Robert Mugabe, the dictator of Zimbabwe, claims to be a man of faith¯and with some reason. He was born to mission-educated parents and, like many Zimbabweans of his generation, he attended a Jesuit school. He reportedly still attends weekly Mass in Harare. Martin Meredith, a former southern Africa correspondent for the London Times and a biographer of Mugabe, asserts that, at least in his younger days, Mugabe’s "mentor had been the Catholic Church."
Yet in his twenty-seven years of dictatorial rule, Mugabe has shorn himself of anything his religious upbringing might have instilled. His genocide in the 1980s against members of the minority Ndebele tribe; his politically induced starvation of opponents; and the arrest, torture, and sometimes outright murder of those who speak out against his rule have all demonstrated a wanton disregard for what the Church¯particularly the Church in Zimbabwe¯has taught its flock. "I was brought up by the Jesuits and I’m most grateful," Mugabe has said. "I benefited from their teaching enormously." In truth, the only thing Mugabe seems to have kept from his Jesuit education is an austere self-discipline, a virtue that he has ruthlessly distorted to keep himself in power at the expense of his suffering countrymen.
To many African leaders, Mugabe is seen as a hero of the struggle against European dominance of the continent. But, in the end, the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe remains remarkably similar to its predecessor, the Rhodesia of Ian Smith. The white authoritarian tyranny of Smith relied on distinct forms of prejudice, and so does the black kleptocratic tyranny of Mugabe¯both abjectly refusing to recognize the inviolable rights of man.
Against Smith’s Rhodesia, the Catholic bishops took a stand, declaring that law based on race prejudice was "utterly to be condemned . . . primarily because it denies our common origin and our common redemption." And now, against Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the Catholic Church has taken another stand, led by Mugabe’s most outspoken foe, Pius Ncube, the archbishop of Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo.
While Mugabe maims and starves, Ncube stands as the heroic voice of his countrymen. He has repeatedly called Mugabe evil and compared him to Pol Pot. His phones are tapped, he is monitored by state security around the clock, and government agents have twice raided the home of his elderly mother. He has called for nothing less than a mass uprising so large it could set itself against Mugabe’s army. Ncube has himself volunteered to stand at the front of this wave, facing "blazing guns" if need be. "I accept that it may mean that I lose my life." In 2005, Ncube said that he had prayed for Mugabe to die.
Ncube is a man of the cloth, and he knows the cloth is what has shielded him from the arrest, torture, and murder Mugabe has visited on so many others. Even though Mugabe has likened Ncube to the devil, the dictator has yet to lay a hand on the archbishop, most likely from knowledge that harming a Catholic prelate would focus even more Western attention on his regime. Indeed, in his Urbi et Orbi address this Easter, Pope Benedict XVI surprised many when he named Zimbabwe as a cause for special concern. "Zimbabwe is in the grip of a grievous crisis and for this reason the bishops of that country in a recent document indicated prayer and a shared commitment for the common good as the only way forward," the pope declared.
In 2005 Mugabe defied a European Union travel ban to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. In response, Ncube said: "That man will use any opportunity to fly to Europe to promote himself. The man is shameless." Immediately before Easter of this year, the Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe released another pastoral letter. Remarkably political, it declared that, in order to avert "further bloodshed and avert a mass uprising," a new constitution was required to make way for a democratic government "chosen in free and fair elections that will offer a chance for economic recovery under genuinely new policies." Mugabe’s government ordered the Church not to distribute versions of the letter translated in the local languages of Shona and Ndebele, and state security agents visited priests across the country issuing threats.
But Ncube’s institutional religious affiliation has not shielded him from the depraved offenses of the Mugabe regime. On July 1, Ncube speculated to London’s Sunday Times that "I think it is justified for Britain to raid Zimbabwe and remove Mugabe." Less than three weeks later, state television aired grainy photographs of Ncube in bed with what was alleged to be a married woman. Mugabe was gleeful at this news and said in a speech that he would pray for Ncube "so he has some good manners." Mugabe, who sired two children with his then secretary (now wife) while his first wife was dying, also declared: "I also know God; I am a Roman Catholic. I am a person who belongs to the Church, but I didn’t have an affair with anyone."
Donal Lamont, a Catholic bishop of Irish descent, was one of the most outspoken foes of the white minority regime of Rhodesia. It was common for Ian Smith and his colleagues in government to declare that their goal was not the protection of white interests but those of Christianity itself. The minister of information once remarked that Rhodesia was fighting for a "Western Christian free-enterprise civilization," and Smith constantly spoke of his defense not of white supremacy but of "Western Christian civilization."
But, in 1976, at the height of the country’s guerilla war, Lamont wrote an open letter to Smith, stating that, "far from your policies defending Christianity and Western civilization, as you claim, they mock the law of Christ and make communism attractive to the people." Lamont compared the racial attitudes of the government to Nazi Germany, and his vociferousness became so bothersome that a group of prominent white businessmen asked the Vatican to remove him. A member of Parliament referred to Lamont as "that treacherous and unpatriotic bishop," and, in rhetoric that matches Robert Mugabe’s, the Rhodesian government denounced Lamont as the worst of the country’s "immoral subversive agents advocating even murder under a missionary cloak."
