Archbishop won't be silenced


Zimbabwe: Neither intimidation nor bribery keeps Pius Ncube from calling the world's attention to the crimes of the Mugabe regime.

July 14, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - During his Sunday sermons at St. Mary's Cathedral in Zimbabwe, Archbishop Pius Ncube offers terrifying accounts of the state-sponsored torture, beatings, rape and starvation that he says have become the reality of daily life under President Robert Mugabe's regime.

When the Australian cricket team played Zimbabwe in a World Cup Cricket match last year, Ncube led a demonstration of banner-carrying clergymen onto the grounds protesting Zimbabwe's government.

Traveling abroad, the archbishop has urged U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other leaders to bring Mugabe's government to heel through economic sanctions or - better yet, he says - shutting off Zimbabwe's electricity supply from South Africa.

In a country where most people are cowed into silence, the 57-year-old archbishop is the leading and often lone voice of defiance against the political and economic turmoil that is causing Zimbabwe, he says, to "fall to pieces."

For his exploits, however, the Roman Catholic leader pays a price.

His phones are tapped. He has received numerous death threats. Secret police follow him everywhere, watching him from the pews of his cathedral and demanding he restrict his comments to spiritual matters.

In the state-run media, he is regularly slandered as an enemy of the state. Among the accusations made against him are that he has raped nuns and encouraged homosexual acts in state prisons.

President Mugabe, a Catholic, recently labeled the archbishop a "liar" and "unholy man."

Such challenges only make the archbishop speak louder. "I'm not backing down on this. Why must the people of Zimbabwe suffer because Mugabe is driving for power at all costs? I'm not going to give in," Ncube said during an interview last week in South Africa, where he is on a speaking tour highlighting human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

In person, Ncube hardly measures up to the imposing human rights figures such as Nelson Mandela or Archbishop Desmond Tutu to whom he looks for inspiration. His face shows fatigue, his gray suit is rumpled, his eyes are hidden behind smudged black-rimmed glasses. His voice is light and somewhat raspy, comforting for consoling the sick and poor, but seemingly too weak to threaten Mugabe's government.

Yet, it is not so much his personality or the forcefulness of his voice that has made him Zimbabwe's top human rights campaigner; it what he is willing to say.

"He is fearless and completely committed to the interests of the people. He does not mince his words at all," says John Makumbe, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.

Ncube first came into prominence in 2000, when Mugabe began seizing white-owned farmland to hand to landless black peasants. Ncube did not hesitate to condemn the land invasions, which often turned violent and led to several killings of farmers.

While most clergy were afraid to speak out, Ncube openly condemned the political violence that defined parliamentary elections in 2000 and the presidential elections in 2002, accusing Mugabe of stealing the election by vote rigging.

Now, as Zimbabwe's economy collapses, hunger spreads and political tension deepens, Zimbabweans are looking to Ncube as perhaps the one man who might offer them help.

But during his visit to South Africa, Ncube gave a gloomy forecast for his country. Violence, intimidation and vote rigging will disrupt the parliamentary elections scheduled for March, he says.

"Youth militia go out to the villages intimidating people, saying if we don't win, we are going to come back and burn your home," he says.

Mugabe's government, he says, has stifled political discourse by shutting down the country's independent newspapers and passing laws that restrict the opposition party's ability to hold meetings.

"You are dealing here with very deceitful people, and there's no way you can have free and fair elections," said Ncube.

Ncube's role as a clergyman makes it difficult for the government to dismiss his criticisms as mere politicking. The Roman Catholic Church in Zimbabwe has earned respect as an independent, critical voice. During the white regime led by Ian Smith before the country gained independence in 1980, Catholic leaders openly condemned the government's transgressions against the majority-black population.

Ncube, Makumbe says, plays on the conscience of Mugabe, who attended a Catholic boarding school, was married by a bishop and attends Mass from time to time, "when he wants to show some penance."

The government would like nothing more than for Ncube to be quiet. Once he was offered a seized farm in exchange for his silence, he says, but he refused.

Many of his supporters understandably fear for his life, as does Ncube.

"We will not be surprised if something quite nasty happens to him," says Makumbe.

Ncube's criticisms do not end with Zimbabwe's government. He lashed out at Zimbabwe's main opposition party - the Movement for Democratic Change - calling it too passive and weak to lead the people.

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