BY ALEX MAGAISA
As if it has few opponents, the Zimbabwean regime has ignited a war with the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference (ZCBC) issued a pastoral letter to the Catholic flock last week.
The letter was critical of the government and human rights violations. It questioned the moral compass of the country’s leadership in light of the abductions, torture and harassment of citizens.
The letter made reference to unresolved questions such as Gukurahundi.
Several things have happened since then.
The first was a vile statement issued by the government through Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services minister Monica Mutsvangwa.
It was an ill-tempered statement which personally attacked the person and character of the head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Robert Ndlovu.
The worst parts were attacks that made reference to his ethnicity.
The comments on Gukurahundi and the reference to the Ndebele ethnic group as “righteous” were hateful and in bad taste.
It was a statement written in anger, without reference to reason.
It was so bad that one might have thought it was a fabrication meant to smear the government.
But it was authentic. It was the hand of the regime.
This was the regime simply being itself: undignified, uncouth and unrestrained in attack.
This is the same approach it takes towards citizens.
It has shot and killed citizens in cold blood.
It has abducted and tortured citizens. It has arrested and jailed citizens on the most spurious charges, denying them bail.
Therefore, a vicious statement attacking a few bishops means very little to them.
Soon after the first statement, which was read out on national television by Mutsvangwa, the secretary in her ministry, Nick Mangwana, issued another statement through the state daily, The Herald.
It was an after-thought designed to qualify the intemperate statement made by the minister.
But it was no better because it was underpinned by denials, accusations of the bishops and the usual blame-shifting.
Days later, the government issued a third statement through Ziyambi Ziyambi, the Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs minister.
It was a long, garrulous statement in which the government sought to defend itself while still attacking the bishops.
It was just as bad as the first statement, although this time, the government tried, without success, to sound mildly educated.
There was an uncomfortable mixture of aggression and diplomacy in the rambling statement; an attempt at pacification while still hammering the bishops.
If it was designed to present a more sophisticated and thoughtful face after the undignified first statement, it was still a dismal failure.
In any event, the government made no reference to that ridiculous first statement.
It did not qualify or disown it. It still stands as a record of what the government said in response to the Church.
The fact that the government decided to issue three official statements in the space of a few days may be a sign of a government in panic.
They had not expected the tough words from the Catholic bishops.
The government is used to dealing with and bashing opposition politicians and civil society.
The hard and forthright language of the bishops took the regime by surprise because it probably thought the Catholic Church was in its pocket.
The flurry of statements shows a government that panicked and has lost grip. Even the attempt to present a thoughtful and “comprehensive” response revealed deep insecurities.
It also shows a regime that has lost control of the national narrative. For several weeks now, Zanu PF has been reacting rather than setting the agenda.
That is not the behaviour of a ruling party that is in charge of the national narrative.
The lack of coordination and coherence in the response is itself a sign of poor leadership.
No one seems to know what they are doing.
For years, Zanu PF has been in control of the national narrative, leaving everyone to react and respond.
The terrain has changed: Zanu PF is the one that is in reactive mode most of the time.
Another reason for the flurry of responses is the existence of differences of opinion within the regime, with one group preferring the aggressiveness reflected in the first statement and the other group going for a mixture of aggressiveness and diplomacy reflected in the third.
One faction might have suggested that it is better to qualify the first statement, although this did not work both in the second and third statements.
Certainly, there are senior Catholics in the government, such as Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, who might have been embarrassed by the first statement.
Nevertheless, if there was any doubt, the government’s view is evident from the statement of Mnangagwa.
His statement alluded to what he called a long relationship with the Church from the days of the liberation struggle, which suggested an attempt to find common ground, but it ended with a hostile invitation to the clergy to join politics.
“It is most unfortunate when men of the cloth begin to use the pulpit to advance a nefarious agenda for detractors of our country,” said Mnangagwa at Zanu PF’s politburo meeting.
The tensions were palpable.
Mnangagwa felt slighted by the Catholic bishops’ criticism and he is not a character with a gift for forgiveness.
The ominous invitation to join politics is reminiscent of what happened in the late 1990s when the labour unions led a series of strikes against the regime of Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe responded by challenging the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to form a political party if the unions wanted to engage in politics.
The ZCTU accepted the invitation and the MDC was born in 1999.
The birth of the MDC was a moment that fundamentally changed the face of politics in Zimbabwe.
It is unlikely that the Catholic Church will follow the path of the labour unions.
The bishops are not going to form a political party, no.
They will remain behind the pulpit, tending to their flock.
But it is foolhardy for Mnangagwa to antagonise an institution as large and as powerful as the Catholic Church.
A general must choose his battles carefully and this is a politically expensive battle for Mnangagwa and his people.
l This is an abridged version of Alex Magaisa’s Big Saturday Read blog post.