HARARE, ZIMBABWE — In late July, the bustling streets of the capital grew uncharacteristically quiet. Cars and people vanished from the roads, and even the birds fell silent.
Residents looked out their windows or peered over their balconies as army trucks painted in green camouflage patrolled the streets, enforcing a national lockdown and an overnight curfew that required residents to remain in their homes from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
According to the government, the restrictions were designed to curtail the rising number of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Yet many Zimbabweans believed the true intent was to stifle dissent, which had been growing over the summer, as people spoke out about alleged government corruption and human rights abuses, and the lack of economic opportunity in the country. Activists, opposition groups and leading political opposition parties, including Transform Zimbabwe and the Movement for Democratic Change, called for nationwide protests to be held on July 31.
The curfew and lockdown forced their cancellation, dealing a blow to the government’s critics. Two weeks later, however, on Aug. 14, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference released a strongly worded letter defending the people’s right to protest and accusing Zimbabwe’s national leaders of “dereliction of duty” for failing to address rising poverty, food insecurity, corruption and other issues.
The Catholic Church has occasionally weighed in on social and political affairs over the years, but the timing of the letter and its outspoken nature sparked a dramatic public conflict with the government, fueling debates about the economy, human rights and the role of the church in national politics.
“Fear runs down the spine of many of our people today. The crackdown on dissent is unprecedented. Is this the Zimbabwe we want?” the bishops wrote. “To have a different opinion does not mean to be an enemy. It is precisely from the contrast of opinions that the light comes. Our government automatically labels anyone thinking differently as an enemy of the country: That is an abuse.”
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The bishops’ letter received widespread support from other religious leaders, and the hashtag #IStandWithTheBishops began trending on social media. More than a religious document, however, the letter galvanized Zimbabweans, regardless of their religious beliefs, who want to see the situation in the country improve but had become frustrated by the government.
“Zimbabweans felt they had no one to represent them – they felt they had no voice, especially after so many attempts at protesting were successfully stopped,” says Free Chifamba, a social teachings lecturer at the Catholic University of Zimbabwe. “When the church spoke in critique of the government, people became hopeful [that their concerns would be heard].”
In response to the letter, the government accused the church of political partisanship. Monica Mutsvangwa, minister of information, publicity and broadcasting services, issued a statement in which she dismissed the church’s allegations against the government as “baseless” and accused the bishops of being “evil-minded.”
“Its evil message reeks with all the vices that have perennially hobbled the progress of Africa,” Mutsvangwa said of the bishops’ letter. “It trumpets petty tribal feuds and narrow regionalist agendas so that it can sow seeds of internecine strife as a prelude to national disintegration.”
Following widespread outcry and growing public criticism, however, the government reached out to the church to begin a dialogue. When contacted for comment, Mutsvangwa said the church and the government are continuing to speak with each other about how to address the bishops’ concerns.
“Further to that pastoral letter and the government’s response, the two sides have since found each other and are engaged in quiet consultations,” Mutsvangwa says.
Despite the government’s initial criticism, the church has long served as the conscience of Zimbabwean society.
“Dating back to pre-colonial rule to the old dispensation and now coming to the second republic, the church has not relaxed,” says political analyst Ashton Murwira. “They have continued to weigh in on a moral standpoint.”
Father Fradereck Chiromba, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference, similarly emphasized that the church isn’t afraid to take a stance on political issues.
“The church is not apolitical,” Chiromba says. “Politics is not solely for politicians but all citizens, as it affects the life of the country. The church is part of the country and can be political without being partisan.”
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The letter has not changed the role of the church, he says, but is consistent with previous calls for social justice.
The church, for its part, has welcomed the opportunity to engage in discussions with the government, according to Chiromba.
“The government is to be commended for taking the letter seriously and acting on the issues raised,” he says. “The church continues to collaborate with the government on improving the living standards of the people.”
Regardless of the outcome of those discussions, the controversy has forced the government to recognize the moral authority the church wields.
“The letter resonated with the situation people were living,” says Chifamba. “When the church spoke out, it made sense to people, and that’s the reason why it made much more of a significant impact than any letter before it.”
From then on, he says, the government engaged with the church in a different way: “The politicians know from history that when the church speaks, the world listens.”
Kudzai Mazvarirwofa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She specializes in reporting on development and land reform.