21 - 29 May 2000

(Distributed 7 June 2000)

Terms of reference and composition

A WCC staff team constituted by Dr. Konrad Raiser, WCC General Secretary, and with the full support and encouragement of Dr. Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) visited Zimbabwe during the week of 21-29 May 2000. The purposes of the visit were to:

Members of the team were:

Ato Melaku Kifle, WCC International Relations team responsible for Africa (team coordinator)
Rev. Dwain C. Epps, former WCC International Relations Coordinator
Mr. Noel Okoth, Editor of the All Africa News Agency, representative of the General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC)
Mr. Eddie Makue, Peace and Justice staff member of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and member of the AACC International Affairs Commission
Mr. Aad van der Meer, ICCO Netherlands, Chairman of the ZCC Round Table Core Group

Organizations and individuals consulted

Upon arrival the delegation was briefed by ZCC General Secretary, Mr. Densen Mafinyani. Meetings were held with the ZCC officers toward the beginning and at the conclusion of the visit. Consultations were held with staff of the ZCC's Department on Justice, Peace and Advocacy, with church leaders in Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo and Gweru, with the General Secretary and President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, and with staff and officers of the Student Christian Movement. In Harare meetings were held with government and political party leaders, including the ruling party ZANU-PF, the main opposition party MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) and other minority political parties, including Bishop Abel Muzorewa, former Prime Minister and leader of the United Party.

The team also met a number of other individual experts and civil society organization representatives. Though requests were submitted through official channels for the team to pay a courtesy call on President Mugabe no response was received, though one government minister assured the delegation that an appointment could have been arranged, despite the President's heavy schedule, had the delegation been able to extend its stay.

Summary of findings

The ecumenical team heard three primary concerns widely shared by church, government and political, and civil society leaders around the country: issues related to the land, the rising incidence of violence in society and concerns about the forthcoming general elections.

The Land. Most church representatives regretted the recent land occupations led by war veterans and encouraged by government leaders, and especially the violence that had caused the deaths of Black farm workers, White farmers and some of those involved in the invasions. Virtually all agreed that a prompt solution needed to be found to the lasting injustice resulting from the dispossession of native Zimbabweans' lands by the colonizers. But they said the answer to this pressing problem must be found through respect for the law and the implementation of a considered policy on land distribution based on wide consultation with all concerned. Local church representatives and secular organization leaders consulted in different parts of the country called for more intensive efforts by the churches to develop and recommend essential elements of such policy to the nation.

Violence. People in all regions visited reported many incidents of intimidation and physical brutality all around the country. The extent of the violence, its intentional use for political ends, the rising spiral of acts of aggression and retaliation, the increasingly racial character of the violence and the reported failure of the forces of law and order to respond promptly, impartially, and consistently to avoid or contain violence all alarmed the team.

Elections. The team also heard almost universal complaints that widespread reports of intimidation of voters and candidates, the short notice given for elections scheduled for 24-25 June, and long delays in voter registration and delimitation of constituencies had so skewed the democratic process that fully "free and fair" election results in accordance with international standards could hardly be anticipated. At the same time, it was impressed that ordinary citizens and opposition political parties insisted that everyone should come to the polls in exercise of their democratic rights. Several representatives of opposition political parties expressed the hope that the elections might be "reasonably free and fair." Many felt that elections should not be viewed as a climactic moment, but they were a very important stage on the way to the democratization of society.

Despite the impediments, remarkable efforts were being made by the churches and other civil society organizations to educate voters and to create conditions which would allow citizens to vote without fear. In response to the churches' call for a substantial international presence before, during and immediately following elections, the team recommends that the WCC support the 'peace monitors' being put in the field by the Zimbabwean churches through the sending of ecumenical 'peace observers' from churches in Africa and other parts of the world to assist in protecting the people's right to vote.

