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Zimbabwean church official says elections don't help starving people
Bronwen Dachs, Catholic News Service (CNS)
December 05, 2005

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- The estimated 10 percent voter turnout in Zimbabwe's elections for a new Senate was not surprising as the country's food, fuel and foreign currency shortages worsen, said Alouis Chaumba, who heads Zimbabwe's Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

"We are tired of elections," he said in a telephone interview from the capital, Harare, noting that "they are definitely not adding value to our lives here."

The Nov. 26 election for the 66-seat Senate, which will have the final word on new laws, "is seen as just another walkover for the ruling party," Chaumba said. "Of far more relevance to our lives is the fact that prices are going up every day and basic groceries are beyond the reach of most" of Zimbabwe's 12 million people, he said, noting that "there are people starving in the drier regions of the country."

With laws that guarantee seats to various ruling party loyalists and a boycott campaign by the main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, President Robert Mugabe's governing ZANU-PF party was set to win before voting started.

The poll follows the March 2005 general election in which 81-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled the southern African country since independence from Britain in 1980, was re-elected.

"The government should be focusing on the crisis the country is in, not more elections," Chaumba said.

Mugabe's much criticized land redistribution program -- which has disrupted agricultural production -- and recurring droughts are widely blamed for the severe food shortages.

Most Zimbabweans are "living in destitution and desperation," the Harare-based Zimbabwe National Pastors' Conference said in a statement. "We are amazed at the patience of the people of Zimbabwe who have remained composed under the current economic conditions of impoverishment," it said.

The statement has the support of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, Chaumba said, adding that "we fully understand the plight of workers in Zimbabwe because most of them are members of our congregations."

The conference said it was "very concerned about the heavy-handed manner" in which the police and army in early November disrupted "what was evidently a peaceful procession" organized by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to highlight an unemployment rate of about 80 percent and the rocketing cost of living.

The pastors said they "identify with workers in Zimbabwe when they mobilize themselves in peaceful protests in the face of socioeconomic conditions that are increasingly depriving them of their God-given rights and dignity."

Several trade union leaders and about 100 members were arrested ahead of the Harare march, which was declared illegal by the government.

"Laws that deny citizens space for peaceful protest are unjust and therefore ungodly," the conference said, noting that "an increasing number of Zimbabweans are beginning to wonder whether citizens should have an obligation to respect and obey such repressive and oppressive laws."

Chaumba said the rule of law has collapsed in Zimbabwe.

"Courts now rule in favor of the government and, without recourse to the law, there is nowhere to go," he said.

Also, the central government interferes with local governments to the extent that it is "impossible for mayors to do their jobs" without being ruling party loyalists, he said.

The country's "only hope" is an international initiative "to highlight the problems here," he said.

Noting that Zimbabwe is a signatory to many international human rights commitments, Chaumba said, "African countries need to put pressure on it to comply."

Regional groups such as the African Union and the Southern African Development Community "are not sending strong signals" that Zimbabwe needs drastic change, he said.

"Our liberation history is haunting us," Chaumba said, noting that "many (current) South African leaders were housed in Zimbabwe" during apartheid "and it would be seen as discourteous to criticize their former hosts."

While "they must acknowledge that brotherhood, they still need to call a spade a spade where human rights are being violated," he said.

Chaumba said Zimbabweans are "still suffering the effects" of Mugabe's Operation Drive Out Trash, in which government agents destroyed shantytowns in an attempt to force the residents to return to rural areas. Thousands of poor Zimbabweans were left homeless by the operation, which began in May.

In early November, "people who were still living in the open were rounded up and put in a holding camp" on the outskirts of Harare, Chaumba said.

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