WCC Anniversary and Eighth Assembly
Feature Service
No. 6
Houses of Stone
Hugh McCullum describes the country in which
the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches will take place
later this year.


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The thousands, no millions, of stones in the ruined enclosure called Great Zimbabwe are grey and flecked with gold and patches of indigo. Except for the great temples of the middle Nile, this glorious pile is Africa's most famous ruin and the site of the formidable kingdom of Monomotapa which once ruled vast parts of the modern countries of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and northern South Africa.

The Great Zimbabwe complex was built between the 11th and 13th centuries and the kingdom was at its height between the 14th and 16th centuries of the modern era.

Zimbabwe derives its name from here, in the predominant Shona language: dzimba dza mabwe - the houses of stone. It must have been a sight, those stones piled row upon row with no mortar into a massive, mysterious series of circles upon circles, some ten metres high. And, if you listen well, believe carefully and are very still, the stones will speak. Some say it is the clicking spears of the armies of Monomotapa. Others, like the Christians who came later, claim it is the sound of all the dead since the beginning of time trying to climb out for judgment day.

Whatever may be the truth, dzimba dza mabwe is a place for the soul and it is glorious.

Zimbabwe began here long before the world heard of John Cecil Rhodes, Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe.

At the end of this year, in December, the churches will gather in Zimbabwe at Harare, its flowering capital city, for a Jubilee Assembly and, if we listen very carefully and very quietly, perhaps those stones will speak and we will learn.

A lot has happened since Monomotapa collapsed, as material things always do, and Zimbabwe's history, as with most history, has been written in blood and venality as well as heroism and faith.

Delegates to the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Eighth Assembly can ponder its theme of turning to God and rejoicing in hope in a country which is only 18 years old in the modern way we keep time, but in the African way of time has a history and a spirit that goes back a millennium or two to the Bantu precursors of the Shona and Ndebele people.

Today's visitors may recall how racist minority regimes imposed their rule by force on southern African majorities. In Zimbabwe the long and painful struggle for freedom ended in 1980 when the illegal regime of Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front was forced to accept majority rule and democratic Zimbabwe was born from the ashes of 15 years of one of Africa's most vicious bush wars.

It has been a long and tortuous journey from the Kingdom of Monomotapa to the Republic of Zimbabwe, in which churches played no small part in the colonial enterprise and, somehow, also made the transformation and helped bring about its demise.

Colonialism and racism leave deep scars and, despite the national reconciliation policy which Robert Mugabe has pursued since 1980, some would wonder who won the war. Was it those few in the cities' green and leafy suburbs or the majority of the country's 11 million people who still live well below the minimal poverty line in dusty urban slums and arid rural communal lands?

It is almost 100 years since missionaries helped trick the Ndebele King Lobengula into signing away control of his land in Matabeleland, and the British came ostensibly to protect the Shona from the Ndebele but really because they thought there was gold in the granite hills. By 1893, Rhodes' British South Africa Company (BSAC) had a charter authorizing them to take possession of all the territory north of the great Limpopo River. There was not as much gold as they hoped for but there were millions of hectares of prime farmland which was ideal for settlers from Ireland and Britain.

The Shona and Ndebele fought back in 1896-97 in what is now celebrated as the First Chimurenga (Liberation war). They lost the war and also their sacred land when the BSAC allocated huge tracts to the churches and white settlers who forced the Africans into near slave labour or on to "reserves" euphemistically called Tribal Trust Lands, which are today's communal lands.

By 1930 some 11,000 white settlers had 49 million acres of prime land. The African majority got 30 million. One Methodist pastor acquired land for his church by riding his horse a day's journey in each of four directions; where he stopped at each corner marked the limit of his Christian land.

Churches established themselves, the first in 1859, with schools, hospitals and places of worship. They were agents of faith and colonization as shown by the names on the documents which "sold" the land to Rhodes.

Alongside that sordid bit of history is also the role some churches played in the peoples' struggle for land, freedom and social justice, and against racism. The first Rhodesian Council of Churches was formed in 1964 in part to fight colonialism and its racist policies which bred poverty and injustice.


Official celebration of Cecil Rhodes' birthday, some time in the
Rhodesia of the 1950s.
(Photo Oikoumene theme: Evanston to New Delhi)
Rhodesia in its various manifestations was for settlers an island of wealth, beauty and tranquility safe within the Empire. The churches thrived, accepting as fact the superiority of western civilization. Although their schools and hospitals brought them close to the people, few missionaries were aware of the growing nationalist movement. However, by the 1960s elements of the Roman Catholic and Methodist churches in particular had publicly identified themselves with the winds of pan-Africanism sweeping the continent.
Support for the early nationalists by the World Council of Churches and some Rhodesian churches led to hostility and splits in the segregated churches. Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was justified in 1965 because it would "preserve justice, civilization and Christianity".

