The Christian Challenge in Zimbabwe

The Christian Church prior to 1980 was a divided house.  Those churches with predominately white congregations supported the Government of the day while those churches with a majority black congregation, supported the nationalist parties seeking independence and majority rule. 

Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s president

After Independence the number of predominately white congregations declined dramatically as a consequence of emigration.  Those remaining rapidly integrated.

The great majority of Christians supported the new regime and even when the Mugabe led government committed genocide against the Ndebele people between 1983-1987, they remained silent.  The most significant exception was the Catholic Church which eventually produced a report entitled “Breaking the Silence”.  Even today this remains the only substantive report of the genocide.  Following the achievement of a one party state status in 1987, the Mugabe government began to escalate its consolidation of power and with total control over the state, began to violate the fundamental principles of economic management, human rights and our fledgeling democracy.

The consequence was increasing isolation and growing economic difficulties which culminated in 1997 in the payment of reparations to former soldiers and the entry into the war in the Congo which brought Mabutu down.

These events brought into being a new opposition grouping called the Movement for Democratic Change.  They challenged the Government in 2000 and were almost successful.  The Government responded with more draconian measures against the Opposition and its supporters.  These measures accelerated the economic collapse that was already underway and in the next 8 years would bring Zimbabwe down to the status of a failed state.   At that point in time living standards collapsed, life expectancy declined by 50% and normal commercial services were virtually unobtainable.  Employment declined from 1.2 million formal jobs in 1997 to 600 000 jobs in 2008.

Under the stress of these events the people of Zimbabwe turned to God in increasing numbers.  The Church expanded exponentially and by the time of the collapse in 2008, more than 80% of all Zimbabweans claimed membership of the Christian Church.  All sessions of Parliament are opened with prayer and the same applies even to business Board Meetings and meetings of Political Parties.  Most political leaders would claim to be Christians and they attended Church on Sundays.

The Government of National Unity was virtually imposed on the Country by the South African President Thabo Mbeki who acted as facilitator on behalf of the SADC states.  It brought 5-years of comparative calm and rapid economic recovery.   All health and educational services as well as commercial activities were restored.  But the recovery was short lived, in 2013 Mr Mugabe called a fresh Election which was manipulated and the MDC was kicked out of Government.  Back in full control with a two thirds majority in Parliament, Mr Mugabe immediately began to implement the policies and practices which had brought Zimbabwe to its knees in the period up to 2008.

Well into his 90’s, it became apparent to everybody that he was unable to exercise his duties as President and in 2017 elements in his Party mounted a military coup against him which resulted in his removal from office and the installation of Mr Mnangagwa as President.  It is said that Mr Mnangagwa, who had been one of the perpetrators during the genocide in Matabeleland and who had been Chairman on the Joint Operations Command for over 20-years, had converted to Christianity in recent years.  Some of his children who attend local evangelical churches have testified to the changes in his life.

However, the new President was confronted with deep seated divisions in his own political party and the implacable opposition of all other Political Parties and social movements.  He is very much a lonely and isolated individual even though he is President and won the position in a flawed democratic election in 2018.  The divisions in his own party have hindered his declared intention to reform the State so that violations of human rights can be eliminated and the country put on a path to return it to democracy.

In addition, the economic morass left by Mr Mugabe has proved to be more serious than was known at the time and has been very difficult to deal with.  In consequence the forces of state capture and corruption as well as renegade politicians have hindered progress and exacerbated conflict.  The recent social unrest is evidence of the fragility of the State in Zimbabwe.

For the Church the main concerns are how to influence the new regime so as to enable it to move towards sound economic and political policies while dealing effectively with the problems created by our past.  Christians elsewhere in the world should pray for the Church in Zimbabwe and its leaders and pray that they will speak the truth to power no matter what the consequences are, at the same time the Church needs to be able to give people hope that once they cross the metaphorical “Jordan” that lies ahead, that with Gods help they will be able to slay the giants that presently occupy the land.

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