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Catholic Archbishop ZANU PF's latest scapegoat

Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Alick Mvundla Ncube of Bulawayo has earned the wrath of Zimbabwe's increasingly desperate President Robert Mugabe, who accuses the cleric of everything from being a tribalist to delivering inflammatory homilies.
Rodrick Mukumbira

Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Alick Mvundla Ncube of Bulawayo is the latest scapegoat for the unpopularity of the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF), its failure to appease the minority Ndebele people in Matabeleland, southern Zimbabwe, and its humiliating defeat in the region in the 2000 parliamentary elections.

Even the Central Intelligence Organisation - Zimbabwe's dreaded spy police - has been to Archbishop Ncube's doorstep. In fact, he has it on good authority that he is at the top of its hit list. When Archbishop Ncube condemned the state terrorism that killed, maimed, and displaced thousands of Ndebele people in Matabeleland in 1983, President Robert Mugabe labelled him a hypocrite and "a Jeremiah" prophesising for the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo, a revered nationalist and leader of the Ndebele.

Mugabe accuses Archbishop Ncube of using the pulpit to de-campaign the ruling party and of being a supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the country's youngest party, which shocked ZANU-PF by seizing an unprecedented 57 of the 120 contested parliamentary seats. But traditionally, Matabeleland is a stronghold of the opposition, an issue cultivated into its residents by Nkomo, who was known as "Father Zimbabwe."

Archbishop Ncube is the first black to take charge of Matabeleland following the retirement of Bishop Henry Karlen in late 1997. He has invited the wrath of Mugabe who, although a Catholic, has had an uneasy relationship with the Church.

In the landmark 2000 elections, ZANU-PF suffered an embarrassing defeat in the region when its heavyweights lost to MDC political novices in 21 of the 23 constituencies contested in Matabeleland. "I am unfazed by the whole thing," says Archbishop Ncube to Mugabe's tirade that he is a tribalist who is using his influence in Matabeleland to sway the ballot in favour of the MDC. "I am not going to give up the fight to keep checks and balances on how people are governed in this country. Instead the attacks on me by ZANU PF have given me more impetus to continue standing for the truth and justice."

Last year, Mugabe threatened to boycott the memorial service of Vice President Nkomo if the archbishop led or attended the Mass. The government had to find a replacement. "It is untrue that I am a tribalist, as politicians want the people to believe," said Ncube. "It is un-Christian. I respect all ethnic groups as equal. There is room for all of them in the Church, which belongs to God. I also back and promote the unity of the people of Zimbabwe," he said, in response to accusations in a government daily newspaper that he was using his Sunday sermons to preach disunity among the more than 120,000 Catholics in Matabeleland.

The paper also reported that many Catholics were leaving the Church because of Archbishop Ncube's tribalism. "It is my belief that religion has a strong claim in politics but churches should not align themselves to political parties as they will find themselves, in the end, having difficulties in question some decisions made by the party in power," he said.

Ncube says the government has been dilly-dallying in building the long-mooted Matabeleland Zambezi water pipeline that is supposed to throw a lifeline to Bulawayo's perennial water problems. He has also lashed out at the delays to compensate victims of the Gukurahundi, the Korean-trained army unit that Mugabe unleashed into Matabeleland in the 1980s to smell out insurgents of the now defunct PF-ZAPU. The soldiers pursued just 100 former guerrillas of Nkomo's then PF- ZAPU party, which merged with ZANU PF in 1987. In the process, the soldiers killed thousands of innocent villagers.

Archbishop Ncube has also gotten into the government's bad books by complaining about the poverty prevalent in Matabeleland, which people in the region blame on marginalisation by the majority Shona of the Ndebele. He also blames Mugabe for mismanaging the economy and the presence of rampant official corruption. "That is why Matabeleland residents have snubbed ZANU-PF, not what I preach on the pulpit," he says.

Ncube says the church must take the side of the weak and the oppressed in any conflict situation. "The government has performed badly,' he told a meeting of concerned civic leaders last year. "ZANU-PF are not even ashamed of that and have gone further to devise the draft constitution to get back into power despite the government's dismal performance."

Archbishop Pius Alick Mvundla Ncube was born in 1946 to a peasant family in Filabusi, southern Zimbabwe, and had a simple upbringing typical of the colonial days in most rural areas at the time. Ironically, he first went to a Presbyterian Church primary school in Mbonqane, west of Bulawayo, where his family had moved to in the late 1940s, before enrolling at the Roman Catholic Church's St. Patrick's School in one of Bulawayo's oldest high-density suburbs, Makokoba.

It was at St. Patrick where Ncube met a German nun, Sister Desideria, and was converted to Catholicism. Between 1963 and 1966, Ncube went to Chikwingizha Secondary School - another famous Roman Catholic mission - in central Zimbabwe for secondary education and then enrolled at Chishawasha Seminary, a few kilometres outside Harare, where he studied philosophy and theology until his ordination as a priest in 1973. In 1974, he earned his Licentiate at the Vatican. He has completed post-graduate studies in pastoral theology, and has been active in a number of the Catholic Church's commissions.

Archbishop Ncube says it puzzles him that politicians are now venting their anger on him, yet at his January 1998 ordination in a packed Barbourfields Stadium in Bulawayo, the late Nkomo actually asked him to admonish the government when it erred. Nkomo, saluting the archbishop for his rapid rise in the Church, said: "As leaders of this country, we expect you to advise us whenever we seem to be going astray. You must be courageous in your discharge of duty, as some politicians may not always listen."

At the same occasion, Mugabe described Archbishop Ncube as "our son of the soil who has distinguished himself." Archbishop Ncube says: "Politicians seem to have small memories. The church is encouraged to guide them, but check what's happening now."

Archbishop Ncube has served at several parishes in and around Matabeleland. In 1985, he was appointed Vicar General and in 1990 took over as the administrator at St Mary's Cathedral, the largest Catholic Church in Bulawayo and headquarters of the diocese.

As he was preparing to receive several parishioners at Bishop House this week, Archbishop Ncube said: "I will be watching them as we move towards the March presidential elections. Both the ruling party and the main opposition will be under my scrutiny. I won't favour any political party. The church should be above party politics." Pointing to several elderly people lining up for help outside his office, he added: "It's not politicians alone that need the church's help."

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