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Zimbabwe - A New Beginning?


Jim Sayers reports on the recent political upheaval in Zimbabwe, and its effect on local Christians


On 21 November, the Zimbabwean Parliament met in a joint session to impeach their long-standing President, Robert Mugabe. As the debate got underway, a messenger entered and handed the presiding officer a letter from the President. Mugabe was tendering his resignation with immediate effect, news that was greeted with wild celebration in the hall and dancing in the streets of Harare. After thirty-seven years in power, Mugabe was gone.


Removing a tyrant

Mugabe had made his name as a Marxist rebel, fighting a war against the white-led government of what was then Rhodesia. A peace deal had led to elections which swept him to power in 1980, a position he consolidated with violence and corruption over many years. While his first wife was dying, he began an affair with a typist in the presidential office, marrying her after his wife’s death. Known as ‘Gucci Grace’ because of her lavish lifestyle, Grace Mugabe positioned herself to take over from her husband when he died. She became a ‘Lady Macbeth’ character, the power behind her husband, building a new power-base within the ruling party, ZANUPF. A power struggle developed between her and Emmerson Mnangagwa, the long-standing Vice-President. Mnangagwa survived an attempt to poison him in August. When he was finally sacked as Vice-President in early November, he fled to neighbouring Mozambique and from there to China. (China has a growing political and economic influence across Africa.) This sacking was too much for the military, and they began plotting Mugabe’s downfall, a process that lasted barely a fortnight.


Opposition politician Tendai Biti said ‘This coup was the result of a disagreement between people eating at the table, whereas most coups in Africa are done by people eating under the table and receiving crumbs.’ Ordinary Zimbabweans have suffered miserably under the Mugabe regime. How much will a new President, himself so long at the heart of Mugabe’s government, really change life for ordinary Zimbabweans? The leading Christian opposition politician, Senator David Coltart tweeted, ‘We have removed a tyrant but not a tyranny. But we thank God for this day.’ In a radio interview he said of the new President, ‘We place a tiny bit of hope in him. We wait to see whether he will be a Gorbachev or a Milośević. There’s a lot of expectation. Words are easy, actions are far more difficult.’ When he was sworn in as the new president, Mnangagwa promised ‘free and fair’ elections as scheduled later this year, as well as creating jobs and compensating farmers who have had their land taken. Whether this will happen remains to be seen.


Henry Olonga is a Christian and former Zimbabwean international cricketer, who protested against the Mugabe regime during the 2003 cricket world cup. He had to flee the country, and never played test cricket again. Settling in Britain, he developed a ministry as an evangelist, using his singing and speaking gifts to speak at evangelistic events in many Grace Baptist churches, as well as working with GBM to make two promotional DVDs about our work. When Mugabe fell from power, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation started playing a song he had first released back in 2001, called ‘Our Zimbabwe.’ This quickly went viral, and was sung at the new President’s inauguration. Henry commented, ‘It stands as a challenge to each and every Zimbabwean to embrace their part in making a stand for their country. Judging by events that occurred recently, I think Zimbabweans are finding their voice and have done just that.’


Churches in Zimbabwe

Where do these huge changes leave ordinary Zimbabweans, Christians and churches in particular? Because of the way the Zimbabwean economy has been mismanaged, as well as the long-term effects of sanctions, unemployment is as high as 90%. Zimbabwe has run through several currency crises, with hyper-inflation making the Zimbabwean dollar worthless. Currencies of other countries are now accepted as legal tender. To avoid a run on the banks, withdrawals have been limited to $20 per day, while many rely on relatives abroad to send remittances via Western Union. Malnourishment is common, made worse in 2016 by drought. While healthcare is available for those who can pay, this means that nine out of ten have little or no healthcare in a country without a national health service. The HIV/AIDS crisis has also created many orphans, either being cared for by their extended family or living in an orphanage. Some of these orphanages are seeking to be self-funding by farming their land, but many depend on foreign funding to survive.


GBM has had a long-standing involvement in Zimbabwe through our radio and literature ministries. Local pastors have been listening to our Serving Today programmes, which give them sound Bible teaching focussed on the pastoral issues they face in their churches. Among these, the most damaging is the impact of the ‘Prosperity Gospel’, which preys on the hopes of the poor and promises riches and healing if they will only have more faith. Our programmes seek to present a clear biblical understanding of the gospel, together with such biblical themes as knowing God’s power in our weakness and suffering.


As we connected with listeners over the years, it became obvious that pastors needed books to help them in their ministries, and so GBMLit became involved. Derek French and Maciek Stolarski made regular visits to train pastors, and out of these visits a group of UK Christians formed the Zimbabwe Partnership Trust. Roger and Gill Prime from Beccles made their most recent visit for ZPT at the end of October, just as Mugabe’s downfall was beginning to happen.


Roger commented on the spiritual opportunity there is at this time. ‘The difficulties being experienced by so many throughout the country have created a sense of need and openness to the gospel. There is a greater awareness of God, which has drawn people in under the sound of the gospel. This has provided an open door to the preachers of a ‘Prosperity Gospel’, offering health and wealth as an easy answer to the daily struggles of life and, sadly, many have been taken in by such false teaching. However, among faithful churches there are many who have been turning to the Lord as a comfort and refuge in their time of need. This is particularly true where there are churches who exercise a ministry of compassion to the needy in their communities. We visited a church which has exercised a ministry of compassion to many widows and orphans. On this latest visit we were privileged to witness the baptism of ten believers in the Sunday morning service which was followed by a meal provided for the entire congregation.’


On a visit in 2016, when the country had experienced drought and famine on top of all the other trials, Roger taught some pastors from the book of Habakkuk. One pastor who had organised the seminar responded, ‘we really appreciate your willingness to travel right into the bush (only a few people does this), to teach and encourage the pastors. The study of Habakkuk was really an eye opener to all of us and it rekindled hope in most of us. The study brought answers to a number of questions on why it looks like God is so quiet when we seek him for a change day and night. The people of Makamure have been grappling with such questions as they wonder why is it they are always the ones struggling with hunger and their children suffer malnutrition. Where is God in all this poverty and hunger? Is he listening to our prayers? Thank you for allowing God to use you to speak to the people of Zimbabwe.’

 

Christians in Zimbabwe have been quick to ascribe the downfall of Mugabe to the goodness of God. One pastor connected with ZPT wrote to Roger, ‘We are grateful for what the Lord is doing in Zimbabwe. People managed to experience freedom of association today for the first time since 2000. It has been very difficult for people to demonstrate or march freely in Zimbabwe. We hope and pray that all will end well and that people will not lose sight of what the Lord is doing.’ Another said, ‘We are really thankful to you for your prayers; we have seen the hand of God in Zimbabwe this week and last week. We are hoping and praying for a government that serves the people and that has the heart of rebuilding the nation of Zimbabwe. Thank you so much for partnering with us in building up the nation of Zimbabwe. Your support is really going a long way in bringing smiles and brightening the lives of the people of this nation, and, above all, in making Christ to be known.’  


To find out more about the Zimbabwe Partnership Trust, visit their website, www.zpt.org.uk