English Africa Service – Vatican City
In a very forthright Pastoral Letter, Zimbabwe’s Catholic Bishops have criticised the continued influence of the military in the country’s governance system; condemned diminishing space for free political discourse and activity; decried political and social polarisation in the country as well as the dissipation of hope among Zimbabweans. The Bishops are also concerned at “piecemeal and knee-jerk reaction(s) to the (country’s) worsening economic situation.”
Pastoral Letter comes in the wake of countrywide protests
The Pastoral Letter published, Thursday, comes as Zimbabwe is reeling and trying to come to terms with this week’s industrial unrest and countrywide protests that started in the major cities of Harare and Bulawayo.
The immediate cause of the demonstrations was the huge fuel increase announced by the Emmerson Mnangagwa-led government. Commentators, however, say discontent has been simmering for months. In response to the protests, the government unleashed its security forces on the crowds.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) said Thursday its members had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and 100-plus other instances of "assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton Sticks." The numbers of those killed vary from three to eight. Some patients with fractured limbs are said to have been forcibly taken from hospital beds to attend court against the advice of doctors.
The United Nations Human Rights office called on the Zimbabwe Government on Friday to "stop the crackdown against protesters" and the "excessive use of force" by security forces including firing live ammunition.
On Friday, Zimbabwe was still in a total Internet shutdown.
A comprehensive Pastoral Letter
The Pastoral Letter of the Zimbabwean Catholic Bishops is a comprehensive and uncompromising analysis of Zimbabwe’s woes. It is also a clarion call for national dialogue. The Bishops further challenge citizens not to lose hope in their country.
“We, the Bishops of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, have observed with increasing concern and alarm the state of our Zimbabwean nation from the time of the military - assisted political change that took place in November 2017 to the total shutdown of Zimbabwe's major cities and rural trading centres that began on Monday, 14 January 2019,” the letter reads.
The Bishops say the Government of Emmerson Mnangagwa failed to build on the goodwill of the people that was prevalent with the ousting of the longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe.
“We witnessed with sadness and concern the dissipation of hope for a united nation and a promising future when our politicians failed to harness the palpable oneness and goodwill prevailing among Zimbabweans across the political divide during and immediately after the political events of November 2017.”
Military’s participation in politics, a source of concern
The Bishops criticise the military’s continued presence in politics and the governance structure of the country. They hold the security agencies responsible for the crackdown on civilians.
“Government's heavy-handed and intolerant handling of dissent and expression of rights by Zimbabwe's dissatisfied population (resulted) in injury and death to innocent ordinary people.” The Bishops say.
“The dramatic pre-election events seemed to many Zimbabweans to promise a new chapter of our history and were greeted by most with immediate and spontaneous rejoicing. We had many reasons for hope. At the same time, however, other voices raised concerns about the unconstitutional mode of these changes, and in particular, the initial and continuing role of the military with attendant risks to the freedom of our political processes that this might carry for the future. The (2017) post-election period has justified some of those concerns. Zimbabwe is burning; its economy is hurting; its people are suffering. Many ordinary Zimbabweans express disappointment that hoped-for changes are yet to be felt, in access to employment, cash and broad stakeholder consultations,” assert the Bishops in the Pastoral Letter.
An economy under severe stress
At the heart of Zimbabwe’s challenges is an economy under severe pressure and with high inflation rates.
“We have also witnessed with sadness and concern Government's piecemeal and knee-jerk reaction to the worsening economic situation, exemplified by the unilateral imposition of 2% tax on the country's major money - transfer and payment system and by the hefty increase in fuel prices on 12 January 2019, the immediate cause of the violent demonstrations and riots that brought Zimbabwe's major cities and rural trading centres into complete lockdown.” The Bishops add, “Government's failure to arrest the deteriorating economic situation that has seen many companies close, many breadwinners losing their jobs, the cost of living soaring beyond the reach of the majority of people; these have been the cause of industrial unrest in the country's key service sectors, particularly Health and Education,” reads the Pastoral Letter.
Elections are not a cure-all answer
The Bishops observe that elections in themselves are not a panacea for the country’s ills. They appeal to the Government and the President to open up space for free democratic activity and discourse.
“We need to go back to the (2017) pre-election vision where Government and its President seemed to create new space for political activity, allowing for the activation of Constitutional Commissions and reform of State institutions. To get our economy working again, Zimbabwe needs strong institutions for without the necessary reforms we become irrelevant and spectators in the life of the modern world. Elections are never, in themselves, the answers to problems, but as part of a wider programme of transformation, they can be moments of national recommitment,” say Zimbabwe's prelates.
Zimbabwe needs strong democratic institutions, not strong leaders
Zimbabwe’s Bishops caution against an exaggerated trust in individual leaders or parties because, in the end, these disappoint.
“We do not need a strong man or woman but strong institutions. We need to develop a new and challenging kind of politics, new cooperation and harmony based on reasoned argument, generous compromise and respectful toleration. Zimbabwe is faced with a crisis that is not just political and economic but moral and spiritual. A new Zimbabwean politics needs to be more collaborative, inclusive and based not on one or two leaders, however effective and charismatic, but rather on strong democratic institutions that embody and secure the values of our democracy, regulate our politics, build trust and administer peace, truth and justice to all,” say the Bishops.
The Pastoral Letter signed by all the country’s Catholic Bishops also challenges citizens to engage in the process of visioning towards a new Zimbabwe they would want to see.
“We now need to set our main focus on the type of society that we desire in Zimbabwe for ourselves and for our children. As Zimbabweans, we need to contribute as equal and respected members to solutions, to difficulties of elections and the reform of the electoral process; national healing and reconciliation; criteria for addressing long term issues of governance; transparency and accountability; poverty, unemployment, economic inequality, development, rural to urban migration, conflict resolutions and injustices, among others,” the states the Pastoral Letter.
The Bishops do not just criticise but also make some suggestions and recommendations from their own point of view.
“We call upon Government and the Opposition to put their differences aside and work together to free Zimbabwe from economic shackles and international ostracisation;
We call upon Government to consult broadly and desist from the unilateral imposition of policies that exacerbate the people's suffering and to have policy consistency in order to instil confidence in investors, especially foreign investors;
We call upon Government to desist from heavy-handed handling of dissent and expression of rights and grievances by the people and to desist from denying people their rights, including the barring of access to social media communication imposed on 15 January 2019;
We call upon all people to exercise tolerance towards each other and to express their constitutional rights in a peaceful and nonviolent manner. Peaceful protest is provided for in the Constitution."
A message of hope
In conclusion, Zimbabwe’s Catholic Bishops urge the people not to lose hope and faith in their country. Not all is lost, they assure.
“Even in the midst of current tensions and disturbances, there are new opportunities to rebuild hope, trust, confidence and stability in our country. The task at hand requires our collective responsibility in upholding everything that is good and right, to promote unity, reconciliation, and national cohesion. We wish to state our firm belief that Zimbabwe would easily become one of the best countries to live in on earth if only all of us, it's people, committed to living and working with each other in harmony, tolerance and peace, putting the interests of the country before selfish and political party interests.”