BSR: Mnangagwa’s expensive war with the Bishops


As if it has few opponents, the Zimbabwean regime has ignited a war with the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference (ZCBC) issued a Pastoral Letter to the Catholic flock last week. The letter was critical of the government and human rights violations. It questioned the moral compass of the country’s leadership in light of the abductions, torture and harassment of citizens. The letter made reference to unresolved questions such as Gukurahundi.

Several things have happened since then. 

The first was a vile statement issued by the Government through the Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Monica Mutsvangwa. It was an ill-tempered statement which personally attacked the person and character of the head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Robert Ndlovu. The worst parts were attacks that made reference to his ethnicity. The comments on Gukurahundi and the reference to the Ndebele ethnic group as “righteous” were hateful and in bad taste. 

It was a statement written in anger, without reference to reason. It was so bad that one might have thought it was a fabrication meant to smear the government. But it was authentic. It was the hand of the regime. This was the regime simply being itself: undignified, uncouth and unrestrained in attack. This is the same approach it takes towards citizens. It has shot and killed citizens in cold blood. It has abducted and tortured citizens. It has arrested and jailed citizens on the most spurious charges, denying them bail. Therefore a vicious statement attacking a few Bishops means very little to them. 

Soon after the first statement, which was read out on national television by the Mutsvangwa, the Secretary in her Ministry, Nick Mangwana issued another statement through the state daily, The Herald. It was an after-thought designed to qualify the intemperate statement made by the minister. But it was no better because it was underpinned by denials, accusations of the Bishops and the usual blame-shifting. 

Days later, the government issued a third statement through Ziyambi Ziyambi, the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. It was a long, garrulous statement in which the government sought to defend itself while still attacking the Bishops. It was just as bad as the first statement, although this time, the government tried, without success, to sound mildly educated. There was an uncomfortable mixture of aggression and diplomacy in the rambling statement; an attempt at pacification while still hammering the Bishops.

If it was designed to present a more sophisticated and thoughtful face after the undignified first statement, it was still a dismal failure. In any event, the government made no reference to that ridiculous first statement. It did not qualify or disown it. It still stands as a record of what the government said in response to the Church. 

Why the flurry of statements?

The fact that the government decided to issue three official statements in the space of a few days may be a sign of a government in panic. They had not expected the tough words from the Catholic Bishops. The government is used to dealing with and bashing opposition politicians and civil society. The hard and forthright language of the bishops took the regime by surprise because it probably thought the Catholic Church was in its pocket. The flurry of statements shows a government that panicked and has lost grip. Even the attempt to present a thoughtful and “comprehensive” response revealed deep insecurities. 

It also shows a regime that has lost control of the national narrative. For several weeks now, ZANU PF has been reacting rather than setting the agenda. That is not the behaviour of a ruling party that is in charge of the national narrative. The lack of coordination and coherence in the response is itself a sign of poor leadership. Noone seems to know what they are doing. For years, ZANU PF has been in control of the national narrative, leaving everyone to react and respond. The terrain has changed: ZANU PF is the one that is in reactive mode most of the time. 

Another reason for the flurry of responses is the existence of differences of opinion within the regime, with one group preferring the aggressiveness reflected in the first statement and the other group going for a mixture of aggressiveness and diplomacy reflected in the third. One faction might have suggested that it is better to qualify the first statement, although this did not work both in the second and third statements. Certainly, there are senior Catholics in the government, such as Vice President Constantino Chiwenga who might have been embarrassed by the first statement. 

Nevertheless, if there was any doubt, the government’s view is evident from the statement of President Mnangagwa. His statement alluded to what he called a long relationship with the Church from the days of the liberation struggle, which suggested an attempt to find common ground, but it ended with a hostile invitation to the clergy to join politics. “It is most unfortunate when men of the cloth begin to use the pulpit to advance a nefarious agenda for detractors of our country,” said Mnangagwa at ZANU PF’s politburo meeting. The tensions were palpable. Mnangagwa felt slighted by the Catholic Bishops’ criticism and he is not a character with a gift for forgiveness. 

The ominous invitation to join politics is reminiscent of what happened in the late 1990s when the labour unions led a series of strikes against the regime of Robert Mugabe. Mugabe responded by challenging the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to form a political party if the unions wanted to engage in politics. The ZCTU accepted the invitation and the MDC was born in 1999. The birth of the MDC was a moment that fundamentally changed the face of politics in Zimbabwe. 

It is unlikely that the Catholic Church will follow the path of the labour unions. The Bishops are not going to form a political party, no. They will remain behind the pulpit, tending to their flock. But it is foolhardy for Mnangagwa to antagonise an institution as large and as powerful as the Catholic Church. A general must choose his battles carefully and this is a politically expensive battle for Mnangagwa and his people. The Catholic Church is dear to millions of Zimbabweans, a deeply religious people. It is a major social institution which plays a key role in the delivery of social services. Some of the most efficient educational institutions and hospitals are run by the Catholics and other religious denominations. 

