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  • Operation Murambatsvina - Countrywide evictions of urban poor - Index of articles

  • The Hotseat speaks to Cardinal Wilfred Napier
    Violet Gonda, SW Radio Africa
    July 19, 2005

    Cardinal Wilfred 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.'

    Robert Mugabe 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.

    Cardinal 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 them.

    Violet: 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?

    Cardinal 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

    Violet: 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?

    Cardinal 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.

    Violet: 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?

    Cardinal 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

    Violet: 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 South Africa?

    Cardinal 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.

    Violet: 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?

    Cardinal 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.

    Violet: 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 sin?

    Cardinal 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.

    Violet: And so what is the Christian approach for example to confronting your brother if he has done wrong?

    Cardinal 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.

    Violet: And 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?

    Cardinal 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.

    Violet: But 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.

    Cardinal 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.

    Violet: 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?

    Cardinal 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 it.

    Violet: That's exactly what I was going to say. That is this something that the Church can look into?

    Cardinal Napier: Yes, definitely.

    Violet: And, finally, I understand that you are going to be meeting Thabo Mbeki anytime soon, you have made a request?

    Cardinal Napier: We have made a request, yes.

    Violet: And what sort of things would you want Thabo Mbeki to do?

    Cardinal 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.

    Violet: That was the head of the Roman Catholic Church in South Africa, Cardinal Wilfred Napier.

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