ON October 7 2019, the Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations (ZHOCD) issued a statement titled Call for National Sabbath for Trust and Confidence Building.
In the statement, ZHOCD bemoaned the “current political paralysis, deepening mistrust and the dehumanising economic decline”. They noted that “the nation will need to take a bold decision to address the root causes of our national challenges”.
The churches went on to highlight political contestation as a major fault line in the quest for a solution to the “dehumanising” crisis in Zimbabwe. They went on to propose a seven-year détente on political contestation “to allow for the rebuilding of trust and confidence, reset our politics and chart a shared way forward towards a comprehensive economic recovery path in a non-competitive political environment”.
The statement by the churches has been described as “bold” and “audacious” by some. But it has also been attacked as an attempt to overthrow democracy and interference by the church in politics. With great amnesia, some analysts forgot that the church has always shown solidarity with the oppressed and offered suggestions for resolving conflicts.
This was not the first time that the churches had spoken out on matters of national politics, particularly in times where the dignity of the human person is undermined.
When the Fifth Brigade launched Gukurahundi in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference (ZCBC) raised their voices. On March 16 1983, Catholic representatives, consisting of the then the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJP) director Mike Auret and the late bishops Henry Karlen and Patrick Mutume met with the then prime minister, the late Robert Mugabe and presented him with a comprehensive dossier of evidence of the atrocities, which were being committed by the 5th Brigade in Matabeleland and the Midlands provinces.
Alongside the dossier, the representatives presented a statement by the ZCBC titled Reconciliation is Still Possible. It is believed that this statement contributed to the cessation of hostilities and ultimately the end of atrocities.
In 1997, together with the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF), the CCJP went on to publish Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980 to 1988, detailing the atrocities committed by the state in Matabeleland and the Midlands.
On April 5 2007, the ZCBC issued a pastoral letter titled God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed. In the letter, the bishops bemoaned the collapse of the health system, education, public life and the inexcusable injustice of Operation Murambatsvina. They went on to state that Zimbabwe was in a “crisis of leadership”.
“Our crisis is not only political and economic”, the pastoral letter said, “but first and foremost a spiritual and moral crisis” which is rooted in the “structures of sin”.
In these and many other instances, the churches have always found themselves speaking on issues of national governance and showing solidarity with the oppressed and many times offering refuge for those at the receiving end of state brutality. I do not think that our so-called democrats have the right to tell the church leaders to “get out of politics”. Politics is everyone’s business. Asking the church to get out of politics is unfortunate for most of the analysts who claim to be speaking in defence of democracy.
How could we forget so fast the outstanding solidarity of the churches with the victims over all the years, dating from the liberation war, through Gukurahundi, Operation Murambatsvina and in today’s continued struggle for justice?
This amnesia explains why many of our analysts missed the forest for the trees in the Sabbath call and I wish to take this reflection to put this into perspective. First by stating as I have done that no one has the right to tell anyone to get out of politics. Politics is everyone’s business.
Secondly, the crux of the sabbath call is essentially a call for inclusive dialogue in which the politicians are not setting the agenda and the pace. The key word here is inclusive. The usual defence is that politicians are elected therefore they have the legitimacy to influence the agenda. This is fiction, as we know our politicians came out of a disputed election.
However, the folks at Parliament Building are not leaders, but followers of the corrupt clique in Zanu PF. The minority at Morgan Tsvangirai House have no say or influence on the process. Even if all these so-called leaders were elected, in practice they do not consult the electorate, but rather their party headquarters, which is rather unfortunate in a so-called democracy.
They are out of touch with the people and their everyday realities. They do not even know the price of bread. This explains a situation where the country is run by one organ of the state — the executive — through a series of illegal Statutory Instruments — to the exclusion of other organs of the state, and none of our so-called elected leaders see anything wrong with that.
By seeking to broaden participation beyond these political fraudsters, the churches are inviting all citizens to take back the agenda of determining what our country should look like. This call must be celebrated and embraced by all progressives. I am glad that movements like the Citizen Manifesto have seen it in that light and embraced the sabbath call as a call for inclusive dialogue.
What attracted fire and fury in the sabbath call was mainly the call to suspend elections for seven years. We love our “democracy”. We love to participate in elections so much that when the church leaders said let us suspend them, the ruling party and the opposition made love in defence of our elections. What a convocation of ignorance and a masturbation of conscience. Unbelievable!
Here are the facts. Elections in Zimbabwe are not known for empowering the people, but rather disempowering them. From 2009 to 2013, as part of the Taking Transitional Justice to the People Programme, I visited over 3 000 households in Zimbabwe’s 84 constituencies that were worst affected by political violence.
These conversations established scientifically that elections are responsible for most of the violence that our country has seen post-independence.
The majority of the respondents said the announcement of elections in Zimbabwe brings with it fear and trepidation.
One young lady in Mazowe told me the moment she hears of an election she would rather go and stay in the bush to avoid being recruited again into the youth militia. A study of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) shows that violence increases with every election period in Zimbabwe. This is confirmed by data from Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.
In short, elections in Zimbabwe are known for delivering more dead bodies than democracy. They are an act of war. It is sad that politicians who are the main actors in violence and beneficiaries of the defective election system pretend to be unaware of this reality. Awareness of this fault line in our electoral system is what caused the late Tsvangirai to adopt the “no election without reforms” agenda in 2013 when Mugabe had to use the judiciary to force the holding of elections.
When the MDC was calling for “no elections without reforms” in 2013, no one said the opposition was overthrowing democracy. That same call, which is as old as opposition politics in Zimbabwe, is the same substance of the sabbath call. The timeframe of how long the reform process may take can be subject to the dialogue, but the agenda of “no elections without reform” or in other words “a national sabbath from the poison of elections” is a legitimate and progressive agenda.
We must, as leaders with compassion, never accept to participate in an election where the corpses of our brothers and sisters will carpet our path to power. And the churches are saying let us have a dialogue about that, to ensure that the next election in Zimbabwe will bring joy and jubilation to the people. We must never be content with an illusion of democracy when our brothers and sisters are dying.
Our constitution is sacred. But this sanctity is beyond the value of the piece of paper. It is the values of human life and dignity that the bill of rights tries to protect. Enhancing these values may require revising aspects of the constitution in order to achieve substantial constitutionalism as opposed to formal constitutionalism that many of us seem to be celebrating.
Joan Chittister says “awareness of the sacred is what keeps our society together”.The sabbath call comes at a time our country has lost this awareness. All our systems in this life must be designed to preserve life and its dignity. We live in a country where people are tortured and killed in the run-up to an election, and the Constitutional Court sees nothing wrong with that.
Soldiers storm the streets and kill six innocent people in broad daylight and the commander is promoted. Hundreds of innocents perish in hospitals because the government is failing to pay medical doctors and buy medical equipment while the President is spending millions on foreign trips on a hired private jet.
This state of affairs is a disaster which calls for national reflection. The sabbath call invites us to that time where we must really return to the core values that make us truly human. I am not surprised that those responsible for this mess are opposed to the national sabbath.
As children, we are afraid of the dark. But as adults, we are afraid of light for it exposes the monsters in our hearts. This call is urgent and must be embraced by all progressives who are fed up with our current course and are ready to confront the monsters of our time.
Bere is the programmes co-ordinator at the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and co-ordinator of the National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG). He writes in his personal capacity.