The Second Chimurenga (1966-1979) began long before UDI. By 1966 both major liberation movements, ZAPU (Zimbabwe African Peoples' Union) formed in 1961, and ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) formed in 1963, had guerillas in training and popular support throughout the country.

For the churches, which too often reflect society, it was a divisive time. Two expatriate Roman Catholic bishops and a number of priests and religious sisters were deported by Smith while many mission stations covertly supported the 'boys in the bush'.

The Protestant churches were more divided, although when Smith's racist constitution of 1969 was promulgated, nine heads of churches condemned it publicly and the Rhodesian Council of Churches opposed a parliament which gave 50 seats to 250,000 whites and 16 seats to five million black Africans.

Christians debated the age-old issue of violence as guerillas targeted white-owned commercial farms in an effort to force whites to leave. Too often it was white clergy who opposed violence, whilst black priests and pastors knew their people supported the struggle for liberation and land.

When hundreds of rural clinics and schools were destroyed, damaged or forced to close by the tough tactics of an increasingly beleaguered Rhodesian army, urban church buildings and rural mission stations sheltered refugees and the displaced. Massacres occurred at several mission stations involving hundreds of killings.

In 1978, the WCC's Special Fund to Combat Racism made a grant of US$143,000 to the two liberation movements, by now known as the Popular Front, for humanitarian purposes. The storm of protest in Rhodesia and internationally was far out of proportion to the size of the grant and almost totally ignored its non-violent purpose or the WCC's support for a negotiated peace.

In Rhodesia the council of churches supported the grant whilst the country's two white Anglican bishops expressed outrage even though the vast black majority of their members hailed the support as an act of solidarity with racially oppressed people. Rev. Canaan Banana, the Methodist pastor who became Zimbabwe's first independent president, resigned as a Methodist minister when his church said it could not support violence from either side.

The PCR Special Fund provoked bitter argument within the ecumenical movement but in Rhodesia, soon to become Zimbabwe, this period was seen as the WCC's finest moment and something which, to this day, is recalled by leaders and ordinary Zimbabweans alike with something akin to awe. While racist whites denounced the WCC as being "soft on communism" and "pro-terrorist", the majority of Zimbabwean Christians expressed profound gratitude for this expression of solidarity.

The night of 17 April, 1980 saw the birth of the new nation of Zimbabwe with a 21-gun salute, a flaming torch and prayer. Newly-elected prime minister (now executive president) Mugabe made an historic speech calling for reconciliation, and the beating of swords into ploughshares, which reassured the 100,000 remaining white Zimbabweans and their overseas kin. Mugabe attended an independence mass in the Roman Catholic cathedral and an ecumenical service in the Anglican cathedral. It was, along with President Banana's appointment, a public acknowledgement of the role the churches had played during the liberation war.


Worship in a Methodist church in Zimbabwe. (1984)
(Photo Oikoumene theme: Church life/worship; ref. no.: 402-9)
The Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) joined forces with government and international agencies to rebuild the war-shattered country. Millions of dollars went into the reconstruction of schools, hospitals and churches. The ZCC also maintained, with the courageous Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), a close watch on human rights, land reform and economic justice.

As the years went by and the unified ZANU and ZAPU became ZANU-PF, a virtual one-party state emerged and relations between government and church grew cooler and more distant.

In the early 1980s Mugabe put down an insurrection in Matabeleland with such ferocity against civilians that the churches, especially the CCJP, were forced to protest against the atrocities in an outspoken report (released to the public only this year) entitled "Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace". The government has yet to respond to allegations of massacres, rape, torture and other crimes committed against civilians by the security forces.

Zimbabwe is a small country of just under 400,000 sq. km. with a population of just over 11 million. It is landlocked and stunningly beautiful with mountains, lakes, savannah and lowlands, much of which teems with wildlife and birds. Tourism is a growth industry; Zimbabwe is one of the three or four top destinations in Africa. It has a good infrastructure, strong agricultural, mining and manufacturing sectors and, by African standards, an above-average economy. It is constitutionally a multi-party democracy.

For 10 years a Zimbabwean style of socialism led to improved health and education, integrated public and private institutions, and maintained and improved the country's infrastructure. However, by 1990 the nation was in serious debt, peasants were still landless, and urban squalor was on the increase as thousands moved to the major cities of Harare and Bulawayo seeking jobs that did not exist. Zimbabwe officially now has 40 percent unemployment but the real figure is said to be much higher.