The role of the churches. The WCC delegation heard repeated expressions of sincere appreciation for the role the Zimbabwean churches were playing in providing a unified, non-partisan, principled approach to issues confronting society in this time. At the same time it was moved by the church leaders' public expressions of repentance for not having spoken out clearly or soon enough to prevent violence, and for their own divisions which have weakened their own witness for peace, justice and the dignity of all. It encouraged them to speak out with one voice as faithful disciples of the Prince of Peace. It also appealed to political parties to respect the varieties of opinion which give strength and vitality to a democratic society and to avoid expressions of rancor or hatred, and to the government to fulfill its responsibility to protect the rule of law and the fundamental freedom of expression for all citizens.

The evolving context and background on critical issues

The present crisis in Zimbabwe is not new, but rather an acute manifestation of problems which have been brewing for several years.

Around the time of the Eighth WCC Assembly in Harare in December 1998 the critical economic situation of Zimbabwe was already giving rise to widespread popular dissatisfaction and demands. Veterans of the liberation war pressed their demand that long delayed promises of compensation be met without further delay. Despite the severe financial crisis of the nation (inflation had reached a near breaking point the previous year when the Zimbabwe dollar collapsed and costs of essential commodities rose by over 80%), the government bent to these pressures and awarded a massive extra-budgetary grant of 50,000 Zimbabwe dollars (about US$ 12,000) to each of the more than 50,000 eligible former combatants. This further complicated the monetary crisis and created new inflationary pressures. Taxes were increased, but the national foreign debt burden continued to rise. Public protests against high levels of official corruption, government inefficiencies, cutbacks in social spending, inequitable land distribution and growing unemployment and poverty intensified. The role of the State itself was ever more seriously questioned.

The National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a broad-based civil society coalition with leadership from the churches, was formed in 1998 to provide a platform for non-partisan national dialogue on needed changes to the Constitution framed during the 1980 Lancaster House negotiations with Great Britain on terms for independence. Those terms required that the Constitution remain unchanged for ten years. Now there was broad agreement among Zimbabweans that the time had come to adapt it to new realities. Out of the NC

Around this time the government formed its own Commission to develop a draft of a new Constitution. It included representatives from civil society, including the churches. The resulting draft included substantial changes that significantly reduced the powers of the ruling party and the executive, removing their right to name directly thirty members of the parliament (provincial governors and traditional chiefs). It did not, however, establish a post of prime minister or reduce the powers of the national president to the extent demanded by wide sectors of the society. The government and the ruling party, ZANU-PF, invested considerable efforts to interpret the revised Constitution to voters, but when it was submitted for approval through a national referendum in February 2000 it failed by a narrow margin in almost all constituencies.

This result reportedly alarmed the ruling party, especially in view of the general election which was to follow only a few months later. Almost immediately, massive invasions of the lands and properties of White commercial farmers began, led by Dr. Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi1, the charismatic leader of the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veteran Association. (Only one in ten of the invaders were themselves veterans, however, the majority being formed by disaffected "freedom generation" youth born after the war.) President Mugabe and the ruling party gave their blessing to the invasions, despite the fact that these soon gave rise to violence. ZANU-PF officials told the WCC delegation that they had not ordered the invasions and that the invaders were not under their control. The government had indeed given encouragement, though it instructed the people involved to avoid confrontations with White landowners and to invade only properties of farmers who owned more than one farm.

Most people the delegation met believed that ZANU-PF had stimulated the land occupations as a political ploy to stir up popular feelings about the land in the hope that this would gain favor in the run-up to the general election. President Mugabe issued a statement soon after the invasions began that was widely interpreted as an instruction to the police and the army not to interfere. Although he later rectified that statement, he is widely viewed as having condoned and even encouraged the violence on the farms. One churchman the team met, who had been asked to mediate between the war veterans and the White commercial farmers, noted that the violence was not unilateral. Some of the White farmers -- former members of the Southern Rhodesian army -- contributed to it by organizing, training and arming Black farm workers to confront the invaders.

