African churches call for tough action on Mugabe abuses

By agency reporter
July 17, 2008

Delegates from churches in Zimbabwe, South Africa and several other countries in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) have expressed overwhelming support for targeted economic sanctions against Zimbabwe as a practical strategy to loosen former President Robert Mugabe’s “illegitimate” grip on power and to promote a negotiated political settlement.

The church leaders have been meeting in Benoni to consider ways in which the Church can express solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe and promote justice and peace in that crisis-wracked nation.

Professor John Makumbe, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Zimbabwe, offered a devastating analysis of the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed Zimbabwe, particularly in the period since the 29 March elections.

Violence - in the form of beatings, torture, arson, rape, vandalism and even murder - has been visited upon every corner of Zimbabwe.

“In advance of the 27 June presidential run-off election, people were being told that they had made a mistake in voting on 29 March and now they had an opportunity to correct that mistake,” Professor Makumbe reported.

He said that nearly 4300 people had been victims of politically-motivated violence between 1 March and 15 June of this year. More than 100 opposition activists have been murdered, while roughly 5000 party and election workers are missing. He brought these figures to life by sharing video evidence of the abuses.

A panel of church and community activists added detail to Prof. Makumbe’s overview. Joyce Dube, who works extensively with Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa, highlighted the additional challenges that people face in fleeing Zimbabwe and in trying to survive in South Africa.

“An alarming number of people die trying to get across the border,” Ms Dube said. “There are many cases where parents think that their children have rejected them and don’t wish to contact them, only to find that they have died trying to jump the border or even in Lindela [the South African government’s detention facility for illegal immigrants].”

“They say that at the border the bush is smelling from the stench of the bodies of people killed by crocodiles and other wild animals,” Ms Dube recounted. “But people fear ZANU-PF so much that crocodiles and electric fences are as nothing to them.”

However, those who cheat death at the border are vulnerable to a new range of threats - robbery, exploitation and human rights abuses - when they arrive in South Africa.

The church also came in for a fair dose of criticism throughout the day. Professor Makumbe described the church as a “largely silent onlooker” that was “weak” and “sadly uninformed”. He said congregations rarely allowed people to take shelter in their buildings for fear that “they might dirty the carpets”.

Many participants expressed concerns about the political divisions that seem to paralyse churches, as well. Prof. Allan Boesak urged delegates not to allow a lack of unity to silence the church.

He recalled that similar debates took place in South Africa in the apartheid era. Churches were often divided on how to respond to apartheid, but that did not stop people in every denomination from thirsting after justice.

“Those divisions are inevitable,” Prof. Boesak warned. “There is a line that is drawn, not by us, but by our obedience to the gospel. Our main job is not to keep the church together. Our main job is to do the will of God.”

With acknowledgments to Mike Crockett

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