Clad in uniforms of their different denominations, they jam-packed into the tiny St. Carantoc’s Anglican Church building in Francistown for a special ecumenical service to pray for peace in Zimbabwe. The timing of the service was momentous: Thursday 26 June, the eve of what was supposed to be a presidential elections run-off between President Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF, and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
As the flock sang in unison from the different hymnals, the messages from the pulpit were a throwback to the 1980s, when the church confronted a different dictatorship on its last legs, but intent on beating its opponents into submission by the butt of the gun. In 1985, when apartheid faced certain defeat as denunciations from different world capitals grew louder each day, the regime dug in: more people were killed, maimed, and imprisoned. In response to the crisis, the church in South Africa issued a powerful theological exposition that came to be known as the Kairos Document, which declared that, “this is the Kairos, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favourable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action”. The document mobilised Christian activism against apartheid on an unprecedented scale.
Almost in similar fashion, over the past week the local church ÔÇô through the Botswana Council of Churches (BCC) ÔÇô issued two strongly-worded statements on the Zimbabwe crisis. In the first statement, the organisation labelled the situation in Zimbabwe, “a mark of shame on our collective conscience for we have failed to heed one of the teachings of all religions, that, indeed, we are our brother’s keeper” ÔÇô an apparent reference to the indifference towards the Zimbabwe question demonstrated over the years, especially by the regional leadership.
In the wake of Tsvangirai’s withdrawal from the presidential run-off elections, BCC issued a second statement that described the chaos in Zimbabwe as “a slap in face of all humanity”.
“It is regrettable that a democracy so hard won, for which so many died, has been allowed to be desecrated by one egoistic man and his military junta,” the statement said.
It further called on SADC and AU to work towards a political settlement that would ensure that President Mugabe exits office without further bloodshed, an interim government is formed, and an international peacekeeping force is sent in to disarm all militias and maintain peace.
“Thereafter, the international community must assist the interim government to prepare for fresh presidential elections that will allow the people of Zimbabwe to express their will in a climate of peace and security,” the BCC statement said.
At the Thursday service, BCC’s deputy secretary general Rev. Mosweu Simane explained that it was an occasion to pray for peace and justice in Zimbabwe.
The worshippers were given a glimpse of what it means to live in Zimbabwe today through a testimony of Emmanuel Mutonga, a Zimbabwean refugee.
“The former government of Robert Mugabe has followed opposition activists, including elected MPs from MDC, councillors and senators. Three weeks ago I was at the MDC headquarters, where I witnessed hundreds of people whose hands had been cut, some elderly people’s backs had been burnt with plastic material, and a lot more were on wheelchairs,” Mutonga said.
He said about five of MDC’s newly elected MPs had sought refuge in Botswana out of fear for the lives in Zimbabwe. He said the Zimbabwe government’s intelligence elements had also crossed into Botswana to track and spy on Zimbabwean refugees.
“Mugabe has declared war on people’s rights,” he said. “Every night they conduct inquests where the ZANU-PF youths gather to make bonfires and chant chimurenga (struggle) songs. There is an illegitimate state of emergency in the country. If people are found outside their homes after 6pm, they are tortured because they are said to support the opposition. The people of Zimbabwe alone cannot resolve the situation. It is now beyond our capability. If Zimbabweans in the Diaspora were to go back, they would be beaten and associated with the opposition.”
Mutonga told the story of how Zimbabweans who travelled from Botswana by train to vote in the March elections had their train hijacked in Bulawayo, and the commuters assaulted, while their goods were looted.
It was little wonder that in his sermon, BCC president Rev. Mpho Moruakgomo labelled Mugabe “a pariah among nations who must be treated as such”.
“Children of Zimbabwe, stay on board the ship. This is not a God too far to hear our cry, for he says, ‘I have seen the affliction of my people; I have heard the cry of my people’,” Moruakgomo said.
He took a swipe at the silence of SADC leaders and other international organisations that allowed the situation in Zimbabwe to deteriorate to the current level.
“SADC and the international community must speak with one voice, and send loud and clear messages that leave no room for misinterpretation. Leaders must learn to put the people of God first,” he said.