The violence soon spread throughout the country, especially in rural and poverty-stricken urban areas, in the form of attacks against opposition party rallies and often brutal acts of intimidation of suspected opposition party supporters. While the ruling party alleges that its opponents have participated in this political violence, the overwhelming view of people the delegation met was that much of the violence was generated by ZANU-PF reacting, as one person put it, like a "wounded lion" to the referendum defeat. It was not the purpose of the WCC delegation to document acts of violence (though Zimbabwean human rights organizations have done so extensively), but the team repeatedly was told about cases of violence against members of church congregations especially in provincial cities and towns. These stories gave a picture of a consistent pattern of widespread acts of brutality, terror and political intimidation directed particularly against suspected supporters of opposition parties. A number of reports indicated that White Zimbabweans had been singled out for attack or harassment.

There is thus ample evidence of the onset of a "culture of violence" in the country, of a breakdown of law and order, and a climate of fear. Common criminality is also reportedly on the rise, taking advantage of lax police controls. All this bodes ill for the forthcoming elections.

Critical issues needing to be addressed

The land. The delegation was reminded that native Zimbabweans are deeply attached, spiritually and sociologically, to the land, the extended family and to subsistence approaches to life. Thus the illegal occupation of traditional chiefs' lands by White colonialists in the 1890s dealt a severe blow to both the traditional economy and societal relations. This took a particularly serious turn in the early 1950s when masses of people were dispossessed by White farmers of favorable farming land, driven out of their native areas and resettled on the lands of other traditional chiefs. Many Black Zimbabweans were left landless or with such small plots that they could no longer produce enough for even subsistence living. Neither individuals nor communities were compensated for this loss at the time, and since formal title to land was given almost exclusively to White farmers both compensation and redistribution have become a highly complex issues.

The 1980 Lancaster House independence negotiations in London nearly broke down over the land question. Liberation movement leaders abandoned the talks after three weeks of unproductive debate on this issue. It was only when third parties intervened and both the US and British governments made commitments (never put formally in writing) to provide compensation to the government of Zimbabwe to enable it to purchase lands of White farmers for resettlement on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis that agreement was reached. According to a Zimbabwe government minister who had been deeply involved in these negotiations, both the US and the UK honored their commitments from 1980-84, and the government of Zimbabwe concluded negotiated agreements through dialogue with White farmers. In 1984, with the change of administrations in the US -- and apparently in retribution for Zimbabwe having voted for resolutions in the UN condemning the US invasion of Grenada -- the US stopped its contributions for land resettlement and abruptly cut off all foreign aid to Zimbabwe. Britain continued to compensate Zimbabwe for purchases of White-owned farms through 1996, though transactions were often slow and cumbersome, transferring a total compensation of some 44 million Sterling. But with the election of a Labor government in the UK, its payments too were interrupted.

By 1996 some 75,000 Black Zimbabwean families had been resettled out of a planned number of 163,000. A senior Zimbabwe Government official said they intended to pursue land redistribution with national resources, but became bogged down in their own bureaucracy and inter-ministerial power struggles. Eventually the British Government sent a team of land and administrative experts to visit affected areas and to see how the resettlement process could be accelerated. Its report had been helpful to all sides. One of its recommendations was to convene a donor's conference, which was done in 1998 with the assistance of the United Nations Development Program. A short list of 118 farms was drawn up there of lands to be purchased and redistributed with donors' committed funds. A substantial portion of these funds, 41 million Sterling, were again to be provided by the British Government. But since land occupations had already begun, Britain withheld 36 million conditional upon these being stopped. The Zimbabwean government said that it could not control spontaneous land occupations unless it had alternative land to offer an increasing impatient and landless public, and pleaded that the agreed transfer of 114 properties be funded as a means to resolve the issue through negotiation with farmers based on the Lancaster House formula. But as occupations continued the British Government became ever more adamant in their position, and a stalemate was reached.