In 1990 Mugabe reluctantly embarked on an economic structural adjustment programme (ESAP) demanded by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) which, while opening the country to free trade, has caused untold hardship to most people (Zimbabwe ranks 121 in the UNDP human development scale) and left the health and education systems in tatters.


"...the majority of the country's 11 million people still live well below the
minimal poverty line in dusty urban slums and arid rural communal lands"
(Photo Oikoumene theme: Development & Economy/Communities; ref. no.: 2813-21)
Severe drought has seriously weakened the agriculture-based economy. The land issue has not been resolved, although this year some 1,500 largely white-owned commercial farms have been controversially designated for redistribution to landless peasants.

Today the government is struggling with a globalized economy, free markets, currency devaluations, growing unemployment, one of the worst AIDS epidemics in Africa (officially 700 deaths each week), drought and a loss of confidence.

After 18 years in power with virtually no opposition, the government has been accused by churches, academics, trade unionists, a section of the media and many ordinary Zimbabweans of being tired, lacking in vision, complacent and unable to deal with corruption and incompetence among senior officials, including some cabinet ministers. The lifestyle of many senior government officials is luxurious and far beyond that of the vast majority of people. However, when the opulence and corruption of many other African countries and other parts of the developing world are considered, Zimbabwe is relatively clean. This, however, is of little consolation to people crammed into rickety buses as a fleet of limousines drive by, each carrying a lone minister or top bureaucrat, on the way to large and comfortable free houses.

Unrest and open criticism of the ruling party burst into full-scale food riots earlier this year, in which nine people were killed and hundreds of millions of dollars of damage was done, mainly in Harare. For the first time since independence, opposition to ZANU-PF is growing although it is politically unformed.

The churches have attempted to monitor human rights and advocate for a civil society. Women's groups, growing stronger and more vocal daily, are in the forefront of demands for change. Student demonstrations are commonplace. People now demand greater media freedom, more democratization and a larger say in decision-making. However, Mugabe and the ruling party show few signs of sharing power and there is no constitutional limit on the number of terms a president can serve. Mugabe was re-elected in 1995 and the current fourth parliament has only three opposition members in a 150-member house.

When WCC general secretary Konrad Raiser made a visit to Zimbabwe in April, it was to bring the message of Jubilee to a small debt-ridden African nation. Pragmatically, it was also to see how preparations were shaping up for what will be, other than sporting events, the largest meeting ever held here. He found the usual pre-Assembly problems of logistics and cultural differences between northern and southern church bureaucrats. A lot of people have never heard of the WCC or its Eighth Assembly. Recent events in the country have unsettled many abroad.

However, as Raiser moved about the country for five days with ZCC officials and church leaders, meeting cabinet ministers and bishops and other important people, there was also a chance to see what has been accomplished; it is impressive by any standards. At a joint staff meeting of Zimbabweans and "those from up there in Geneva" a sense of excitement and optimism was evident. No doubt there are problems which need to be solved but the answers, said one Methodist bishop, "are all here".

Church members in Zimbabwe may not be quite sure what an Assembly 'plenary session' or 'hearing' is meant to accomplish or what relevance they will have in a local congregation; Zimbabwean worshippers may find the services exotic and strange but they will sing their heads off and dance anyway. Visitors may find the phones do not always work and transport may not match that of Geneva's famous bus schedules, but it is all here and Zimbabweans are truly proud that they have this chance to show the world that they, too, are a real part of the world Church, the oikumene.


Information for editors and journalists

Hugh McCullum is a Canadian author and journalist based in Harare. He has lived in Africa for nine years and his most recent book is "The Angels Have Left Us: The Rwanda Tragedy and the Churches" (WCC Publications, 1995). He edited the Eighth Assembly's "Welcome to Zimbabwe" magazine (WCC Publications, 1998). A member of the United Church of Canada, he has been associated with the WCC for more than 20 years, and is currently a consultant to the Office of Communication. He is available for further comment and interview.

Use of the article must credit Hugh McCullum as author. Editors are free to shorten the article if they wish but this should be acknowledged. Please send a copy of anything you publish for our records. Thank you.

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Rhodes birthday (Photo Oikoumene Theme: Evanston to New Delhi)
Methodist worship (Photo Oikoumene Theme: Church life/worship; ref. no.: 2818-37)
Arid communal lands (Photo Oikoumene Theme: Development & economy/Communities; ref. no.: 2813-31A)

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