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Mugabe has ruined Africa's beacon of hope

Wednesday 25th February 2009

Churches in Zimbabwe are working to feed and heal a nation abandoned by its leaders. A joint article by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, published in 'The Times'.

Twenty-five years ago, people involved in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa would say wistfully: "Look at Zimbabwe. It's come through a bitter war of liberation without wrecking its social cohesion, it's developed a proper democratic culture and it's feeding itself."

Granted, this was, even then, a slightly too rosy picture, but it wasn't nonsense. It represented a conviction that Zimbabwe was showing what was possible to its neighbours and indeed to the whole continent.

And this means that one of the worst of the countless casualties inflicted by Robert Mugabe on his wretched country is the destruction of many people's hopes, both in Zimbabwe itself and throughout Africa. The continent can't afford more failed states, mass hunger, contempt for the rule of law. And how much more painful it is when a country has been held up as a sign of promise.

We have been witnessing the slow death of a people. And slow death is only intermittently newsworthy; nothing to report except more of the same, so the temptation is to switch off. But this doesn't mean that the need for hope is any less urgent on the ground.

In the past couple of years, the churches in Zimbabwe have shown signs of coming together in a cohesive way to challenge the tyranny of the Government and the apathy of neighbours. The Anglican Church has been through a quiet revolution, finally expelling discredited bishops and rallying around leaders of real stature such as the Bishop of Harare. And it has paid a heavy price. Anglican churches and congregations have been targeted by government-sponsored thugs while parishioners have been harassed, beaten and arrested.

But the important thing that the Anglican Church, along with others, has done is to remind a battered and violated population that their dignity still matters and that change is possible. The response to their witness has been remarkable: thousands gather to worship despite attacks and death threats.

The Church continues with its school feeding programmes (its schools working as food distribution points, so guaranteeing both nourishment and education for the young), with its work for the soaring numbers of orphans suffering from cholera and Aids, with its basic local health clinics and its trauma counselling for victims of torture. If the country is to be rebuilt - and a society can be destroyed pretty quickly but can be rebuilt only slowly, over generations - the Church will be central to the project.

With about 50 per cent of the population now estimated to be in danger of starvation, with cases of cholera rising to nearly 75,000 and a fatality rate of one in twenty, with Aids still a mass killer and no antiretroviral drugs available, with raw sewage pumping into streets, the humanitarian situation is as bad as it could be.

As for the infrastructure of society, we all know about the rate of inflation (the figure of 261 million per cent beggars the imagination) while, for all the high rhetoric about resisting colonialism, the country's mineral rights have now been sold off to China and Zimbabwe is now wholly dependent on foreign currency.

Less well known is the fact that government schools have been closed because teachers could not afford to live on their salaries - the equivalent of ten US dollars a month. The state of the health services is appalling: medical professionals are simply being paid nothing and there is a huge exodus of doctors and nurses from the country.

These facts are worth rehearsing, if only because they are bound to slip out of view again and again as other stories claim the headlines. But they also reinforce the need for urgent humanitarian action.

Three weeks ago the primates of the Anglican Communion unanimously called for a concerted initiative of aid and support for the Church's community work in Zimbabwe, and today we are launching our own Archbishops' Appeal here in the UK.

The Church remains a trusted deliverer of aid at grassroots level, capable of getting food and medical supplies to those who need them, and we urge everyone, inside and outside the Christian Church, to give it their strong support. And for Christian believers, we want to repeat the primates' call for prayer and fasting, especially today, Ash Wednesday - accepting our responsibility to stand alongside all who are suffering in Zimbabwe.

We know that there is no quick solution to this; and we know that there will be no serious solution as long as Robert Mugabe remains in power and refuses to accept the verdict of his people in last year's election. Lives can still be saved and, more importantly, hope can be sustained if we continue to support the Church in Zimbabwe as a vehicle of promise and a guarantor of the human dignity so fearfully insulted by the current regime.

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