Zimbabwe?s good shepherdThe Tablet Interview Pius Ncube
- 31 July 2004
Pius Ncube, Archbishop of Bulawayo, is Robert Mugabe?s most fearless critic. He talks to James Roberts about his country and his battle with the dictator
WHEN I asked Pius Ncube, Archbishop of Bulawayo, about his calling to the priesthood, his answer seemed rather indirect. He talked of sheep and goats and oxen; he mentioned ploughing, and harvest. But these were not biblical metaphors. These were real animals that had been raised, actual seed that was sown, edible grain that was reaped. Born into a peasant family in what was then the internally self-governing British colony of Southern Rhodesia, on the last day of 1946, he entered a world whose key concepts were cultivation and yield, and where wealth was measured not in dollars but in the living flesh and blood of animals. At a distance of half a century from his rural African boyhood, he was able to tell me that his parents had ?cultivated enough to eat. I never starved as I grew up. We used cattle as draught animals. We would get enough yield for two or even three years. There was plenty of rain in those days, unlike today. My parents reared cattle as well as goats and sheep: goats, perhaps 30; sheep, 50 or 60; cattle, 30 or 40. The cattle were kept to sell in case of need, and for food.?
He told me of the influence of two or three prayerful and devout relatives. And of his own early sense that ?our earthly life is short but life for ever with God has no end?. But the first part of his answer, his practical, unromanticised evocation of his childhood, remained with us throughout our conversation. I was struck by the journey of this man, from rural African obscurity to a large book-lined room in Archbishop?s House, under the shadow of Westminster Cathedral, where he was calling on Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O?Connor, and doing what he could during a short visit to London to prevent the total destruction of his home country, Zimbabwe, by the man who rules it. But I was struck also by the way an archbishop could answer a question about his calling with a down-to-earth description of a moderately successful peasant farm. I had expected a call to the head or the heart, something less manual.
In recent years, Ncube has found himself in regular and direct confrontation with another man with a calling. Robert Mugabe?s single mission is to rule Zimbabwe, and ensure that after his death ? he is 80 years old ? the creature he has made in his own image, the Zanu-PF Party, holds sway for ever. In furtherance of this mission, he has ordered the torture and murder of thousands who oppose him, taken away the ability of his rich and fertile land to feed itself, corrupted all business activity, destroyed the currency, converted the army, the police, the judiciary and most of the media into his own personal instruments, turned election campaigns into campaigns of terror and intimidation, and given his CIO intelligence service all the resources it needs to maintain the population in a state of fear.
The battle between the two men, therefore, is so unequal that it makes the encounter between David and Goliath look like a fair fight. And, as with Goliath before he met his young nemesis, violence and intimidation have served the highly educated Mugabe very well indeed. They brought him to power and, whenever he has perceived himself to be under threat, he has incited or organised assaults by his thugs on some minority or other. This educated leader has always turned first to the philistine god of violence.
Ncube locates his faith elsewhere, and it is not just built on rock, it is made of it. ?Catholic schools have gone down a lot, not only in Europe but also in Africa,? he told me. ?There is too much humanism coming in after the [Second] Vatican Council. Before then, Catholics were very, very convinced of their faith. There was no compromise. It was either/or. As a child in school the first thing was, you went to Mass, for about 45 minutes from 7.30, after which we went for lessons. Every day the first lesson was catechism. So, do this five days a week, and after a year or two you really knew what you believed. Today, all the schools are running after ?achievement?, big results. Formerly, the faith factor was the most important. This other thing was only secondary. Now the faith factor is secondary, performance is the first factor.?
Such flinty conviction also prompts Ncube to reject the sentimental orthodoxy, according to which the bloodshed that brought Mugabe to power in 1980 was somehow necessary. The former leader Ian Smith, Ncube argues, could have been ?arm-twisted? by ?well-organised passive resistance? into agreeing to majority rule. But while others died Mugabe learned that, for him, violence worked.
