Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mugabe's Turbulent Priests

Relations between Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops continue to worsen, but without the church he would not be where he is today.
By Max Chaya
President Robert Mugabe’s recent scathing attack on the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference has been viewed by critics as the latest example of his false sense of infallibility and self-justification.



The bishops invited Mugabe’s ire when they circulated a pastoral letter, “God hears the cry of the oppressed”, on April 5. The letter, which was supported by a number of other Christian groups, accused Mugabe of bringing about the country’s socio-economic and human rights crises through bad governance and a lack of moral leadership.



Mugabe has hit back strongly at the Catholic Church, describing the bishops’ letter as “political nonsense”. And he has threatened the bishops,

“This is an area we warn them not to tread.”



But the real cause of Mugabe’s over-reaction was not just his general arrogance. It was also an acknowledgement of his worsening relationship with the church, which has been his de facto guardian from his youth.



The moment his drifting father Gabriel Matibiri ditched his family at Kutama Mission in Zvimbab, the church adopted Mugabe as their beloved son; fed him; and gave him an education that he would never have dreamed of, including a scholarship to study at Fort Hare University in South Africa.



By criticising him now, “the bishops have hit him where it hurts most”, said Jonas Chimusoro, a parishioner of the Catholic church of Highfield where Mugabe frequently attends Mass.



Mugabe’s fiercest critic, Archbishop Pius Ncube, last year observed the octogenarian leader’s hypocrisy. “He does not apply his faith to his political governance of the country. He totally ignores it,” he told SW Radio in October last year.



Ncube further noted that the southern African leader goes to Mass, receives Holy Communion and speaks at church meetings - but he does not respect human rights; instead he goes on to justify himself and his bloody actions.



Without the church, Mugabe would not be where he is today, for his political career would have been doomed from the beginning.



When he and other nationalists fought against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian regime, the Catholic Church, through the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, CCJP, assisted them. The CCJP protested against Smith’s discriminatory policies, particularly his land policy, treatment of blacks as second-class citizens and human rights abuses.



Mugabe then was happy that the church was on his side. Ironically, 27 years after independence, when the same church criticises the same policies that resulted in a wanton land grab and the abuse of human rights, Mugabe turns paranoid.



“The message he is sending is that it was okay for the Catholics to criticise Smith for human rights and other abuses, but that should never be applied to him,” said a priest from the Chinhoyi diocese, Mugabe’s home area.



During the colonial era, Mugabe was happy to tout to the world books he published through the CCJP such as “The Man in the Middle” (1975) and “The Civil War in Rhodesia” (1976), among others, but he was hurt when his atrocities in Matabeleland were published by the same organisation, chronicling the massacre of thousands of people in the early 1980s during the period referred to as the Gukurahundi.



At the height of the liberation war, Mugabe’s family members, including his sister Sabina, who is now the member of parliament for Zvimba South, were granted refuge at Silveira House, a Catholic institution just outside Harare.



The CCJP assisted the then 51-year-old Mugabe in 1975 to escape the clutches of Smith’s Rhodesian forces. Key to his escape into Mozambique were CCJP members: Sister Mary Acquinah, who drove him at night to Ruwa, and John Deary, who introduced him to Robert Gumbo, the man who eventually facilitated his journey to Nyafaru near the border with Mozambique. This made Sister Acquinah the target of Smith’s Special Branch and she was forced to flee the country.



At independence, on April 18, 1980, Mugabe was sworn in as the prime minister of the first black government with blessings from the Catholic Church through the late Archbishop Patrick Chakaipa.



In September 1988, Pope John Paul II visited Zimbabwe in what was seen by many as the Vatican’s acknowledgement of one of their Catholic sons as a morally upright leader.



Five years after Mugabe’s first wife Sally succumbed to a kidney ailment in 1991, the Zimbabwean leader, with the help of the church, brushed aside the moral blemish of tying the knot with his former secretary and mistress Grace Marufu, with whom he had already had two children out of wedlock.



The head of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe at that time, the late Archbishop Patrick Chakaipa, presided over the grand wedding, which was attended by about 6, 000 people, including African leaders.



Of late, however, a growing concern with human rights abuses perpetrated by Mugabe’s government and his unrepentant attitude has seen the rift widen between Mugabe and the church.



The April pastoral letter, much to Mugabe’s chagrin, candidly noted, “None of the unjust and oppressive security laws [inherited from Rhodesia]

have been repealed.”



The repressive Law and Order (Maintenance) Act used by Smith to suppress African nationalism was simply transformed by Mugabe’s government into the draconian Public Order and Security Act, POSA, and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, AIPPA.



Typical of Mugabe when faced with criticism, he has turned his back on the Catholic clergy. Many religious rites at state functions are now performed by Anglican bishops who have among their ranks some of Mugabe’s greatest loyalists, such as Bishop Nolbert Kunonga and the controversial Obadiah Musindo, a revivalist evangelist who is on trial for raping his children’s maid.



As if to confirm that they have the same mindset as Mugabe, the Anglican bishops, led by Kunonga and Bernard Malango, Primate of Central Africa, on April 12 wrote their own statement countering the Catholic bishops by praising Mugabe.



“Is Mugabe going to turn Anglican as he turned East when he faced severe criticism of his undemocratic policies from the West?” quipped Chimusoro.



The April pastoral letter has been endorsed by more than a dozen other church organisations countrywide. In a press statement by the Harare Ecumenical Working Group and signed by 10 religious organisations, the ecumenical group said the pastoral letter gave encouragement and hope to the people of Zimbabwe in the knowledge that the church was with them.



“Political arrogance, lies and deceit will not save our people from the national crisis which is characterised by brutality, misery, suffering and

death,” noted the statement. “We have no option but to face the truth contained in the Bishops’ pastoral letter.”



The organisations called on all Zimbabweans to be guided by the pastoral letter in understanding the source of their suffering.



Max Chaya is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.