2016-07-27
On May 20, Archbishop Pius Ncube of Zimbabwe won the Robert Burns International Humanitarian Award in Scotland and dedicated it to Zimbabweans who are persecuted in their country. Journalists and human-rights proponents who seek to alert the world to the increasingly perilous political climate in Zimbabwe have incurred the regime's wrath, risking their freedom and their safety. Both the author of this article and its subject have braved danger to bear witness to their country's crisis.

Zimbabwe's leading Catholic cleric has openly called for divine intervention in restoring the country's fortunes that have been compromised by the lack of truthful leadership and a gross disrespect for human rights and social justice under President Robert Mugabe, himself a Catholic.

Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo says religion and politics cannot be separated as they both tackle the core issues of spiritual and physical needs of the rulers and those who are ruled. In the case of the beleagured Zimbabwe, once a paragon of independence, democracy, and social justice, President Mugabe has neglected his faith in ruling the country, says Archbishop Ncube.

In the latest example of the kind of merciless tactics against opponents of the regime decried by Ncube, Mugabe launched Operation Murambatsvina, or "drive out the rubbish," on May 19. Government agents have so far demolished 20,000 shacks and market stalls of an estimated 1 million urban poor who make up the core support for the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's chief opposition party. With neither shelter or means of support, the displaced are left exposed to the elements and vulnerable to starvation and disease.


I asked Archbishop Ncube what will happen to the poor people who have now lost what little they had.

"This "clean-up" is the biggest evil action government has carried out to displace between 300,000 and 2 million people," Ncube says. "The churches have been trying to take in some of these people, to bring food and blankets to them, but they can only do so much. Some of their dwellings that have been around for the past 20 to 30 years have been razed to the ground. "The government is bankrupt. It is unable to provide housing for most of these people who were living in the informal settlements. Some of these houses were solid, built with the right architectural designs and with the approval of the council, but have been destroyed all the same. Look at what happened in Kuwadzana [a district of Harare supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, where police are continuing to destroy people's property].

"I believe government has reached a dangerous stage where it will do anything to cling to power, even at the expense of the people. The president, himself--I do not mind saying this--has lost his mind. How can he be so cruel to his people in the winter season? They have stolen the goods of the people. People have worked hard for the little that they have through cross-border trading and hawking and now they have lost that source of livelihood. There is 80-percent unemployment in the country now; inflation is rising, despite lies by [Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank governor Gideon] Gono; prices are rising every three months. There is no fuel and there is a shortage of basic commodities. People are short of money for food and for rent, now they have to deal with homelessness. To me, this is absolutely evil; it shows that the government will stop at nothing to get and keep power."

The archbishop has strong views about the religious significance of the regime's actions.

"These people in government worship power," he says. "This thing is demonic. Why did the Devil revolt against God? It is because of greed and love of power. The hearts of those in government have been taken over by the devil. There is a lot of hunger and starvation in the rural areas and Mugabe knew this in February but did not to correct the situation. He could have called for [international humanitarian] aid then, but for the sake of power he was prepared to sacrifice the lives of the people.

"Externally, these people [in the Mugabe regime] pretend to be Christian, but dishonor God's teaching of loving another and look out for one another, especially the poor and the weak. The United Nations should come in and take over. It should demand fresh elections, because the government has put the lives of the people at risk.

"The country's leadership has shown their total heartlessness. The people who elected them to take care of the people have no heart for them. They are cruel and heartless and will sacrifice the people. They have now destroyed licensed vendors. They want to control everything. This leadership must go. If the people of Zimbabwe do not chase them out, the international community should. They cannot dislodge Mugabe with the ballot, because he is a cheat. The Catholic bishops have issued a statement condemning this action by the government.
"It is clear that the leadership of this country is bent on staying in power even if the people die. The way forward is for the leadership to be taken out of power, because all negotiations have failed. Well the United Nations should take them but that will not happen, because Africa supports Mugabe.

"He [Mugabe] does not apply his faith to his political governance of the country," says Ncube. "He totally ignores it. He is hypocritical when it comes to that. Here is a man who goes to Mass, receives Holy Communion, and speaks at church meetings but yet he does not respect basic human rights. He goes to justify himself."

Bishop Ncube believes that religious leaders around the world have the moral duty to speak out against all forms of social injustice. He laments that in Zimbabwe, some of the clergy have backed Mugabe, whose skewed policies are evidenced in the political and economic crisis in his country of more than 11 million people.

"As far as I am concerned he [Mugabe] is a total failure as far as the application of human rights is concerned," says Ncube. "He has been rigging elections left, right, and center, parliamentary elections in 2000 and 2005, and presidential elections in 2002. He has totally rigged them and thereby shown himself to be untruthful. He has been killing innocent people through the Fifth Brigade [infamous North Korean-trained soldiers, loyal to the regime]. He is a murderer. He gets zero as far as human rights are concerned."

Born Alec Vundlana in 1946 in what was then Rhodesia, Bishop Ncube spent his early childhood in Gwanda, in Zimbabwe's rural south before moving to Bulawayo for his early education. School at the Catholic-run St. Patrick's Primary School sharpened the young man's resolve to joint the priesthood. He adopted the name Pius at his baptism at the age of 14 in 1960.

After secondary school training in Gweru, Ncube entered seminary in Chishawasha, completing his training for the priesthood in 1973. He was ordained at the age of 26 and served as priest in Kezi and Plumtree districts in the Matabeleland South province. He was later transferred to parishes in the city of Bulawayo before being ordained the first black archbishop of Bulawayo.