In the wake of the referendum defeat in February, the Zimbabwean government pushed a constitutional amendment through parliament authorizing the seizure of White-owned farms without compensation. Though the High Court held this to be unconstitutional, the government ignored the ruling and as noted above encouraged the invaders.

Many Zimbabweans consider this to be part of the ruling party's election strategy, recalling that the land issue has repeatedly been highlighted in previous election periods, only to be shelved again once elections were won. The ecumenical team is not in a position to judge who is ultimately to blame for the failure to resolve the land issue. But it is clear that whatever the outcome of the forthcoming elections, this fundamental question of justice can no longer be ignored nor can a solution be further postponed. All parties must now assume their part of the shared responsibility. The delegation was told that of the farms transferred in the resettlement program, some 270 were put in the hands of government and ruling party officials or ceded to members of parliament rather than to landless peasants. Thus the Zimbabwe government owes its own people an explanation. On the other hand, the British Government has often reneged on its promises, put blocks in the way of implementation of land redistribution programs, and it too has used the land issue for political purposes.

The churches of Zimbabwe foresaw this impasse. The ZCC compiled a comprehensive "Strategic Briefing Paper on the Land Issues in Zimbabwe" for a Heads of Christian Communions Summit in March 1997. Subsequently a sweeping "Pastoral Letter on the Current State of the Nation" was issued 22 July 1998 by the Heads of Christian Denominations and the ZCC prior to the WCC Eighth Assembly in Harare. That Pastoral letter called on the government to take the following specific actions on the land question:

a) Move swiftly to implement the land reform before people begin to take the law into their hands as the people of Svosve village have tried to do.
b) Immediately call a conference of all stakeholders to discuss each of the theoretical issues (described in a background statement) and listen to the peoples' views and concerns.
c) Publish guidelines on the criteria to be used to identify people to be resettled or to be allocated farms for commercial agriculture.
d) Move beyond the confines of the ruling party in all discussions on national issues such as the land question.
e) Indicate a clear timeframe within which the land redistribution will be accomplished. This is important to ensure that land distribution is taken away from mere political rhetoric and elevated to a program in which government can be called to account on the basis of the established timeframe.
f) The President should ensure transparency in the resettlement program, and see to it that the resettlement of rural peasants does not result in the communization and environmental degradation of land which was productive in the hands of commercial farmers, and ensure that all resettlement schemes are accompanied by provision of solid infrastructure such as roads, electrification, decent housing, primary health facilities, etc. God has given us a beautiful land and all of us are called upon to be good stewards of this precious gift of God.

Earlier this year the ZCC again issued a "Land Issue Fact Sheet" tracing the history of the land question since 1890 and summarizing several options for land reform and resettlement, including government and private sector land resettlement models.

Many told the delegation that the time has come for the churches themselves to engage experts, undertake a national process of consultation among all those affected and provide its own outline of a national land policy. This was seen as especially urgent in light of the fact that neither the present ruling party or the main opposition party offer a clear land policy in their present election manifestos. The WCC delegation thought this search for an agreed just and lasting solution might usefully be done in close consultation with the Council of Churches in Britain and Ireland (CCBI), and with the UNDP that has now been charged by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to pursue more vigorously the program outlined in the 1998 Donors Conference.

Violence. Zimbabwe is running dangerously close to being infected with a "culture of violence" and to a breakdown of the rule of law. The next weeks leading up to and following the June elections were repeatedly held up to the ecumenical team as critical in this respect.