The members of the Zimbabwe Bishops? Conference have often interpreted their faith in a different way from Ncube. The former Archbishop of Harare, Patrick Chakaipa, who died last year, was always close to Mugabe. ?He was Mugabe?s friend,? says Ncube. ?That?s as far as I can go.? Most notoriously, however, Chakaipa, while distancing himself from the murderous violence associated with Mugabe?s ?land grab? of recent years, nevertheless gave his blessing to the broad policy of farm seizures that has left millions hungry, jobless and homeless while good land across the country lies fallow.
Moreover, the bishops? conference still refuses to endorse the single authoritative account of the gukurahundi campaign in Ncube?s home area of Matabeleland in the early Eighties, that led to the deaths of up to 20,000 people and still casts its shadow over the country and its dictator. The report, compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and released by the Legal Resources Foundation in 1997, is called Breaking the Silence. The Shona word gukurahundi refers to the early rains that wash away the chaff. In 1983, three years after independence, Mugabe used the presence of fewer than 400 ?dissidents? ? former guerrillas unhappy with the distribution of power after the war ? as a pretext for sending in a North Korean-trained private army, the Fifth Brigade, to pacify the area. There was a constant stream of grieving, raped, bludgeoned people through the archbishop?s doors in Bulawayo. They spoke of how their loved ones had been herded into huts and burned alive while they themselves were forced to watch them die in agony, and to dance and sing the praises of Robert Mugabe as they did so.
Ncube?s predecessor, Archbishop Henry Karlen (Ncube succeeded Karlen in 1997), ensured that statements were taken from all these people, and that year a united bishops? conference made representations directly to Mugabe condemning what was happening. The Fifth Brigade withdrew, but only to return with renewed vigour a year later. Ncube himself has endorsed the Breaking the Silence report, but to this day the bishops? conference has not.
The recent appointment of the Bishop of Hwange, Robert Ndlovu, as Archbishop of Harare, has given the Government a new opportunity to attempt to divide the conference. As reported in The Tablet on 19 June, Ndlovu?s appointment means that the country?s two archbishops, Ndlovu and Ncube, are both Ndebeles from Matabeleland, while the majority Shona people are only represented in the conference by bishops. In its mouthpiece newspaper, the Herald, on 12 July, the Government placed an unsourced story quoting only ?influential and concerned Catholics? and ?some devout Catholics? as evidence that the appointment of Ndlovu was causing a tribal rift in the Church. The Government, in other words, appeared to be attempting to create the very rift it purported to be describing. On 13 July the papal nuncio, Archbishop Edward Adams, was quoted as saying that comments in the Tablet article ?viewed the appointment wrongly in a political light?. The Tablet had said the appointment was a signal from the Vatican that it wanted the Catholic Church to take a firmer line with Mugabe. Adams insisted that Ndlovu ?comes to Harare in obedience to and at the express wish of, the Holy Father?. Ncube, as quoted in the June Tablet article and also during last week?s interview, took great pains to distinguish his own ?out-spoken? approach to the political situation in Zimbabwe from Ndlovu?s ?neutralist? position. But clearly all members of the bishops? conference will need to be alert to government attempts to divide them, given that, as Ncube said, ?anyone who takes a stand, Mugabe tries to isolate?.
However, there was much, Ncube suggested, that the outside world could and should do. Tony Blair had played into Mugabe?s hands. ?Mugabe himself, treacherously and deceitfully, blames all the evils of Zimbabwe, of which he himself is the author, on the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. But by being shy, failing to stand up to him and call him to responsibility, [the British] are playing into his hands. He has got them where he wants them.? I asked Ncube what a wiser course for Blair would be. ?He should simply say: ?Look after your people?,? Ncube said. ?Blair should say: ?Your people are starving. Your people have no jobs. Your people cannot afford housing. Twenty per cent of Zimbabweans are outside the country. It?s all because of you. It?s all your fault. Stop blaming other people.? He should just tell him off, just like that.?