Besides, the social power and influence of the Vatican cannot be underestimated. Millions of Catholics around the world will not look favourably at a regime that is persecuting their own. For all his leadership failures, Mugabe knew not to antagonise such institutions. Indeed, even where others might have wished him to stay away, such as the Pope’s funeral, Mugabe was right there among them. Mnangagwa’s approach is brash and arrogant.

Bishops’ dignified response

For their part, the Bishops have so far maintained a dignified silence in the face of the vicious attacks. They know from history that they are not the first clerics to suffer attacks from an authoritarian regime. Back when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia the Catholic Bishops stood up against the racist regime of Ian Douglas Smith. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace documented abuses during the war. The most famous story is that of Bishop Lamont, who was persecuted and deported for standing up to the regime. In the 1980s, the CCJP did sterling work in documenting Gukurahundi genocide in Matebeleland and the Midlands.

They did not stop because of the attacks by the regimes they challenged. The current stand-off is to be expected because Zimbabwe is under an authoritarian regime. It does not admit that there is a crisis and yet everywhere evidence of crises abounds. The public health-care system is in disarray and people are dying from treatable diseases. According to the World Food Programme over 8,6 million Zimbabweans are classified as food insecure. The economy is in severe dire straits, with inflation above 800%. There are regime-sponsored human rights violations by the regime, although it shifts responsibility to what it calls “dark forces”. 

The Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) has documented multiple abuses of human rights. In July it recorded 48 cases of unlawful detention, 68 cases of assault, 168 cases of harassment and intimidation and 45 cases of abductions. Most of these violations, more than 80% of them, were attributed to state security agents. “By the end of the month and July 31, the State’s paranoia had reached unprecedented levels and dozens had been arrested, hundreds brutalised and Zimbabwe was in a state of fear with State security agents deployed in every part of the country, rural and urban” reported the ZPP. As I write, Lovender Chiwaya, a young opposition leader and councillor in Hurungwe has been found murdered and his body was dumped near his home. The perpetrators of this murder are suspected state agents. 

And yet, against this dire background, the regime insists that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe. It excoriates the Catholic Bishops for saying there is a crisis in the country. The Catholic Bishops are merely the latest in a line of groups that have been attacked for saying there is a crisis in the country. ZANU PF attacked African Union head Moussa Faki for cautioning against human rights violations. It also attacked the ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule. But even then Ministers Lindiwe Zulu and Naledi Pandor have since stated in clear terms that there is a crisis in the country. ZANU PF is refusing to acknowledge and accept that the weight of local and international public opinion is heavily against it. Like an ostrich, it wants to bury its head in the sand and pretend that there is no crisis. 

The Catholic Bishops have received tremendous support from many groups around the world. The World Council of Churches and the Vatican have added their weight to the support and reassurance. Zimbabweans are grateful that a powerful institution has spoken on their behalf. Atrocities happen when powerful voices remain silent. There are risks that come with taking a stand, as the Catholic Bishops are experiencing. There are some among them who may be partial to the regime and they might be saying we told you so to their fellow Bishops. But it makes no sense to remain silent when their flock they lead is being brutalised. 

The regime has wheeled in its defenders among the clergy, but many of them are compromised because they are beneficiaries of corrupt schemes. A few weeks ago, the BSR revealed how respected members of the clergy were beneficiaries of the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scheme. It’s hardly surprising that they are among the most vocal in support of the regime and in criticising the Catholic Bishops for the courageous stand they took. The enablers among the clergy say the church must not interfere in political matters, but they routinely wade into political matters in favour of the regime. The hypocrisy and double standards are appalling. For them, it’s one rule for them as enablers of the regime, and another rule for other religious leaders as defenders of the people. 

How the regime uses co-opted elements to justify repression

Last December, I wrote a BSR entitled The Regime and its Enablers. The essential point of that contribution was that the authoritarian regime relies on people who wittingly or unwittingly assist it in its dictatorial enterprise. Some of these people consciously set out to assist the regime because they believe in it. Others take part in the regime in the mistaken belief that they are acting in the public interest. The common rationale for participation is that they can “change things from within”. They can be good men and women, full of good intentions, who simply underestimate the cunning and manipulative nature of the regime and overestimate their own capacity to influence.  

This is why I cautioned that in fact, far from changing things from within, the regime benefits more from having these persons within its structures. This is because it uses their presence in its systems to sanitise itself. It uses them as examples of how “tolerant” it is of difference and diversity. The regime does this even as it is violating human rights and attacking dissenters outside its ranks. In short, the regime uses them to justify repression. having them in its structures is part of the deception of the authoritarian regime. It takes time before co-opted men and women realise that they are being played; that to the regime, they are nothing more than instruments designed to justify its misrule and violation of other citizens’ rights. 

