After the almost terminal cowardice shown by the rest of Africa's political leadership, it is a breath of fresh air to see a group openly condemning Mugabe for his disgraceful practices. And the Catholic Bishops are a very powerful group in Zimbabwe and their words will carry great weight.
The pastoral letter, read out in churches yesterday, denounces "overtly corrupt" leaders for using "ever harsher oppression through arrests, detentions, banning orders, beatings and torture", days after Mr Mugabe said that his opponents deserved to be "bashed".The Catholic bishops' conference letter warns that Zimbabwe is heading towards a "flashpoint" but appeals for "peace and restraint" in protests ahead of a two-day general strike called from tomorrow. The letter said young Zimbabweans "see their leaders habitually engaging in acts and words which are hateful, disrespectful, racist, corrupt, lawless, unjust, greedy, dishonest and violent in order to cling to the privileges of power and wealth".
The bishops say the seizure and redistribution of white-owned farms over recent years, the centrepiece of what Mr Mugabe portrays as his campaign to liberate Zimbabwe from the vestiges of colonialism, has enriched the elite but done little to help the poor. They conclude that the white settlers who once exploited what was Rhodesia have been supplanted by a black elite that is just as abusive.
And they wasted no time in portraying Mugabe's actions as in no great sense dissimilar to the white's who held power in former Rhodesia:
It's a stunning intervention and their words carry all the more weight because of who they come from. And by portraying Mugabe as little better than the whites of former Rhodesia, who also used violence to try and hold on to their privileges, they rob Mugabe of his most powerful rhetoric, as he always likes to portray anyone who opposes him as somehow representing colonialists. The Bishops have very cleverly pointed out that the person who most resembles the colonialists is Mugabe himself.
"It is the same conflict between those who possess power and wealth in abundance, and those who do not; between those who are determined to maintain their privileges of power and wealth at any cost, even at the cost of bloodshed, and those who demand their democratic rights and a share in the fruits of independence; between those who continue to benefit from the present system of inequality and injustice, because it favours them and enables them to maintain an exceptionally high standard of living, and those who go to bed hungry at night and wake up in the morning to another day without work and without income; between those who only know the language of violence and intimidation, and those who feel they have nothing more to lose because their constitutional rights have been abrogated and their votes rigged," the letter says.
The bishops back calls for a new constitution "that will guide a democratic leadership chosen in free and fair elections".
The bishops have been anxious to stay out of politics until now, but the pressure from their congregations, as Mugabe's thugs tour the townships beating up and branding opponents, has proven too strong to resist....
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