As for the UN, it also needs to take a firm stand and insist on holding Mugabe to account. ?If there is civil unrest in Zimbabwe in the face of the oppression by Mugabe, and he calls in the army to shoot people down, and kills thousands of them ? which he will do ? the United Nations will be responsible for that blood because of their silence. They must speak up and call Mugabe to responsibility.?
The African Union was at least trying to insist on ?accountability and transparency? in compiling a human-rights report on Zimbabwe, and was ?open to persuasion?. But the man who could do more than anyone, Thabo Mbeki, President of neighbouring South Africa, had been ?a let-down?. ?Under the guise of what he calls quiet diplomacy?, Ncube said witheringly, ?he had been backing and excusing Mugabe.? Two weeks previously, Ncube had travelled to South Africa to meet a small proportion ? a few hundred ? of the 2 million Zimbabweans who have fled across the border, and to encourage the Churches there to help them. His account of the visit was chilling.
While South Africa accepts asylum seekers from other African countries where there are conflicts, Zimbabweans find themselves obstructed at every turn. Many thousands are without food or shelter. Many others are kept in unspeakable conditions in camps before being returned, at a rate of 1,000 a week, to the border town of Beitbridge, where they are dumped back into Zimbabwe. ?I listened to some very, very painful stories,? Ncube said. Maltreatment was so widespread, and any form of assistance so utterly absent, that ?many Zimbabwean asylum seekers have died and their parents do not know about it.? Both boys and girls were attempting to survive through prostitution. He met 30 blind Zimbabweans cramped in one tiny hovel. And people who are already sick or starving, once they are transported back into Zimbabwe, may then have to walk hundreds of kilometres to their homes. The skeletons that are now being found by the roadsides show how many die on the journey.
?The more Mbeki insisted on human rights being respected, calling Mugabe to accountability, the more Mugabe would feel himself duty-bound to normalise things in Zimbabwe, and then people would return,? Ncube insisted. But the President of South Africa was placing his loyalty to the dictator over his duty to his neighbours, in particular to 2 million fellow Africans who came to him for help.
It was perhaps not surprising that, when I asked Ncube what should happen next, he proved willing to settle for something less than freedom and democracy. Zanu-PF would win the next parliamentary election in 2005 by rigging and intimidation, as they had done in the past, he told me. ?We know exactly how they are going to cheat,? he said, enumerating the hundreds of thousands of dead voters and duplicate voters who will be briefly rising from the dead next year, or multiplying themselves, to cast their ballot for Zanu-PF. And that was before you even mentioned the inevitable intimidation of the ordinary, living Zimbabweans who just wanted to campaign for the party they favoured.
So, given that Zanu-PF would never relinquish power, Ncube said, all that could be hoped for was a better leader. ?People want normalcy. They want their food. They want their housing to be normal. They want a reasonable salary. To be able to send their children to school. To sleep securely at night. If Zanu-PF stay ? and they will impose themselves whatever: they have the army with them, and the people have been beaten into submission ? then let them deliver services and stop simply filling their pockets.?
?So you think Zimbabweans simply have to accept an illegitimate government and hope it treats them better than it did before?? I asked.
?I do not condone it, I condemn it,? Ncube said. ?But for the sake of peace, yes. What else can you do??
I thought of the world in which Ncube grew up. That was not free either, but there was food, and many went to school, and most slept easily in their beds. If Zimbabweans are very, very lucky with their next leader, they might just be able to aspire in the coming decade to the kind of life that Ncube knew as a boy in the Forties and Fifties. A full granary, healthy livestock, a good night?s sleep after a hard day?s work. Compared with the Zimbabwe of today, where good land lies fallow and the sick and starving fall, die and decompose by the roadside, it would feel like heaven. And ? perhaps ? it is the right and proper calling of an archbishop to bring them there.