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None but Ourselves: Our future is in our hands

(Chiedza Chimhanda SJ)

As the economic, social and political climate in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate, we cannot avoid asking what the role of the Church is in such a situation. My experience with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in South Africa forms the basis of this reflection on the role of the Church in Zimbabwe today. Working with JRS brought me into contact with various people from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), who often challenged me on the nature of the work JRS was doing for refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa. They criticized me for being part of an organization that spent too much time dealing with temporary emergency relief rather than seeking long term structural solutions to the problems of refugees and asylum seekers in Johannesburg and Pretoria. I have not forgotten the lesson I learnt from my friends at UNHCR and when I look at the role the Church in Zimbabwe is playing right now, I see that same emergency response to the crisis we are facing. There is not much talk in the Church about the long-term solutions to our problems. 

To a large extent, temporary relief offers immediate and visible assistance in any chaotic situation. When homes and work places were destroyed by Murambatsvina, many people sought shelter at Churches. Blankets, food and transport were readily available from various Church organizations for the victims. This general and immediate response was most welcome. The Church showed that at least it cared for the well-being of the suffering masses.

The victims of Murambatsvina are still with us, our economy continues to deteriorate and inflation continues to rise beyond government’s control. Thousands continue to lose their jobs each day and many more find each day difficult to get through. We are climbing a very steep mountain and the peak seems to be beyond reach. Medical fees are way beyond the reach of many ordinary Zimbabweans, just as the cost of daily living has become a nightmare for most families. As all these problems haunt the people of Zimbabwe, I get the impression that various Church organizations are too busy fund- raising to respond to the daily crises that are emerging.

Recently there were claims of a plot to assassinate the head of state. Reports of an arms cache unearthed in Manicaland were widely circulated and a number of opposition party leaders were arrested in connection with the story and later released. Even after all charges against them were dropped, state security agents raided the offices of the Mutambara-led MDC faction in Bulawayo, looking for arms! We all watch as our government flexes its muscles and exercises its monopoly over violence. Our recent history in Zimbabwe has taught us that dissent of any nature will be severely dealt with by the government. We know that there is no room for openly criticizing the government of Zimbabwe since all those who criticize the government are branded as imperialist forces, not ready for ‘progress

Perhaps it’s now time for the Catholic Church to step in and challenge our government and other state organizations to explain to us how we got where we are now. We have to get to the root causes of all our problems and attack them immediately, lest we continue to sink into the unknown. This involves challenging and changing all the structures that have contributed to the socio-economic and political collapse of the country. There is no doubt that our leaders do not have any solutions for our problems. They are part of the problem. The time has come for the Church to take a clear stance in opting for the poor. The many suffering people in Zimbabwe need to have their concerns and their plight informing the religious, political, social and economic agenda of our country. The poor have to move from being on the periphery to the center of all our concerns, plans and programmes.

With the plight of the suffering masses at heart, long term solutions have to be sought for Zimbabwe. The Catholic Church must wake up to the challenge that is now imminent and push for the cause of the suffering masses, in a non-violent manner. The burden is too much for the Catholic Church to carry alone. There is need to network with other Churches and civic organizations in demanding an immediate change in Zimbabwe. Time for pretending to be nice and friendly to the government is long gone. Over the past five years, our government has clearly shown its inability to steer the country in the right direction and to place it on a path to recovery. The solution to our problems begins by calling for an immediate change of leadership!

No doubt that whoever calls for a change of leadership in the country will be branded yet another imperialist agent working for Tony Blair and George Bush. But is that true? When thousands cannot afford to feed their families each day, when millions cannot afford to pay basic medical fees, while many more are fleeing from their own country because they cannot afford to survive, should we not ask who our leaders are serving? Does the plight of the masses in the country make any sense to our leaders? A government that throws people onto the streets by destroying their homes and jobs without any alternative arrangements put in place does not serve the interests of the people. It shows that it has no care for the people.

Our Church, as conscience of society, the Church, as the people of God, the Church as the ordinary members and the hierarchy, has to set the platform for long term solutions to our problems. Lack of action that produces solid long-term solutions means that we remain in a vicious circle of responding to emergency relief without solving the actual problems at hand. In this way, the Church will participate in perpetuating the chaos in the country. I am advocating a challenge that proposes concrete and constructive solutions. I am calling for constructive criticism that listens to the concerns of the many people in Zimbabwe who are suffering and making their concerns the essence of the agenda for Zimbabwe’s future.

Of course we look up to our leaders in the Church to guide us through this exercise, but we do not leave them to work alone. The ordinary members of the Church, among whom I stand, also have to make their voices heard and cooperate with the bishops. There are many experts among the faithful, there are many people with brilliant ideas and there are many people among the faithful with first-hand experience of the sufferings that the people of Zimbabwe are going through. All these have to come up and call for immediate change to the structures and leadership in the country.

The time has come for the Church to spearhead a call for a transitional government as a way of rescuing Zimbabwe from the current collapse. A new set of leaders must be chosen from civil society and from the various political parties, with a firm promise to work for the good of the country. The transitional government should begin the process of drafting a constitution for the country, clearly guaranteeing the equality of all before the law and setting out clear structures of government and fixed presidential terms of office. The ownership and re-distribution of land must be guided by the new constitution, placing the interests of the poor in the country as essential guidelines.

With leaders not serving party interests, the transitional government should make all the necessary preparations for free and fair elections to be held within a stipulated period. The voters register must be updated and corrected so that by the time we hold elections, there will be a fair playing field for all parties and for the voters. All political parties must be given equal opportunities to campaign in the country and credible national and international observers must be invited to monitor the elections. Violence from any party should not be tolerated.

Our chaos and decline will turn into order and progress once we bring back proper administration into the country and create an environment that attracts investors. There has been too much tension and violence in the country since the year 2000. Reconciliation and forgiveness must be incorporated in setting a new beginning for Zimbabwe. New ideas have to be injected into new leaders. The plight of the poor must take center stage. None but ourselves will steer Zimbabwe into a brighter future.