THE Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe, Reverend Dr Solomon Zwana’s five-year term at the helm of one of the largest Christian denominations in the country is coming to an end at the end of the year. His successor will be chosen at a conference in August. Dr Zwana, a former secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), will leave the position at a time Zimbabwe is going through political, social and economic turbulence. In an interview with Zimbabwe Independent (ZI), News Editor Owen Gagare and online content creator Evans Mathanda, Dr Zwana (SZ)—who believes the social and economic situation has deteriorated since the November 2017 military coup—emphasised the need for dialogue to solve the country’s problems. He also spoke about his succession. Below are excerpts:
ZI: How has been your experience at the helm of one of the biggest churches in Zimbabwe?
SZ: It has been an exciting term of office with so many things happening from day one when I was elected into office. During the five years that I have been in the office, we have been able to do a lot of things carrying over from when our predecessors left. The term has been very exciting and also challenging but is has also helped us to understand the world better and the church better and so many other things. It has been a learning curve as well.
ZI: What were the major milestones during your tenure?
SZ: The major milestones during our tenure have been scaling up our social responsibility, as a church we have been involved in quite a good number of programmes to help communities. These included development programmes, relief programmes and we have been involved in education through our schools. We have also established many schools in disadvantaged communities and not only relied on schools we inherited from missionaries. We have also been involved in capacity building in communities, development projects to empower communities.
We were also involved in disaster management and responses. For example, we were heavily involved in responding to the devastation that was caused by Cyclone Idai which went beyond just providing relief. Through our development relief arm, we constructed houses in affected areas including in places like Bikita and Buhera. We have been also involved in church growth programmes where we have also scaled up our initiatives in terms of our spiritual activities within the church. This includes building churches, and having outreach including in areas where we already have a presence.
We have taken leadership in terms of ecumenical projects which I mentioned earlier on. Ecumenical projects that focussed on challenges that our country is facing at the moment, for example: how do we help people to understand the importance of national elections, issues to do with rights, how do we help people to understand issues of dignity and living together, issues of peace and tolerance? So we have also been involved in those fronts as a church but we have been also working together with other denominations.
In these milestones that I am highlighting, we have one of the biggest one as coming up with a new strategic plan, a new vision, a new direction, which is a response to our reading of the challenges of the day, the opportunities of the day. So we came up with a new vision which we initiated in 2017.
ZI: On schools, there have been allegations of rampant corruption at Methodist run schools particularly Sandringham and Kwenda High Schools. Have church leaders investigated the allegations?
SZ: I guess you are referring to allegations which were circulating on social media recently. Investigations are in progress. We have appealed to those with information that might help with investigations to come forward. We have zero tolerance on corruption. We have clear systems in place that guide the administration of our schools. We also have mechanisms to handle grievances raised against our staff. We are not so sure why the long list of allegations had to be circulated on social media anonymously and apparently in a co-ordinated way. Our track record in the running of our schools speaks for itself.
ZI: You were the Presiding Bishop when the country witnessed a political transition in 2017, we call it a military coup. What role did the church play during the transition and from the church’s point of view?
SZ: With regards to the events that took place in November 2017, as a church we did our part as we requested for calm and our members to stay in peace and to ensure what was happening in the country remains peaceful. We engaged politicians in relation to the direction which the country was taking. We also cautioned those who were in positions of power to be careful in how they conducted themselves in terms of ensuring that what was happening then would be in the interests of the country and that no blood should be shed and that the wishes of the people would be respected. We were hoping that soon after the November 2017 events, there will be a quick engagement by multi-stakeholders, where Zimbabweans would come together to try to envision the new way forward but our voice in that regard was lost in the euphoria of the new dispensation. Even people across the political divide appeared to be walking together but what we lost was the need to come together and soberly try to chart a way forward and our caution was that if we continue to assume that we are moving together, time is going to prove us wrong.
ZI: Are you disappointed that we missed an opportunity in 2017?
