Archbishop Emeritus of Bulawayo Pius Ncube and Minister of Education, Sport, and Culture David Coltart
Millions went to the polls last Wednesday in the small Southern African nation of Zimbabwe in a general election that pits the incumbent, Robert Mugabe, against a divided opposition. Mugabe has held power since 1980, and, at 89, he shows no signs of yielding it. As David Coltart, member of the opposition and Minister of Education, Sport, and Culture, urged his supporters last Tuesday night:
Good people of Zimbabwe—get to bed early this evening. Then, early tomorrow, get up and go, every last one of you, to do your bit to end tyranny. We all have a role to play—even if you are not registered and unable to vote encourage those who can vote, to go and vote—and if you can help them get to the polls, do so.
There is much concern about Zanu PF plans to rig but the best way to overcome that is to get every last person to vote. The more legitimate ballots in the boxes the more they have to stuff and the harder it is for them!
God bless Zimbabwe.
“Ending tyranny” is no hyperbole in Zimbabwe’s case. The British colony of Southern Rhodesia until 1965, Zimbabwe vividly remembers the oppressive years of white-minority rule from 1965 to 1980. Ian Smith led the 5 percent of the population who had settled in the colony from Britain in attempting to perpetuate their own power by ignoring the Commonwealth procedures for democratic transfer to majority rule. Mugabe waged a brutal guerilla war of reprisals and counter-reprisals in which civilians, black and white, sustained most of the casualties. He successfully undermined the Rhodesian government and nominally achieved the creation of a liberal, democratic Zimbabwe after a 1980 peace deal brokered by Margaret Thatcher’s British government. His actions neatly fit a post-colonial narrative of national liberation. Acclaim poured in for the hero of Zimbabwean freedom: Queen Elizabeth II knighted Mugabe, the University of Massachusetts gave him an honorary law degree, and capital cities throughout Southern Africa renamed prominent avenues after him.
But the tribalism, racism, and authoritarianism that have been so characteristic of President Mugabe in recent years were apparent from the beginning. Mugabe and his base of support are members of the majority Shona ethnic group in the north and east of Zimbabwe. From 1982 to 1987, Mugabe’s elite 5th Brigade (honed in brutality in North Korea) conducted terror killings of 20,000 ethnic Ndebele in the west to solidify power and discourage dissent.
From then until the late 1990s, Zimbabwe was relatively tranquil. Commercial farming—a sector dominated by white settlers—flourished, earning Zimbabwe the nickname, “The Breadbasket of Southern Africa.” Rumor has it that the First Lady in those years, Sally Hayfron, had a moderating influence on Mugabe. I remember very fondly my visits to Harare and Mutare, Zimbabwe’s major cities, during that period. The prosperity and opportunity to be found across the border contrasted favorably with the destitution of my home Mozambique.
But peace and order are always fragile. In 1998, Mugabe ordered thousands of his troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ostensibly an intervention on the side of a government under attack by rebel groups, the foreign adventure served to secure mineral wealth to senior officials in Mugabe’s government while emptying Zimbabwe’s coffers.
In 2000, mounting criticism by the new Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party left Mugabe increasingly embattled. “Land reform” proved a welcome distraction, as the president and his allies increasingly drew on a sense of grievance from Zimbabwe’s colonial past to create a siege mentality. Disagreeing with the president was labeled Western-backed subversion, and former guerilla soldiers began to forcibly evict white farmers from their land. This alienated international financial institutions and drove away foreign investment, sparking hyperinflation that rendered the Zimbabwe dollar worth less than the paper it was printed on. Stringent laws requiring “indigenization” of all companies operating in Zimbabwe further alienated Western investors, leading Mugabe to align himself with China, exchanging mining concessions for infrastructure and weaponry. Millions of Zimbabweans—up to a quarter of the country’s population, and many of the most skilled and educated—left the country in despair, often seeking to rebuild their lives in neighboring countries or the United Kingdom.
President Mugabe has managed to hang on to power despite his fierce unpopularity (especially in urban areas and among the Ndebele). Mass fraud marred the 2002 general elections. And Mugabe’s men have stooped to dirtier and more direct tactics since: infiltrating the opposition MDC to split it in 2005, beating up presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai and then defending the deed as “deserved” in 2007, and beating hundreds of MDC supporters—and killing many—during the 2008 election cycle.
Since then, the country has seen some signs of hope: a power-sharing deal that has given the MDC some chance to govern, an inflation reduction accomplished by adopting the U.S. dollar, and a new constitution that limits presidential powers. Yet the build-up to these elections has been marked by harassment, intimidation, and tampering with the voting roll. This cycle, hundreds of thousands of eligible voters were reportedly denied registration while names of long-deceased people were added instead.
The official results from yesterday’s election will be released on August 5th, but the MDC, including David Coltart, has alleged fraud. Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party is claiming a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Foreign observers have remained noncommittal, and investors are nervous, jeopardizing the recent fragile economic growth.
Stories like Zimbabwe’s are saturated with extraordinary evil and despair. But it would wrong to miss the myriad glimpses of hope and redemption that God’s people bear witness to: the courageous work of Pius Ncube, Archbishop of Bulawayo, in spending thirty years prophesying against Mugabe’s deeds (Mugabe himself was educated by Jesuits and once claimed to be a devout Catholic); the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace’s careful documentation of abuses of power; the faithful worship and practice of the Union Baptist Church; and the compassionate outreach of Celebration Ministries International. The faithful work of Minister Coltart to achieve improvements in Zimbabwe’s education system has been a perennial sign of hope for racial reconciliation in a scarred nation. But now Coltart has reportedly been unseated.
One hundred and sixteen years ago, Enoch Santonga, educated by Methodist missionaries, wrote a great hymn, praying that the incarnate Creator might bless his continent. Now part of the national anthem of South Africa, his isiXhosa lyrics are particularly apt for Zimbabwe’s travails:
Nkosi, sikelel’ iAfrika
Malupakam’ upondo lwayo;
Yiva imitandazo yetu.
Lord, bless Africa
May her horn rise high up;
Hear Thou our prayers and bless us.
Yihla Moya, yihla Moya
Yihla Moya Oyingcwele
Descend O Spirit
Descend, O Holy Spirit
Nkosi Sikelel, Afrika;
Cima bonk’ ubugwenza bayo
Neziggito, Nezono zayo
Lord, bless Africa
Blot out all its wickedness
And its transgressions and sins,
And bless us.
Luke Foster is a summer intern at First Things. Photo Credit: David Coltart's Facebook page.