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Beyond the fear
Jo Chandler, The Age (Australia)
May 12, 2007

Around midnight tonight, Archbishop Pius Ncube's flight from Australia will land in Harare, returning him to the darkest of times in his tortured homeland, Zimbabwe. The lights of the city may be out. The state-owned electricity company announced this week that power to homes would be cut for up to 20 hours a day. Instead the precious current will be fed into failing farms, far too few to provide enough wheat to sustain the starving population or nosediving economy. Zimbabwe has become a nation where deprivation is measured in extremes. Life expectancy has plummeted to the world's lowest - 34 years for women, 37 for men. Grave diggers can't keep up. The London Guardian's correspondent reported in March that morgues were overflowing with corpses families can't afford to claim. Inflation runs officially at 2200 per cent, the world's highest, but even that figure is propped up by lies, according to Ncube, who puts it at 4000 per cent. Officially, a loaf of bread costs Z$875; in reality it sells for Z$6000. A bus fare to work will wipe out a worker's earnings. School fees in Bulawayo were Z$500,000 for first term this year, says Ncube. When children returned for second term this week, the figure had doubled. Half the children in Zimbabwe - a once-proud educator - no longer attend school, he says.

The blackest of shadows also hangs over the Archbishop's own fate. His war of words with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has escalated in the 10 days he has been in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra trying to raise awareness of the suffering in his country, and to persuade Australia not to send its cricketers to Zimbabwe. Last Friday, Mugabe warned that Zimbabwe's Catholic bishops - of whom Archbishop Ncube has long been the noisiest and most outspoken - had embarked on a "dangerous path" when they read a pastoral letter to their congregations at Easter condemning his Government as "racist, corrupt and lawless". The bishops warned that violence and economic hardship were pushing the nation to flashpoint; they condemned Mugabe's Government for the brutal oppression of its opponents, with hit squads detaining and torturing hundreds of dissenters in recent weeks; and they appealed for democracy to be restored through a new constitution, and free and fair elections. "The bishops have decided to turn political," Mugabe told the state-owned Herald newspaper. "And once they turn political, we regard them as no longer being spiritual."

Ncube firmly rejects both accusations, but remains fierce in his criticism of the man who has led Zimbabwe for 27 years. "I am a human rights activist," Ncube says - not a political one. The distinction is important, he told The Age in Melbourne this week. As to the spiritual merit of his campaign, Ncube cites the Bible, chapter and verse, in defence of his activism. Look to Luke's Nazareth Manifesto, he says, or Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount. "We defend the poor and the disadvantaged," he says. "Christ teaches love for your neighbour, respect. He preaches justice, peace, compassion. Uplifting people. Humility. And care for the disadvantaged - the widowed, the orphaned, the poor. "When we are talking to Mugabe (himself a Catholic), we are saying, 'now you have forgotten this. You are an oppressor instead of a liberator. Go back to being a liberator of the people. Stop killing.' "

Ncube's words are chosen carefully and released slowly, quietly, in tones barely above a whisper. They are the weary words of the preacher with a worn message no one wants to hear. But they are powerful, passionate, provocative words. "(Mugabe) is a killer and a murderer. He is a liar. We ask him to stop lying and murdering. To uphold your people." They are the words of a martyr. Amnesty International and other aid organisations held grave concerns for the Archbishop's safety even before Mugabe's ominous recent pronouncements. Ncube is frequently labelled fearless, though he says he is not. He knows fear. "But you refuse to be . . . neutralised by that fear. You get up again and stand on the pulpit and proclaim. Despite all the harassment, and there is a lot of harassment. They follow you by car, they demonise you, invent stories about you." Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF party has branded Ncube "a mad, inveterate liar" who is advocating the wishes of Britain and the United States in urging "regime change" in Zimbabwe.

He says he cannot be silent. On the question of why he raises his voice, despite the risk, Ncube pauses to contemplate the plush surrounds of the empty dining room of Melbourne's grand Windsor Hotel, where we have met for this interview. The opulence jars; it's all wrong with the story he is here to tell. "Something kind of breaks in you. It's like you are challenged in the depths of your personality. Like someone is beating your mother in front of you. You can't just fold your hands and let it happen. Some kind of . . . disturbance stirs deep down in your gut, where you simply say 'no'. Even if it means death." The son of a farmer, raised in Zimbabwe's west, Ncube recalls vividly two moments when something broke in him. He was not yet a bishop, but a priest in a district where, in 1983, "something disastrous happened. Mugabe was killing 20,000 innocent civilians in my part of the country. This was kind of tribal cleansing - ethnic cleansing. It aroused the worst in me. We took a stand - with my bishop at the time, a Swiss missionary - for human rights." The next moment came when Mugabe seized, violently, more than 4000 white-owned farms in 2000, "killing the economy. And I thought, I must oppose this . . . Being quiet, I would let evil things go on for the sake of my personal life . . . What I am fighting for is worth it. You can't be quiet in the face of gross injustice.