In his criticism of the Mugabe regime, Bishop Ncube takes his cue from his mentors during his seminary training. It was then that he became aware of the work of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP). Bishops at the time were vocal in opposing the injustices perpetrated by the colonial government of Ian Smith in what was then Rhodesia. They criticized the Smith government's land policy and the political segregation under which Africans were second-class citizens. They also protested the regime's violence, systemic injustice, and selective application of the law.


These examples fired Bishop Ncube's zeal to stand up to state authorities that work for their own interests and ignore the good of the people. An ugly incident occurred in Matabeleland province in 1983 and 1984 when more than 20, 000 civilians were killed by Mugabe's Fifth Brigade unit. The mass killings, whose repercussions are still being felt today, marked a dark chapter in the tribal relations of Zimbabweans. Catholic bishops at the time wrote a letter condemning the excesses of the Mugabe government in killing innocent civilians and proceeded to publish "Breaking the Silence," a report that documented the killings.

Could Mugabe be beyond prayer, I asked Bishop Ncube?

"Yes, since he is causing so much suffering," Ncube replies emphatically. "We pray that God may take him, because there is no way to change him, We do not want him to be removed violently but on the other hand we have a right to pray. The Israelites prayed to God to deliver them from Egypt--from Pharoah, who was an oppressor. And so we also ask that God may deliver us and take this man away, since he is even going to rig the ballot. He is a bad guy, and you cannot change anything legally. He has no respect for the law, no respect for human life; people can starve to death and he will not care. In my view, it is justified that we pray to God to take him."

Bishop Ncube says attempts at seeking an audience with Mugabe to resolve the country's crisis have been futile. Mugabe has accused Bishop Ncube of deviating from religious matters to dabble in politics.

I asked Ncube about the president's allegation.

"It is not true," he replies. "When the Catholic bishops were challenging Ian Smith, nationalists like Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo were very happy that the bishops were challenging on social injustice. Smith was saying exactly what Mugabe is saying: you should leave politics only to us and get on with what is religious. But we cannot divorce religion from politics; the church should not get into party politics and take sides, but politics [also] deals with bread-and-butter issues, prices, food, a roof over the people's heads, the future for their children, the quality of education, salaries that people can live on. These are the day-to-day issues with which politics deals, so [Mugabe] is completely off course, he has lost direction."

Do you hate him?

"I am angry about the evil things he is doing to destroy the young people," says Ncube. "I do not hate him personally, but I hate his ways. This gross oppression, which has caused 3.4 million Zimbabweans to leave the country, 80-percent unemployment, 400-500 percent inflation is affecting everybody and all because of his careless policies of raiding the land so as to keep himself in power. Otherwise on a personal level he can be quite a nice man; we were in his house when we went to visit as a delegation of four bishops."

Bishop Ncube believes that representatives of other religions in Zimbabwe have not spoken strongly against the regime's social injustice out of fear. People who speak out are hounded; their telephones are tapped and state security trails their movements. Prominent opponents of the regime are subjected to a campaign of lies and demonization in the state-controlled media, as has been the case with Bishop Ncube himself. "As a result, many people are afraid to speak up. They do not want to be harassed and followed by state intelligence agents by car.They have written me threatening letters. They went over to [see] my mother, who is presently 89 years old and were pushing her around to make me feel small. In view of such things, people are afraid to fall out with this government because it has such a nasty agenda."

Bishop Ncube says he refuses to be afraid, because Zimbabwe is his home and he bore the brunt of the war of liberation, whose spoils are now monopolized by Mugabe and his cronies at the expense of the majority of Zimbabweans. Zimbabweans bravely fought colonial oppression, he explains, but intimidation by the black-majority government is now the country's principle problem and has contributed to an atmosphere of fear that breeds passivity. And some Zimbabweans simply cannot bring themselves to oppose the only leader they have know for the past 25 years. Bishop Ncube laments the lack of leadership in Zimbabwe, implying that his people need a modern-day Moses to lead them out of political bondage.

His office, nestled at the St. Mary's Cathedral in the heart of Bulawayo, is filled with pictures of men and women who have left humanity the legacy of love, faith, devotion, and determination. South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose book "No Future Without Forgiveness" touched Ncube deeply, is one of a host of spiritual and civic leaders who have inspired him and strengthened his faith. Oscar Romero, a Latin American bishop whose stand for human rights led to his murder, inspired Ncube, as did Janani Lume, a crusading Anglican bishop of Uganda who was killed by the late dictator Idi Amin. Ncube mentions Pope John Paul II's inspiring stand for human rights against communism. Those on the civil front who have inspired Ncube include South Africa's Nelson Mandela, American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Julius Nyerere, the revered political conscience of Tanzania. While St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine, Theresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross count among those who have inspired him in faith.

On the question of the widespread anticipation that the successor to the late pope John Paul II would be from Africa, Bishop Ncube says Pope Benedict XVI was an obvious choice. He says there is no hurry for an African pope.

"The African church is the fastest growing, and [the church] in Latin America and Asia are also coming up. In a matter of years, we will have an African pope, but there was no really outstanding character, so it should not be just mere affirmative action but choosing someone who really stands for his faith."

Despite his enormous dedication to the fight for justice and the impact he has made on his society, Bishop Ncube refuses to be compared to Desmond Tutu as the conscience of the nation. "Desmond Tutu is really a giant in so many ways. Of course, he had a lot of support internationally, and the churches [in South Africa] are united. Unfortunately, in Zimbabwe, it is very difficult. Mugabe has divided the churches, telling some to support him. But I think Tutu is a giant; really, I cannot compare to him. We do not look to imitate people but are looking at our own situation to fight for justice in Zimbabwe."