Prior to the start of the Commonwealth meeting Dec. 5, opinions were divided over whether to readmit Zimbabwe. Namibia, South Africa and Zambia and others supported an end to the suspension, the London Telegraph reported Dec. 6. But other countries such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand argued in favor of continuing the suspension. The summit named a six-member committee to decide the issue, and it subsequently recommended keeping the suspension.
"It is unfortunate that President Mugabe has decided to shut the door on those who could help him rehabilitate his nation in the eyes of the world," New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Monday.
The southern African nation is also in trouble with the International Monetary Fund. The latter's Executive Board reviewed Zimbabwe's overdue financial obligations to the IMF and decided to initiate the procedure on the compulsory withdrawal of the country from the fund, the group said in a Dec. 3 press release.
The IMF noted that gross domestic product in Zimbabwe has declined by about 40% during 1999-2003, and in October inflation reached 526%. Poverty and unemployment rates have continued to rise, and the country suffers from one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world.
Palace amid poverty
In 1998 Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms, capping prices and fixing exchange rates in a populist scheme to revive his fading popularity. As a result, foreign investment has all but vanished, and only one in 10 workers now holds a steady job, the New York Times reported Oct. 19. And in a nation that once exported beef and wheat, 4 million people -- one in three -- now relies on foreign food donations. In the meantime, workers are putting the finishing touches on a 130,000-square-foot, 25-bedroom palace for Mugabe north of the capital.
Prior to the Commonwealth meeting, reports came out on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. A report prepared by a South Africa-based human rights group Solidarity Pace Trust, spoke of brutal acts committed by ruling party youth militants. These acts include murder, systematic rape, maiming, abduction and disappearances of opposition members, torture and arson, the Sunday Times of London reported Sept. 7.
The report also accused the youth paramilitary of the ZANU-PF party of the illegal takeover of food relief distribution, confiscation of goods at illegal roadblocks, and usurping power from law enforcement agents.
Press freedom has been abolished. The British Sunday newspaper Observer reported on Sept. 21 that Mugabe's government closed down the country's largest privately owned daily newspaper by denying it a license. Only a couple of independent weekly papers remain in private hands, the Observer noted. Last February the government passed a law that effectively banned foreign journalists.
Conditions for peace
In a pastoral letter for Advent, Zimbabwe's Catholic bishops expressed their concern over the political and social problems facing the country. "The political situation is tense," the letter said, "the economic situation chaotic and the social situation is unbearable for the majority of the people." The letter is structured around the four conditions for peace -- truth, justice, love and freedom -- outlined in John XXIII's social encyclical "Pacem in Terris."
In their letter the bishops noted that human dignity is under threat, due to its subordination to "political expediencies" and "material gain." Among the problems facing the country, the letter highlights hunger, disease, mistrust and fear. It also notes that the population is exploited and oppressed.
Regarding the need for a society built on truth -- the first condition cited in "Pacem in Terris" -- the bishops call for greater objectivity in the media, and for relationships among people to be built on truthfulness.
Regarding justice, the letter notes that many social and economic ills afflict the country. The bishops call for an end to unethical business practices and the unfair pricing of commodities. They also criticize the justice system for delays and inequalities.
Addressing the third condition of peace, the bishops call upon citizens "to go beyond tolerance and accept the demands of love." Zimbabwe's economic hardships have fostered a tendency to individualism, notes the letter. In these circumstances it is important, continues the letter, "to remember our moral responsibilities to our neighbors."
On this point they specifically criticized abuses in the land redistribution program. "The injustice of greed has made some people to acquire more than one farm. In some cases some families were forcibly removed from their farms and farmhouses without being allowed to take their basic belongings. This is sinful and evil and everyone is answerable for his or her actions to God."
Concerning the last condition, freedom, the letter states: "If people are forced to act in fear, coerced, bribed, it is acting against principles of freedom and peace." Some past choices were wrong and it is now necessary to rectify matters. To do so the bishops call for a reflection to be carried out "without fear or favor."
John Paul II has also kept an eye on the situation in Zimbabwe. Last May 15, when the new ambassador of Zimbabwe to the Vatican, Kelebert Nkomani, presented his credentials, the Pope used the opportunity to speak of the need for cooperation between the Church and the state "to build a truly just and stable society."
The Holy Father also recalled the contribution the Church in Zimbabwe is making in the areas of health, education and social services and noted: "This is part of the contribution that the Church seeks to make to the human development of individuals and peoples, especially those who are most in need."
For governments to cope with their problems today, the Pope said, "the values of democracy, good government, human rights, dialogue and peace must be close to the heart of leaders and peoples." Echoing the principles of "Pacem in Terris," he observed that the neglect of these values will render the government "unable to create an environment that fosters truth, justice, love and freedom."
John Paul II expressed his concern over the administration of justice in Zimbabwe. "Public authorities must refrain from exercising partiality, preferential treatment or selective justice in favor of certain individuals or groups," he warned. And on the question of land redistribution, the Pope recalled the 1997 document "Towards a Better Distribution of Land," published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. "It is an error to think," he said, citing No. 45 of that document, "that any real benefit or success will come simply by expropriating large landholdings, dividing them into smaller production units and distributing them to others."
The Pope concluded by pledging Church support "for all efforts to construct a culture of dialogue rather than confrontation, of reconciliation rather than conflict." Words that the Mugabe government would do well to heed.