President of the Republic, Chiluba, to achieve a third term by a constitutional amendment.

By this and the campaign "Jubilee 2000" on the occasion of the cancellation of foreign debt for the poorest developing countries, which had its starting point in the Catholic Church in Zambia, the church has won a high reputation and wide recognition in society. However, this would have been impossible without a very prominent and often politically understood social work. Caritas at the national and diocesan level is the provider of numerous projects especially in the field of HIV / AIDS. With their comprehensive preventive and curative work they are present mainly in the slums of the cities. Here they do not only care for the sick but take the entire social environment into account. Churches - especially the Catholic Church - maintain facilities for AIDS orphans. By their actions they seek to alleviate the consequences of the pandemia: they financially enable children to attend the school or contribute through micro-finance projects to securing the livelihood of those infected and their families.

But not only these people-centred projects ensure the Church a particularly high-profile status in Zambian society. The critical analyses of social reality, presented in public by Caritas and other Church organizations, have also contributed to it.



Church agencies have e.g. made the situation of miners after the privatization of the mining sector public, have subjected the tax policy of Zambia to a critical analysis and subsequently published it or discussed the impact of the privatized mining industry on the environment.

The effects of the structural adjustment policy, demanded by IMF and World Bank, on the educational opportunities of the poor belong also to the statements which confront the government with the other side of its economic and social policy; they cause thus a critical consciousness in the church and societal public. Due to the cooperation of church and non-church organizations, as e.g. the Zambian mine workers' union, these opinions and analyses are not only spread within the church.


The Church does not Allow to be Monopolized

Much attention is given to the work of the Church's radio station "Radio Icengelo" in Kitwe, the largest city of the Copperbelt at the border with the Republic of Congo. Due to critical reports on the everyday life of people, this church medium is by no means particularly popular with the MMD government in Lusaka.

Above all the work of the former editor of Radio Icengelo, Frank Bwalya, got a lot of attention among the public. Analogously to the football game "Red Card Action", he had founded the movement "Change Life Zambia" and the government was repeatedly "sent off the field". This creative action found strong support and attention in the Zambian public. Bwalya was exposed to massive attacks by the government, which did not even restrain from spreading calumnies. He was repeatedly arrested on utterly flimsy grounds.

The work of the "Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection" (JCTR), based in Lusaka, can be described as particularly prominent. This institute publishes, among other things, on a regular basis a "basket of goods". It shows how much money is needed for a family's living in various cities. This basket, which has found its way into the scientific literature on Zambia, clearly proves that poverty has increased. The theological and political reflection, published at irregular intervals, are another medium of JCTR. They connect ideas of the church's social teaching or biblical pericopes with socio-economic structural issues and are read and discussed in the small Christian communities. JCTR belongs to those institutions that have significantly contributed to the church's image in Zambia: it can be described as "voice of the voiceless."

This reflects a self-understanding of the church which above all contrasts with the many Free Churches of Zambia but also with the state's expectations regarding the churches. In the preamble of the Constitution, the second President of the Republic of Zambia, Chiluba, had characterized Zambia as a "Christian nation" and intended thereby to state that Zambia and the Zambian politics are committed above all to the "values of the Gospel." This is the "positive interpretation" of this formulation.

Apart from the fact that such a formulation does not justice to a plural society, which consists not only of Christians but also of people with other beliefs, its main objective was to integrate the Christian churches in state politics. The Catholic Church has up to this day successfully defied this form of governmental embrace policy. For by the here expressed governmental strategy a pacifying, reassuring and uncritical role in society is assigned to her. But this is contradictory to her self-understanding to be the "church of the voiceless."

Organizational strength and high-profile social and pastoral work are certainly crucial elements for her image. But she becomes societal power by the fact that she is supported by the "simple faithful". Here the number of members of the Catholic Church is of crucial importance. With about 30 percent of the population she is by far the largest Christian denomination in Zambia, and she excels also by a great loyalty of the laity with their bishops and priests. Added to this is the high social standing, which the Church enjoys not only among their followers but also in other social organizations and groups.

This is largely due to the Church's involvement in the health and education sectors. Church schools have a comparatively high standard and are considered to be among the best in the country. Founded only three years ago, the private church university in Kalulushi in the Zambian copper belt enjoys a growing number of students. These educational institutions are by no means only attended by Catholics but also by members of other denominations. They contribute to the high social prestige of the Catholic Church in the Zambian society.

With Sata's election as new president of the South African country at the Zambezi River a new era begins for Zambia. For the self-understanding of Catholics and of the Catholic Church in Zambia as the "voice of the voiceless" it will be decisive whether they continue their socio-critical work also under the government of the Catholic Sata or feel obliged to be particularly loyal to him. In their own interest and above all in the interest of the poor in Zambia it is to be hoped that the latter will not be the case.


    {*} Dr. Dr. Heribert Zingel was from 1980 to 2000 advisor for "Kirche und Arbeiterschaft" in the episcopal ordinariate Limburg, from 2000 to 2006 he was director of the Frankfurter Sozialschule. From 2000 to 2010 he was lecturer on Christian social doctrine at the Pallottines' Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule in Vallendar. Since 2011 he teaches at the "Zambian Catholic University" in Kalulushi, Zambia.


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