By Robert Bartram*
“Ecumenical solidarity will be the key for Zimbabwe as we move into this latest phase — a kairos moment— when Zimbabwe will need the support of the whole ecumenical movement.” These are the words of Rev. Dr Kenneth Mtata, study secretary for Lutheran theology and practice at the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva since 2010. He has also recently been appointed general secretary of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches.
Zimbabwe is in the clutches of yet another economic and political crisis, its worst for several years, certainly since the Zimbabwe dollar was abandoned in favour of a multi-currency system which has become dominated by the the US dollar since April 2009. Recently, there have been numerous demonstrations, even, at times, violence, with people refusing to go to work in protest.
While there is general sense of dissatisfaction, the latest trigger for this fresh crisis is the imminent issuance of the bond note by the Zimbabwean government. Unable to print and control the supply of the US dollar, the government intends to issue the bond note as a way of underwriting the dollar. There has been a steady flow of the US dollar out of the country, and so ordinary citizens may receive their pay partly in dollars and partly in this new note. Given the government’s handling of recent economic crises, people are concerned that the bond note may end up being as useless as the old Zimbabwe dollar.
How life in Zimbabwe had become unbearable
What galvanized people’s collective response was the posting of an online video on Zimbabwe’s independence day by Pastor Evan Mawarire. In a cry from the heart, Pastor Mawarire stated unequivocally how life in Zimbabwe had become unbearable, how the whole system had crumbled, and that he could no longer give hope to his children. This resonated with the ordinary people of Zimbabwe, and he called on the population to refuse to go to work for a day. When that proved to be successful, he responded by exhorting people to boycott work for two days the following week. At this point, the government of Zimbabwe intervened and arrested him. But such was his popularity by now, that the people of Zimbabwe rallied around him, and the government was forced to release him from prison on 13 July. “Through such a treatment,”, said Mtata, “the government would have realized that he was becoming a hero and a rallying point for the dissatisfied citizens.”
These events moved the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) together with other ecumenical partners in the country and in the region to write a letter of solidarity and to seek urgent meetings with the government. They outlined a list of demands, including the withdrawal of the bond note, and urgent action to reduce Zimbabwe’s massive unemployment rate of 80%. But the letter is also a general protest to the government about the predicament of the country.
“There is a general feeling that the country is on autopilot and the churches are demanding leadership,” says Mtata. “The churches are saying this cannot go on, a way must be found to bring things back to order, to restore prosperity and justice in the country.”
Churches were deeply upset when the police responded with violence to the work strike.
“Currently the country is in a tense situation,” continues Mtata. “But as economic challenges bite and new voices of protest rise, people have a sense that something positive could actually emerge from this.”
Mtata takes issue with one element of the ZCC’s letter. “The letter is asking for specific elements to be addressed but the underlying issues of corruption and impunity that are compromising legitimacy are not being clearly raised.
“The urgent question we need to address is how we establish a meaningful dialogue so we can get out of the current trap. Because even if all demands are met, we will not come out of the problems we are having, because the problem we are having is systemic.”
How to deal with corruption
Mtata's point is that the economic decline is only part of the process. One of Zimbabwe’s biggest challenges is how to deal with corruption. He cites the astonishing example of the USD 15bn of government money that is alleged to have gone missing – with no clear processes to try and rectify this in the eyes of the public. That, he believes, is what is agitating people. “It looks as if no-one is taking responsibility to redirect things. How can a country whose budget is only about USD 2-3 bn, lose USD 15bn and nothing happens? It doesn’t make sense.”
But his wider point is that there is no credible, meaningful space in which dialogue can take place. “It is up to the church to provide this space. We are right now making efforts to bring the heads of churches together so that they can have an audience with the highest possible level of government to find a way forward. The next few months could be difficult because as it stands it is not clear how the situation is going to be normalized. There is a lot of pressure on the government to sort things out, with elections coming up only in 2018.”
Mission to support churches in Zimbabwe
The second son of a Lutheran pastor, and with two other brothers who are also pastors in the Lutheran church in Zimbabwe, Mtata is clearly driven by his sense of mission to support churches in Zimbabwe to make a meaningful contribution to addressing the current pressing issues. Fully aware of the dire situation in the country, Mtata believes his time in Geneva must come to an end, and will return to his homeland at the end of August 2016.
“I have a strong feeling that if some of the people who have had an opportunity to be exposed to the world do not go and commit themselves to this process of building a new Zimbabwe, we will not be taking seriously our responsibilities as citizens. It’s not next year, or when things are working; it’s now that some of us should go back to Zimbabwe,” he concludes.
* Robert Bartram is a communications specialist with 20 years’ experience drawn from a range of governmental, inter-governmental and media organizations, based in Geneva.