"If we had a good (political) opposition, there would be no need for the church to talk," he says. "If we had a free press, there would be no need for us to talk." But Mugabe has banned five newspapers, and controls radio and television content. "So we have to speak for the poor and the disadvantaged. It is our duty, to defend the powerless against the powerful, those who are poor, weak, hungry against those who have plenty, who are corrupt and who turn everything to their advantage." Ncube is a lean, sad-faced man. His worn, dark, too-short trousers flap around his calves as he walks - swiftly, unlike his speech. He rushes to retrieve a large silver crucifix to hang around his neck when the photographer arrives. He endures the process of having his picture taken, clearly uncomfortable in the depths of a leather armchair.

His road to this role as activist and advocate began when he was enrolled in St Patrick's school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, at 13. Taught by missionary Dominican nuns from Germany, he soon became captured by their faith, and at 15 decided to become a Catholic, taking the name Pius at his baptism. His father had followed traditional African beliefs until converting to Catholicism five years before his death. His mother, a Mennonite Christian, also followed her son into Catholicism. Ncube's interest in human rights was fired during his seminary training, where he was profoundly influenced by social justice teachings. South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and slain Latin American bishop Oscar Romero are his motivating heroes. His faith is challenged daily not only by fear, but by anger at injustice. To see it, "if you are human, you are angry. But you try to transform that energy into activism for human rights." He fortifies himself with an hour, sometimes two, of prayer, reflection and reading every morning - rising at 5am.

"Fear is the crippling factor in Zimbabwe. The Government causes people to be afraid, either to run away and leave Zimbabwe, or just to be quiet, to not say anything." The crisis he observes in his homeland now has eaten into people's souls. It is not just about hunger, about disease - AIDS has been allowed to run unchecked for two decades - about inequality, about oppression. There is no joy left in Zimbabwe, Ncube says. Even the rituals and celebrations that usually bring the poorest people relief - a wedding anniversary, a birthday, a baby - have been stolen by galloping inflation. Not long ago, he attended a gathering of 50 or 60 women. They begged him to lay his hands upon them, looking for healing. He asked them what ailed them. They suffered palpations of the heart, they told him. They could not sleep. Their blood pressure rose and rose. "People are very depressed," he says, and the women suffer most of all. "The woman is usually the provider for the children, for food, for clothing for school fees. The men, they run away. They take off, go to Johannesburg and never come back." The women are left behind with the children and the struggle, and it kills them before they reach middle age.

Corruption is rampant, permeating society from the top where it is motivated by greed, through the impoverished middle-classes, and consuming the exploding ranks of the destitute, where it is fed by desperate survival. How do they live? Ncube gestures to the sparkling glassware and cutlery in the room around him, and mimes hiding it beneath his suit coat. This is what it takes to survive in Zimbabwe. Aside from the opportunism of petty theft, of whatever rackets and black-market entrepreneurship might bring in food or money, survival relies on the largesse of Zimbabwe's diaspora, who send money to their families, or on hand-outs from the World Food Program and various aid agencies. Even they are oppressed, carefully mute as they observe the spiralling collapse of society and economy, fearful that their efforts will be curtailed if they make too much noise.

Even when Zimbabwe's bad news escapes, it rarely resonates loud or long. The world is weary of this long-winded, eight-year crisis, he says. Insidious and unending, in terms of news value, it is easily eclipsed by Iraq and Afghanistan and Darfur. In his brief, low-key Australian visit - which the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sponsored - Ncube's message has focused not on the issues on the ground in Zimbabwe, but on the one confronting Australians. Whether to send an Australian cricket team to tour Zimbabwe. The answer, from Ncube, is an emphatic "no". "It will be used by Mugabe for his own propaganda. To show how important he is, how important Zimbabwe is, his Government is. For Australians to come over there will give him a big boost. (Mugabe) is being isolated already by his own party." But he is clinging fast to power. Touring Australian cricketers would be given a carefully stage-managed view of Zimbabwe, chaperoned to locations dressed up for their visit with funds the nation can't afford. "They will not see the backyard, where the distress is.

The Federal Government is against the tour, and has offered to pay Zimbabwe millions of dollars in compensation if the Australian cricket team backs out of its commitment. Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer met Cricket Australia officials and players in Melbourne this week to try to persuade them to stay home. If the world champions went to Zimbabwe "the regime will be able to say, well, some politicians are isolating us but, look, we have the world's greatest cricket team here. Isn't that a wonderful thing? It shows that not all of the world are angry with Zimbabwe". Prime Minister John Howard has also said he is increasingly of the view that the tour should not proceed. A spokesman for Cricket Australia, Peter Young, told The Sydney Morning Herald that to pull out would risk Australia's relations with world cricket. Cricketing nations including India and South Africa are opposed to a boycott.

It's a debate Ncube is happy to have stirred and to see drag on, so long as it draws attention to the plight of Zimbabwe's 11 million people. Meanwhile, despite Mugabe's threats, Ncube returns to his pulpit tomorrow to preach his plea for peaceful revolution, urging the people to find the energy and courage for a popular mass uprising akin to that of the Ukraine, or the Philippines' Rosary Revolution of 1986, which ousted then-president Ferdinand Marcos. He is not averse to veiled warnings of retribution himself, though he leaves the work to the divine. The Powerpoint presentation he has taken on the road to aid groups in Australia finishes with a quote from Amos 6, verses 4-7. "Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David invent for themselves instruments of music; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first of those to go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves shall pass away."

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