The present violence has at least four dimensions:
Structural violence inherited from Zimbabwe's recent colonial past and inherent in the international finance and monetary system has a disastrous impact through the increasing burden of external debt and the imposition of Economic Structural Adjustment Programs. Political violence, from whatever side it comes, is creating a generalized climate of fear. People are intimidated, beaten, maimed and killed. Houses are burned and property destroyed. As is so often the case, women are primary targets. The incidence of rape and other forms of abuse is reportedly on the rise. Children too are victimized. Many are deprived of education as schools in rural areas are closed for security reasons. Youth are being recruited into gangs that engage in acts of violence even against their own neighbors. Criminality is on the rise due to the growing poverty, an apparent lax attitude on the part of police, and opportunism in a time of breakdown of public morality and order. Racial and other forms of intolerance and mutual suspicion in society are fostered by the present violence in a nation that has taken considerable care to avoid racism and to correct racist attitudes. HIV/AIDS constitutes another form of endemic violence, and the search for solutions to this pandemic tends to be shifted to a lower priority in the present climate.

Church leaders and pastors are aware of and concerned about these dangers. The team heard several recommendations from them:

Elections. Election-related violence and other official impediments led the team to conclude that fully free and fair elections in accordance with international standards can hardly be expected at this late date. Many people were concerned about the degree to which the ruling party and/or the government exercise exclusive control over various election functions: the Election Supervisory Commission, the Delimitation Commission and the Commission responsible for voter registration. This does not mean that there is absolute lack of public confidence in the individuals serving in such bodies, but it raises questions about their impartiality. There have been long delays in beginning voter registration and registrants were not given receipts to allow them to prove their registration. Voter rolls were consequently not provided to potential candidates in time for them deliberately to gather the necessary number of official voter nominations for presentation of candidacies to the Nominations Courts. The results of the Delimitation Commission were also made public very late, and were plagued with allegations of gerrymandering.

Though the work of many of these bodies was concluded during the delegation's visit, and signs were given that complaints made by parties, candidates and constituents, it is doubtful whether the response was sufficient to restore full voter confidence in the process. It is to be regretted that it was frequently necessary to file for court actions to oblige compliance with the law in a number of crucial areas.

A major concern is about the degree to which police and other law enforcement officials will ensure safety and operate in a strictly impartial way before, during and after the elections. The delegation sought, but did not receive explicit confirmation from government officials that explicit instructions would be given to the police and the army in this respect, though toward the end of the delegation visit, the Home Affairs Minister was reported to have taken some steps in this direction.

Election monitoring and observation

The delegation was impressed with the diligence of Zimbabwe Council of Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe and the Roman Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace in their coordinated voter education efforts, despite communication difficulties, limited access to public media, and the existence of "no-go" areas due to violence. Nearly 9,000 local monitors have been trained, and local supervisors and provincial directors were in the final stages of training when the team departed. A network of non-governmental organizations involved in monitoring is in place and functioning, as is a sub-group of this network linking church organizations in collaborative efforts with respect to deployment and other concerns.

The delegation met advance teams of some international organizations who are sending election observers. According to our information, some 200 observers will be deployed by the European Union, 30 will be provided by SADEC including a group from the South African Parliamentary Forum, and a similar number by the US Government. The governments of Sweden and Norway are also said to be sending observers. Discussions are well advanced between the Election Supervisory Commission and the civil society network with respect to accreditation, coordination and deployment.

Observers and monitors have distinct roles. Only Zimbabwean citizens can monitor inside polling places. These include monitors whose names are submitted to the Election Supervisory Commission by non-governmental organizations, and those submitted by political parties and candidates to serve as "agents." Both will have access to the voting areas and to oversee ballot boxes and vote counting procedures. Observers, including international observers, will in the main relate to national monitoring organizations, and will have access only to the areas around the polling stations to observe general voting conditions.

The ZCC has asked the WCC to assemble and provide the names of forty experienced international ecumenical observers, half from Africa itself. The African component will be named either directly by or in close consultation with the AACC. All forty will be recruited under WCC auspices and identified as such, though their own regional or other ecumenical identities will be visible and respected.

On the advice of local church gatherings, the delegation decided to designate WCC observers during the election period "international ecumenical peace observers." It did so to give an indication that it believed the pre-election period was too full of flaws to provide for fully free and fair elections. By the designation "peace observer" it hoped to signal its concern that people at minimum be able to go to the polls without fear of violence or personal repercussions. The team was gratified to learn, toward the end of its visit, that the ZCC also intended to identify their local election monitors as "peace monitors."

