News Analysis

As Zimbabwe burns, the bishops speak out


When Emmerson Mnangagwa became president of Zimbabwe in November 2017, many dared to hope that the country might begin a long process of recovery from Robert Mugabe’s leadership. True, Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s former right-hand-man, he represented the same party – Zanu-PF – and his nickname was “the Crocodile”. But he promised “free and fair elections”, waxed lyrical about democracy and promised to support free expression.

The start of 2019 has put all that in perspective. First, Mnangagwa ordered the doubling of the price of petrol. In the resulting economic chaos, unions called a national strike, and desperate Zimbabweans took to the streets amid severe food and medicine shortages. The police responded with force: 12 people have been shot dead and 600 detained, according to the Guardian’s Jason Burke.

A government spokesman has described the protests as “terrorism” and said that the crackdown is “just a foretaste of things to come”.

The economic crisis didn’t begin with Mnangagwa: inflation has been rising since 2013, when the government began printing “zollars”, officially pegged to the US dollar but actually worth much less. The Economist claimed last week that “Zanu-PF has a vested interest in this arrangement. Some members of the ruling elite can convert a zollar to a dollar at the central bank, while letting ordinary Zimbabweans starve.”

Now Zimbabwe’s bishops have issued an outspoken and detailed pastoral letter. They criticise the government’s “piecemeal and kneejerk” economic policy and “intolerant handling of dissent”, and lament that the political class has failed to capitalise on the national “goodwill” of summer 2017. The answer, they say, lies in collaboration – possibly along the lines of the 2009-13 “government of national unity”.

Strong leadership isn’t enough, the bishops argue; nor are elections. The crisis “is not just political and economic but moral and spiritual”, they believe: it demands a selfless putting-aside of differences.