Universe Column for Sunday May 25th 2003
By David Alton
Corrupt government and tyranny frequently produces towering figures willing to risk their lives as they champion human rights and social justice. To the list of dissenting priests – such as Maximillian Kolbe, Oscar Romero, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Cardinal Van Thuan, and Desmond Tutu – should be added the name of Pius Ncube.
In speaking out against Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical regime in Zimbabwe, Pius Ncube, the Archbishop of Bulawayo, has heroically put his own life on the line.
On meeting him in London last week I was particularly struck by his disarmingly simple modesty: “I am just a farmer’s son, a goatherd” he insists. He was born into a peasant family in 1946, was ordained in 1973 and became Archbishop in 1998.
Yet, this archbishop, who still does the shopping for his aged mother, has become the principal standard bearer for the suffering people of Zimbabwe. Perhaps it is because, as he puts it “I am not afraid of anyone but God only,” adding “I will not be quiet as long as human rights abuses persist. Deep down, as a Christian I could not accept what was being done.”
Pius Ncube paints a picture of a country where human rights are violated daily: “one woman I know was detained for four days and beaten unconscious. For us, who believe every woman should be treated like your mother, this represents a total loss of civilisation.”
At a recent ecumenical service detainees described how they were given electric shock punishments, others were stripped, and one man described how he was forced to drink urine: “enough to make you weep” says Ncube – “free speech is denied and there is a total lack of love of neighbour.”
To help those who have suffered the Archbishop and other religious leaders – including Bishop Sebastian Bakare, the Anglican Bishop of Multare – have created the Solidarity Peace Trust. Its principal objective is to assist “in the pursuit of justice, peace and social equality and equity in Zimbabwe. It shall be the special concern of the Trust to assist victims of human rights abuses in their efforts to correct and end their situation of oppression.”
The picture Ncube paints of guns being smuggled in from China, of 30,000 young people being politically indoctrinated, of food being used as a weapon of war, of beatings, and of intimidation, is a sobering one. For daring to criticise, Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organisation threaten: “we can kill you and bury you in a shallow grave.” The Archbishop has received so many death threats that the Vatican has demanded that Mugabe – raised a Catholic – should guarantee his safety.
The picture of the once abundant countryside is equally depressing. Four and a half million out of 12 million people are now being fed by the UN World Food Programme and Ncube says that as he drives from Harare to Bulawayo – where coffee, tea, maize, wheat and fresh vegetables grew – just 10% of the land is now under cultivation: “the famine is due to chaotic land reform, not drought, as the government try to portray it.”
The Archbishop graphically describes the abject poverty that has been inflicted on the country and he movingly described how one young mother carried her sick child seeking medical care. The child on her back was dead when she finally reached the clinic. It is a deep paradox that the starvation of 6 million of its own people is seen by the regime not as a tragedy but as a triumph.
Deliberately creating hunger and food shortages is used as a punishment against supporters of Zimbabwe’s opposition but it is also used as a money generating racket by the regime as they organise food re-sale rackets. The death toll from starvation or diseases related to malnutrition is directly attributable to this vicious policy.
Ending food aid because it is corruptly administered would simply further punish the poor. “The people will starve to death” says Ncube but he also admits to being worried about the “dependency” which people are developing and becoming used to.
Last year Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF was returned to power in a widely criticised election. The Archbishop says “we know it was rigged. The atmosphere afterwards was like a mass death, a funeral, when Mugabe won.”
But Ncube does not campaign for the opposition: “I will never campaign for a particular opposition party. What drives me is my desire not to see human rights being flouted. I don’t care about who is in power. I will speak openly against any abuses regardless of who is in power.”
He believes change is inevitable – “his day is over”
“There is a vacuum of leadership in Zimbabwe but God will not allow us to perish because of one man. He can’t shoot one million people.”
Ncube has a deep strong inner conviction. He admires Mandela and Ghandi for their spiritual depth. Perhaps he should add Thomas à Becket – “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” – to his list.
Archbishop Ncube needs his own spiritual strength as he not only encounters the hatred of the regime, but also hostility from some brother bishops who have refused to speak out; and antipathy from aid agencies who argue that it is better to remain quiet rather than upset their relationship with the regime. It is easy to see why one seasoned British politician remarked that Ncube is “one of the bravest people you will meet, a shining light of freedom and justice.”
As he celebrated an unannounced Mass at Westminster Cathedral last week (during a week which began with the scripture reading about the good shepherd), it did not take the congregation long to recognise the quality of the priest at the altar. Twice they spontaneously erupted into applause. If he is spared, this remarkable man will be pivotal in leading his flock to new and plenteous pastures. In these turbulent and troubled times, Zimbabwe is fortunate indeed to have bishop Pius as Archbishop of Bulawayo. When he says “I will not be quiet as long as human rights abuses persist. I can’t afford to be untruthful to God” he means it.
Archbishop Ncube’s Solidarity Peace Trust may be reached at PO Box 15, London SW6 3TU.