The role of the churches

In a nation like Zimbabwe, the overwhelming majority of whose citizens are Christians, the role of the churches is crucial at all times, and particularly during crises like the present one. As noted above, virtually all those interviewed by the WCC delegation looked to the churches for leadership. Many secular bodies gave them credit for having been virtually the only bodies in society in recent weeks that had spoken out on principle, in a non-partisan way, and in so doing had given a model of unity to the nation.

In fact, church leadership is divided on many issues. The divisions, however, did not seem to the delegation to be along confessional or denominational lines. Rather, they reflected divisions which exist within society as a whole. Some church leaders of the "liberation generation" recall the sacrifices made in the costly struggle for independence and have deep loyalties to those in the ruling party who guided the people in those difficult years. Others are worried about the directions governance has taken over the past two decades and are convinced that change is required. Some church leaders come from the "freedom generation" of people who did not experience the liberation struggle personally. Many of them look especially to the future and its requirements. And, logically, many church leaders fear the repercussions of speaking out in such an environment.

Comparatively few national church leaders have had the courage to speak out individually, but they are extremely notable in their condemnations of the violence and their concerns for the future of the nation. The delegation was often moved by their courage and their faith.

Collectively, the Heads of Christian Denominations in Zimbabwe have in the recent past addressed clearly the issues confronting the country. This only underscores the great importance of church unity, for there is not only safety, but also often Gospel wisdom in considering issues and speaking out together.

The team was dismayed that in the three cities it visited in the provinces church leaders had gathered for the first time ever to meet the WCC delegation. In each case these were important opportunities to share experiences in local judicatories and congregations, to convey to one another the difficulties and fears of individuals and church communities, and to consider ways to make a common witness for peace. The team was also troubled that in local communities there was very little knowledge of what was happening at the national leadership level of the churches and ecumenical bodies. In its concluding evaluation and reporting session with the officers of the ZCC the team encouraged them to find ways to bridge these gaps of information and confidence. One way could be to facilitate the formation of local ecumenical bodies and to find ways to link them with the national leadership of the ecumenical movement.

The team was deeply encouraged by signs of cooperation among the three major Christian groupings in the country, the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference, the Evangelical Federation of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Council of Churches. Ties among the latter two seemed especially close, and give important hope for greater for ecumenical cooperation on the important issues confronting all the churches together. And the team was also encouraged by the maturity, wisdom and theological insight of young Christians gathered in the Student Christian Movement. Their voice, vitality and deep faith provide a resource which church leaders would do well to bring closer to the center of ecumenical dialogue and witness.

Concluding words of thanks

The WCC team intended to convey to the churches of Zimbabwe the prayers of the worldwide ecumenical fellowship in these difficult times. It sought to listen to them, and be guided by their experiences, their wisdom and their hopes. It wished to accompany the churches and offer them solidarity. As is so frequently the case with such visits, the team received much more than it gave, and for this it wishes to thank all of those with whom we were privileged to meet.

Special thanks are due the ZCC, its officers and especially its General Secretary, Mr. Densen Mafinyani, for their guidance, the careful preparations they made for our visit and their willingness to enter into dialogue with us.

We keep all these people - their faces, their stories, their often courageous witness to the Gospel - in our minds, hearts and prayers. We commend them individually and all together to the churches around the world, asking that congregations keep them constantly in their prayers of intercession. May God bless Zimbabwe, its people, its churches and its leaders; may the Holy Spirit guide them through this dark valley and into the promised land where justice and peace embrace; and may the Risen Christ inspire them with a will to be reconciled one with another as through Him they are reconciled with the Almighty who reigns supreme over every power.

Geneva, 4 June 2000

Back to list of Advocacy Updates