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Hotseat speaks to Cardinal Wilfred Napier
Gonda, SW Radio Africa
July 19, 2005
Napier is the head of the Roman Catholic church in South Africa.
He was part of the church delegation that went on a 2 day pastoral
visit to Zimbabwe. What he found were very traumatised people living
in sub-human conditions, due to Robert Mugabe's 'Operation Murambatsvina.'
considers himself a Catholic and yet his policies and statements
are in contradiction with Christian doctrine. Recently, Archbishop
Pius Ncube called on the United Nations to arrest Mugabe and try
him for gross human rights abuses. I spoke with Cardinal Napier
to find out what South Africa can do to help. But first I asked
him to give us his reaction to what he saw when he visited Zimbabwe.
Napier: My first reaction was that the strength of paying a
visit is that you see and you sense how people actually are and
are feeling, which cannot be communicated by visuals on television
or certainly photographs and the printed word. You actually make
communication with a human being and you can sense a lot of things
from that encounter, and that's what I felt was the most impressive
part of the visit we paid, was to go amongst the people, talk to
them and find out what was actually happening in their lives, how
they had come to be where they were and what the future held for
So, you arrived in Zimbabwe, you saw what was happening. Can you
describe to us exactly what you saw? I understand that you actually
visited some transit or holding camps like Caledonian Farm just
outside Harare. What did you see?
Napier: That was the main substance of our visit was to be with
the people who were in that transit camp, to walk amongst them,
to speak with them and to offer prayers for them. And what we saw
there was really people who was people who were totally confused,
very traumatised and living in really sub-human conditions
And did you get a chance to meet or talk to government officials
to talk about your concerns and to find a way forward in Zimbabwe?
Napier: We had asked for a meeting with President Mugabe you
know to coincide with the conclusion of our visit to other places
that we would have had a time with him and his Ministers. Unfortunately
they didn't grant our request, so the only politicians we actually
saw were the people of the opposition party, the MDC.
Now it seems a few days after your visit to Zimbabwe the government
has reacted, through the state-controlled media and basically they
have accused your delegation of working with British Intelligence
Services and saying that they actually bank rolled the visit disguised
as a fact finding mission. What do you say to this?
Napier: I don't know where they got their information from,
but it's totally untrue. We don't know anything about any British
government, or British Intelligence or anything of that nature.
Why would they have to use us? Because all we did was to go up there
as leaders of our Churches, people who have been assisted in the
past by the people of Zimbabwe in our time of trouble, and we felt
that this was a return visit in a sense that now that Zimbabwe is
having difficulties, we should express our pastoral solidarity with
The delegation has said that it's going to step up pressure because
it's concerned with what's happening in Zimbabwe. How exactly are
you going to deal with this? Because so many organisations, groups
have gone into Zimbabwe and they said they were going to deal with
this, only to forget about it. What is the Church going to do in
Napier: Well, I believe that one of our first things is to try
and have a meeting with our own government officials here; the President
and the Foreign Affairs Department, in order to express our concern
about our concern about the lack of response from all the leadership
in Africa, political leadership in particular. And, secondly, we
would like to mobilise our people, to the extent that we are able
and in the way that perhaps the tsunami showed that people can respond
if an appeal is made to them and they know that it is going to benefit
others who are suffering. So we want to give; get together, as much
aid as we can in South Africa and pass it on to the Churches in
Zimbabwe in order to have some relief extended to the people that
are in those Transit Camps and those that are still, somehow, surviving
in the areas where their houses have been broken down.
And many believe that this humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe has been
caused by the political situation in the country. Now, as the Church,
do you see a change now in African politics where this kind of dictatorship
that's in Zimbabwe is a thing of the past?