Using PAC and Directorships to justify repression

The second statement issued by the government in response to the Catholic Bishops provides a very good example of how the regime uses co-opted to justify its repressive methods. It refers to how Mnangagwa has a Presidential Advisory Council (PAC) “whose membership is not restricted to members of his own party”. It says some of these PAC members are highly critical of [the] Government” according to the statement. The regime wants to give the impression of inclusivity and tolerance of different personalities and views. The co-opted personalities serve this purpose for the regime. But two years after its establishment the failure of the regime and its authoritarianism shows that PAC has been nothing beyond ornamental in the structures of the regime. 

The statement goes on to give the example of “Pastor Shingie Munyeza [who] is a member of PAC and is also a Government-appointed Director of Zimpapers Holdings.” It further states that Pastor Munyeza “has used his church sermons to call for the removal of the Government of Zimbabwe in language that cannot be described as moderate. Not only has Shingie Munyeza retained his position in the PAC and at Zimpapers, but no consequences have visited Pastor Munyeza for his stance”. This statement says, “Look, we have a critic in our ranks and we allow him to do so without any problem.” It presents Pastor Munyeza as a showman in the Mnagagwa-directed drama, whose purpose is to represent a token of dissent which ZANU PF tolerates. One might even regard it as a patronising insult to Pastor Munyeza because ZANU PF does not spare people who try to remove it from power. 

The statement also gives the impression that the regime sees these positions as rewards to the individuals who can be tolerated. Unbeknown to Pastor Munyeza and others in PAC who hold directorships at state-owned entities, the regime classifies these as rewards from the regime. But more importantly, they are being used by the regime to argue that it is not repressive to other Zimbabweans simply because they are co-opted by the regime. In other words, the regime uses them to say it’s not that bad because if it were, these people would not be accommodated in PAC, Zimpapers, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe or any other state-owned entities. The reality of course if very different, as the abductions, arrests, torture and killing of activists and opposition politicians shows. 

Double standards: Why attack Archbishop Ndlovu and not Pastor Munyeza?

Interestingly, the government shoots itself in the foot when it says Pastor Shingie Munyeza has called for the removal of the Government but nothing has happened to him. The irony, which is lost on the government, is that this is written in a statement in which it is excoriating the Catholic Bishops for being critical of the government. The same government which wants to present itself as tolerant to Pastor Munyeza, is showing gross intolerance to the Catholic Bishops’s criticism. If Pastor Munyeza has called for the removal of the government, why has the government attacked the Catholic Bishops for saying less? It has never attacked Pastor Munyeza the way it attacked Archbishop Robert Ndlovu. Was Archbishop Ndlovu an easy target because he is from an ethnic minority, a point that the government made much of in the first statement? 

Double standards: selective application of the law  

Additionally, the insincerity and double standards of the government is shown by the fact that anyone who would have called for the removal of the Government, as it alleges by Pastor Shingie Munyeza has done, would be in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. Scores of Zimbabweans have been arrested in the past few years, many of them charged with attempting to remove a constitutionally elected government under the Criminal Law Code. But here the government is saying a man has called for its removal and bragging that it has not done anything to him. The regime is openly confessing to selective application of the law. 

Indeed, journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and politician Jacob Ngarivhume are presently in Chikurubi, charged with inciting public violence after calling for peaceful demonstrations. The regime says they were agitating to remove the government. But here is the same government in a rambling statement saying Pastor Munyeza has called for the removal of the government but he is a free man, and using that to make a claim of tolerance. If what the government says of Pastor Munyeza is true, that he has called for the removal of the government, why is he a free man when everyone else who has been accused of trying to remove the government has been arrested and jailed by the regime? 

The regime has always known the purpose of the men and women it co-opted through PAC and board memberships of state-owned entities. They are not a threat to the regime. They are useful as examples of how “tolerant” the regime is. But is it not clear to Pastor Munyeza and others in his position that they are being used by the regime to justify the violation of other Zimbabweans’ rights? How do they read these manipulative justifications of human rights abuses in their name and carry on as normal? How do they look Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume in the eye, men whom they have engaged prior to their current detention, when they are unjustly incarcerated and their own freedom is used by the regime to sanitise its misdeeds? The authoritarian regime is cunning. It makes use of those who are present and available to be used.


The regime is fighting everyone who dares to criticise it. In the eyes of the regime, everyone is wrong. Everyone who has a different view is an enemy. The attack on the Catholic Bishops following their Pastoral letter is an example of how the regime is vicious in the face of dissent. If it can do that to a major institution like the Catholic Church, what more ordinary individuals. The brutal murder of Lovender Chiwaya in Hurungwe by suspected state agents brings back gory memories of the persecution of opposition members in 2008 and during Gukurahundi in the 1980s. The ominous fact is that the men who authored Gukurahundi and the 2008 election violence are in charge of the country.

The problem is there are men, women and institutions that believed they could assist this regime. They now know that this is an impossibility. What they have yet to come to terms with is that their continued presence in the structures of the regime is a tool being deployed against other citizens; an instrument being used to justify egregious human rights violations. The regime is irredeemable. Just a glimpse of how it is treating political prisoners Hopewell Chin’ono, Jacob Ngarivhume and Godfrey Kurauone is enough to show that it’s reached a point of no return.