SZ: I am convinced that we missed a great opportunity. We probably misread that window; we thought that window would be open for a long time and we did not take time to consider that the window—where people would be able to address rallies together across the political divide, where people enjoyed taking photographs with members of the army—would be open for a short time. That was a lost opportunity. I am disappointed that we lost a golden opportunity.
OG: In your view, has there been any change since the November 2017 events? The government says things are improving.
SZ: A few months after the coup, there were some relative stability and freedom of expression; the police roadblocks were gone, so people were happy initially. But those things started shrinking gradually from different angles and, as we drew closer to the 2018 elections, things started getting worse and even as we approached the election we were hopeful that there would be stability afterwards. Now we continue to have challenges of shortages, even of cash, and the economy is in turmoil. For the ordinary person it is not about the statistics but having food on the table. An ordinary person says things have improved when they have food on the table, when they are able to send the children at school, to get fuel whenever they need it. People should not worry about where to get the next bag of roller meal. It’s not just about statistics and economic theories but the issues of survival. Things are generally worse now than they were in 2017.
ZI: What has the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe doing in the face of these difficulties?
SZ: We have been pushing for peace, not a negative peace but peace that is driven by respect, tolerance, and the political will to sit down together and talk. As a church, we have been adding our voices around the issues concerning dialogue in a multidimensional way; a dialogue that is inclusive.
ZI: Have you engaged the politicians directly, particularly the major political players like President (Emmerson) Mnangagwa and MDC leader Nelson Chamisa.
SZ: For your own information, we started engaging these two major players even before the 2018 election.
ZI: Do you think the government has done enough to fix the economy?
SZ: We note the efforts that the government is making in trying to fix the economy but, as you know, it’s not just the economy that needs to be fixed but in our case you have to fix the economy together with the politics. We seem to be focussing on wanting to fix the economy only, if we don’t fix the politics then we will continue to have the economic challenges.
OG: Let’s talk about your succession. There are messages circulating to the effect that a succession war has erupted between senior members of the church, particularly between the general secretary and mission director. What’s happening?
BP: There is nothing of that sort because, as you know, when you elect the presiding bishop, general secretary and mission director, they serve for five years and after the five years they have to step down and we elect new leadership but the process of electing the new leadership is very simple.
At the annual conference where every district has to send delegates, the delegates that are sent from every district together with other delegates who are coming from statutory and substantives committees converge to form the conference, which is the highest decision making body of the church and it is at the conference where the Presiding Bishop, general secretary and the mission director are elected. It is allowed to aspire for a position but it is conference that makes a decision. As far as I am concerned, there are no power struggles in the church. There may be people aspiring to hold church positions but conference will decide. And for many years as a church we have held very smooth elections and had very smooth transitions.
ZI: I understand that there has been political interference. I am aware that First Lady Auxilia Mnangagwa is a member of the church. Does the first family have influence in the church?
SZ: We have a lot of members in the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe. Some occupy very top office in government and the private sector. But, when we are in the church we always say we are all equal before God and as a church we teach the principles of humility when we converge. That is why if you visit some of our churches you will find a low-ranking employee at a big company will be a leader to his boss and with the boss just being an ordinary member. The first family is regarded as ordinary members of the church and there is separation between their role as our leaders and their role in the church.
ZI: There are so many church events where the First Lady has been invited, sometimes coming with the President. Some people are saying the Methodist Church is captured or heading for capture. Can you give us assurance that the church remains independent?
SZ: The Methodist Church in Zimbabwe remains independent and when the First Lady attends the church services or Methodist events, our understanding is that she is attending as a member of the church; as an ordinary member of the church. There have been one or two scenarios where she has been invited by one of our organisations as a guest for a special function just as we would invite any other prominent person to grace a church function and that does not mean the Methodist Church has been captured. Actually it is difficult to capture the Methodist Church because we are institutionalised.
The church does not belong to one person, you may capture the individuals but you cannot capture the whole church and our church is an institution which runs with systems and procedures.