Denying Mugabe a Grip-and-Grin

Ahead of meeting the South African prime minister John Vorster in 1970, Archbishop Michael Ramsey frowned repeatedly into a mirror. Asked to explain, Ramsey said he was determined not to show even the semblance of a smile while photographed in the company of the apartheid leader and needed to practice setting his face. It was a difficult meeting and no common ground emerged. According to his biographer, Ramsey later told his chaplain it had been “the worst day of my life.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams and his aides have prepared meticulously for his meeting with Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, including advance thought about press pictures. He was well aware that Mugabe uses photographs for propaganda purposes. By entering the State House in Harare without exchanging words with his host, Archbishop Williams denied him of a happy-face photo opportunity, or what many journalists call a grip-and-grin.

His preparation was thorough in other respects too. Most important was how Mugabe propaganda could present the second citizen of the United Kingdom as if he were an agent of a former imperial power. As a counterweight three African archbishops — Albert Chama of Central Africa, Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town and Valentino Mokiwa of Tanzania — joined Archbishop Williams in meeting Mugabe.

Their objective was to ask the Zimbabwean president to use his powers to stop continued attacks by agents of Norbert Kunonga, deposed Bishop of Harare, on Anglican clergy and worshipers and confiscating church property in contravention of court orders. Archbishop Williams handed Mugabe a 10-page dossier [PDF] detailing these attacks. The dossier also carried the signatures of Archbishop Chama, the five Anglican bishops in Zimbabwe (Chad Nicholas Gandiya, Harare; Cleophas Lunga, Matabeleland; Julius Tawona Makoni, Manicaland; Ishmael Mukuwanda, Central Zimbabwe; and Godfrey Taonezvi, Masvingo) and Trevor Selwyn Mwamba, Bishop of Botswana.

“We have asked in the clearest possible terms that the president use his powers as head of state to put an end to all unacceptable and illegal behaviour,” Archbishop Williams told reporters afterward. “It was a very candid meeting, disagreements were expressed clearly, but I think in a peaceful manner.”

The dossier described unprovoked attacks on the church including the murder of a woman, detention of clergy at weekends that prevented their leading worship, beating of elderly nuns, takeover of church schools and imposition of unqualified teachers with disastrous effects on educational standards. It detailed the costs involved for rental of alternative premises after takeovers of diocesan offices.

“Every week tens of thousands of Anglicans are denied their basic right to worship because of the lies and falsifications being propagated by the now excommunicated former bishop, Dr. Kunonga, and his associates,” the dossier said.

In the lead up a pro-Konunga spokesman tried to cast the visit by Archbishop Williams as an effort to promote a pro-gay agenda. Outside the meeting the deposed bishop’s supporters held up banners with that message. The dossier addressed that accusation: “We also totally reject the misrepresentation of our church as not holding to the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage.”

The dossier concluded: “Despite all of the abuses and intimidation we continue to humbly serve our communities in every way we can. We seek peace and reconciliation for all in our country and desire to play a role in promoting healing and prosperity for this great nation Zimbabwe.”

In the weeks before the meeting British reporters were uncustomarily supportive in their coverage, praising Archbishop Williams for speaking more directly than British politicians about Zimbabwe. But, then, in many ways Archbishop Ramsey is his role model.

John Martin in London

Zimbabwe Dossier


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