Indeed, the parallel is exact. In the 1980s, when a church commission presented the government with evidence of atrocities against the minority Ndebele tribe, Mugabe ominously warned that "the Church of Zimbabwe, whatever the denomination, must abandon forever the tendency or temptation to play marionette for foreign so-called parent churches whose interests and perspectives may, and often will be, at variance with the best interests of our country."
The problem of Zimbabwe¯the ideology of liberation-hero worship, demanded by the Zimbabwe African National Union¯Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)¯is common in Africa. It is the woeful norm across the continent, where organizations that fought for independence from colonial rule view themselves as now having the right to rule in perpetuity.
Even South Africa, one of the continent’s more liberal democratic countries, suffers badly from this problem. South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) has a liberation ideology that is discomfortingly similar to liberation theology. There is something disturbingly cold in the ANC’s revolutionary credo, which years after the fall of apartheid remains visible in South Africa’s firm allegiance to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. The ANC has welcomed ZANU-PF delegations to South Africa, and the South African government has certified every one of Mugabe’s obviously rigged elections.
Some of the ANC’s continuing support for Mugabe is due to the ideological kinship with its fellow liberation movement in Zimbabwe. But more may be due to the fact that the ANC sees itself implicated in the future of ZANU-PF. If Zimbabwe’s liberation movement were to fall, the ANC must worry that South Africans will question the right of the ANC to rule forever as well.
The condition of people in South Africa does not match the ANC’s lofty rhetoric¯and no greater example of this exists than in the two to three million impoverished Zimbabwean refugees who have flooded into neighboring South Africa since Mugabe began seizing property in 2000. In their miserable poverty and neglected condition, these Zimbabweans stand in stark rebuke to the pan-Africanist mantra of brotherhood that has wedded the ANC so uncritically to the Mugabe regime.
The South African government does nothing for these unfortunate people and every week deports thousands of them back to Zimbabwe (where many¯especially those suspected of opposition political activity¯face arrest and torture). With the ANC government impassive in the face of this humanitarian disaster, the work of caring for Zimbabwean refugees has fallen to the region’s churches, which have used whatever piteously small resources they have to see that these people do not literally die on the streets. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in spite of his ranting about Israel, is an admirable example of this sentiment. He stands as a forthright critic of the ANC’s policies on Zimbabwe. Earlier this year, he condemned African leaders who are "so reluctant just to call a spade a spade. Human rights violations are human rights violations." Mugabe has responded by calling Tutu "an angry, evil, and embittered little bishop."
In Johannesburg, one pastor and his parish stand out for selflessness: Bishop Paul Verryn of the Central Methodist Church (whom I interviewed in South Africa last year). At least seven hundred people, the vast majority of them Zimbabweans, sleep in Bishop Verryn’s church every night, mostly huddled on the floor in the hallways, the basement, and the stairwells. Verryn asks every man who enters his church if he has a female companion and children. "I always ask that question because I think it’s particularly important for men to keep the links and to have a place where those questions are asked, and who’s looking after the children and who’s feeding the children and are the children being educated," he told me last year. Although his decaying church (which he admits is "like a slum") serves as a makeshift homeless shelter, he says that the church’s regular congregants generally support him in his work and that 1,200 people attend one of the five services he holds on Sundays.
South Africa’s response to the crisis in Zimbabwe "is an unmitigated shame," Verryn insists. "I am actually so ashamed at the response. Because if you had to sit in this office really for just a little while and had to listen to what I listen to and you think that we prattle on about ubuntu [a word that, in various African dialects, roughly translates to ‘humanity toward others’] and all this nonsense, and in natural fact it’s quite appalling." The patina of morality that surrounds the ANC because of its history of struggle begins to crack in the face of Zimbabwe’s plight.
In the spring of 2005, the Mugabe regime uprooted several hundred thousand slum dwellers in a campaign to "re-ruralize" and impoverish political opponents. The operation was called Murambatsvina, or "wipe out trash" in the Shona language. "What kind of politician dares use that word?" Verryn asks. " Trash about some of the finest people that I’ve come across? It is beyond understanding."
In a 1959 pastoral letter decrying the race prejudice that surrounded him, Bishop Lamont wrote: "In a few years we shall all be compounded with the dust and probably forgotten. There will be no privilege then, no distinction of race or of color, and there will be no segregation. And what will decide our eternity will be simply the charity which we have shown to our fellow man in this present life. Nothing else will count."
Though the political landscape in Africa has changed dramatically since these words were written, the persistent abuse of human rights continues unabated on the continent. Only when African leaders believe that collective humanity trumps the outdated and illegitimate "ideology of liberation" will the people of Zimbabwe be saved from one of the world’s cruelest tyrants.
James Kirchick has reported on Zimbabwe for the New York Sun and many other publications. He is on the editorial staff of the New Republic.