Napier: I'm not very hopeful of that unless we get a very strong,
a much stronger reaction and a more clearly spoken reaction from
the governments of Africa, particularly SADC, the Southern African
Development Region and also from the AU. Much has been made by both
SADC and by the AU leaders about the NEPAD, the New Partnership
for Africa's Development. And within that programme of NEPAD is
this feature called peer review so that those governments that break
the rules of the agreed codes of conduct and so on would be corrected
by their peers, by their fellow leaders. And that is not happening.
So, I think these are some of the areas that leave us wanting to
get to our President and find out why, you know what he plans to
do and find out how he's going to do it. And if we can assist in
some way, we will certainly try to do it.
And there's also this African brotherhood that is keeping Mugabe
protected by African leaders. Now, do you consider the way that
the pan-African brotherhood is contrary to the teachings of Christ?
You know protecting the African brotherhood by protecting him from
Napier: I wouldn't put it like that, but what I would say if
you're looking at it from a purely humanitarian point of view, it's
hard to understand how leaders in Africa who have committed themselves,
just last week or the week before that, to certain things at Gleneagles
about the Aid and how they are going to develop their people and
so on; can remain silent when one of their number is doing the very
opposite and is actually undermining every reason why they were
asking the West to help them. Mugabe's conduct in Zimbabwe is undermining
every reason why the West should help Africa.
And so what is the Christian approach for example to confronting
your brother if he has done wrong?
Napier: Well I think there's a number of things that one must
keep in mind. That the Christian Church in Zimbabwe is becoming
more and more united particularly because of this latest outrage
that the government is committing and I believe that the onus is
on them to formulate an approach to getting the government to change
its policies and certainly its practice at the moment. The second
thing is that the Christian Church outside of Zimbabwe has to find
out, has to work out in what ways in can do most effectively do
something towards changing the situation there. In our deliberations,
and we need to still go on because our Bishop's Conference for instance,
meets only next month, we need to work out ways in which we can
concretely carry over the moral pressures, if you like, to help
the Churches in Zimbabwe do the same towards its government. When
we were in trouble in South Africa in the 1980's, we appreciated
greatly the fact that we knew we had the solidarity in terms of
moral support, but particularly that we had the spiritual support,
the prayers of the Churches throughout the world. And, that is one
of the things that we would be requesting all Churches to be doing
now, is to be praying for Zimbabwe. A change of heart in the government,
I think, is the only way to get some relief for the people of Zimbabwe.
you know you have others who have thought of radical measures, for
example, the Catholic Archbishop, Pius Ncube has actually called
on the United Nations to arrest Robert Mugabe and try him for gross
human rights abuses. Now, as the head of the Catholic Church in
South Africa, Robert Mugabe is a Catholic and I know the Catholic
Church has a long standing principle in dealing with people who
have committed crimes against humanity and against God. Now, from
a theological point of view, are there any grounds that Mugabe should
be excluded from the Church or denied communion?
Napier: Well, as I understand it, I was told, in no uncertain
terms by one of the clergy in Zimbabwe, Mugabe may be a Catholic,
but he is certainly not a practicing Catholic. So, cutting him off
from the sacraments isn't going to make much of a difference. And,
I don't think the Church would take that approach anyway because
if you are going to do something like ex-communicating then you
have first of all to be able to prove that person personally did
the crime for which they are going to be punished. Now, Mugabe has
issued instructions. Are they his instructions? Is he acting on
what he has seen happening or has he been told complete falsehoods
about what is taking place and he is believing what he is being
told. For instance, he is probably being told 'nobody stays in a
Transit Camp for more than five days', and that is patently untrue
because many of the people were there since the 25th of May, others
from about the 25th of June, so at least a month they have been
there in that camp. And others are going to be there for a long
time because they have nowhere where they are going to be going
anyway. There's a family there from Zambia, there's no way they
can go back to Zambia because their forebears came from Zambia,
not they themselves.
surely, as a leader, he would by now see the effects of Operation
Murambatsvina because there are thousands of people who have been
made homeless, some are living out there in the open.
Napier: That's the point I am making. I don't know whether he
has actually gone out and looked. If he went out he would see, but
I don't know if he's actually gone out and looked. I am almost sure
that he is depending on briefings from his underlings and they are
not telling him the true picture. Otherwise how can he say 'it's
a joy for the poor people of Zimbabwe because in five years time
2 million houses will have been built'. If he saw the conditions
under which people are living - a little shack of plastic and wood,
wooden framed 2 metres by 1 metre or 2 metres by a square - and
in the cold of Zimbabwe at the moment, I mean, there is no way he
can talk about being happy! Many of those were actually living in
well constructed houses which had permission to be constructed,
and now they are being demolished because that whole area, called
Epworth, had to be cleared of all habitation. No, I don't think
he has actually been out and seen the devastation he has caused
- or his underlings are causing.
And then, coming back to the issue of what South Africa can do,
because South Africa is Zimbabwe's biggest trading partner and it's
very influential. Now, I was speaking with Reverend Esau just several
days ago and he said that the Church in South Africa will mount
an international and national campaign to expose the tragedy in
Zimbabwe. And, he actually added that the Church will also speak
to politicians in South Africa, as you also said at the beginning
of this interview, to say that the Church will no longer tolerate
this 'quiet diplomacy'. Now, my question is, we have this great
moral speaker in the name of Nelson Mandela, but, he has done nothing
in terms of speaking out about what's happening in Zimbabwe. Do
you think Nelson Mandela's moral credibility is undermined by his
silence on Zimbabwe here, on this particular issue?
Napier: No, I wouldn't be able to pass a judgment on that because
I don't know if anyone has approached Mandela about this situation.
I have also been in and out of the country so much that I'm not
sure that whether it's even been reported that he has said something.
I've been traveling a lot during the last few months, so I'm not
really in a position to say whether Mandela knows or does not know
about what's going on, or whether he has actually said something
or not. But, if it's true, it would have a big impact if he were
to say something. Certainly when you think of Mandela's attitude
towards children; he's got this Mandela Children's Fund because
he's got such a soft spot for children. And, if he were to know
what the children of Zimbabwe were having to go through because
of these mad policies, he certainly, I'm sure, would speak out against
them. But thanks for raising that question because it's one of the
things I hadn't personally thought of and I think we will look into
That's exactly what I was going to say. That is this something that
the Church can look into?
Napier: Yes, definitely.
Violet: And, finally, I understand that you are going to
be meeting Thabo Mbeki anytime soon, you have made a request?
Napier: We have made a request, yes.
And what sort of things would you want Thabo Mbeki to do?
Napier: Well I think what we would want is to impress upon him
that it is totally illogical to continue talking about quiet diplomacy
when people are dying. Action needs to be taken right away and the
very least that needs to be done is to get Mugabe to stop the actions
that he is doing - or his people are doing. And then, to start looking
at how do you accommodate the people that have been displaced. I
mean, those are some of the humanitarian things that have to be
done right away. Secondly there are a whole lot of other things,
laws and so on, that Mugabe has put into place, which are simply
making life totally intolerable for the people of Zimbabwe. For
instance, the NGO Bill; he hasn't signed it yet; but that bill would
result in nobody but the government being able to receive aid and
to distribute it within the country. And, given the record of ZANU
PF in the past, it would mean that only those who cow tow to ZANU
PF would receive any of that Aid. He has said to us, to the Catholic
Bishop's who were in meeting there a year or two ago, he said that
the NGO Bill would not effect the Churches. But unless that's written
in the Bill, that the Churches are exempt, there's no way that we
would believe that if he so chose he wouldn't stop the Churches
from being able to distribute aid as well. I think the best way
we can express our solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe is to
pray for the conversion of those who are inflicting this really
indescribable suffering upon their fellow brothers and sisters.
And therefore I think we just have to continue praying and storming
heaven on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe. In that way we can expressing
our solidarity with them in a way that goes beyond words and beyond
material action as well.
was the head of the Roman Catholic Church in South Africa, Cardinal
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