By the Rev. Mark Michael
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Rt. Rev. John Osmers served as a chaplain to exiled South African anti-apartheid activists. Today, he is among the leading advocates for Zambia’s 6,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees, who still wait to be fully integrated into Zambian society after fleeing their country’s genocide in 1994.
Osmers, the retired Anglican Bishop of Eastern Zambia and a native of New Zealand, has lived and worked in Africa for about 50 years.
“When you’ve had my experiences, you feel quite close to refugees,” Osmers said.
Based in Lusaka, Osmers works tirelessly, writing articles in the Zambian press and meeting with government officials and embassy staff. His goal is securing local integration status for the refugees, a provision under Zambian law that would allow them to own land and enjoy freedom of movement and employment. Local integration would give the Rwandans a permanent place in a nation that has long prided itself on offering political asylum to fellow Africans fighting for justice.
The push for local integration has come to what Osmers calls a “painful impasse” in the last several years. In 2013 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees officially declared it safe for refugees to return to Rwanda. Under Zambian law, refugees who wish to stay in the country need to obtain passports from their home countries, and the Rwandan government has refused to grant these. Among Rwandans living in Zambia, there are widespread fears of forced repatriation to a country where they still expect to face discrimination and violence.
Bishop Osmers sees strong connections between the current situation faced by the refugees and his past struggles against South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime. “I’ve been seeing very, very close parallels between the oppression of the white apartheid state on the black population with the Rwandan situation, where you have a minority Tutsi ruling with very tight control over the Hutu,” he said. “They have very, very little freedom in terms of participation or access to employment and a better standard of life.”
Osmers believes the Rwandan government is deploying agents inside Zambia to silence refugee activists, some of whom are highly educated and represent a credible political threat. Osmers said he has been targeted.
“We’ve even been seeing acts of repression, even outside Rwanda. Even here in Lusaka, we’ve had attacks on individuals. Two friends of mine, who are student refugee activists, were shot, one in the shoulder and one in the eye, some years back by Rwandan agents. In October last year, there was evidence that there was an attempt to kidnap five Rwandan leaders from Lusaka, including myself,” he said with a wry smile and a chuckle. “We actually saw the etiquettes [protocols] they were supposed to be using. There have been numbers of people killed in Lusaka, we expect by Rwandan agents. We don’t believe that things are actually improving at all.”
Well into his 80s, nearly blind, and barely able to walk, Osmers may not seem a likely target for terrorist plots. But the bishop is widely revered within Zambia. Since he lost his left hand to a South African package bomb in 1979, many have considered him a living martyr. Though outwardly feeble, his voice rings out with clearness and conviction. Well over six feet tall, he carries himself with dignity.
“We have a wonderful faith,” he said, “in the power of the risen Christ: going through all the darkness of rejection and torture and finally a brutal killing in the crucifixion and then to the glory of the resurrection.
“This gave me an invincible faith that, one day, apartheid would come to an end because it was a total system of racist discrimination, a crime against humanity. I see the same with Rwanda. I believe that change can come, and in the meantime we have to support those outside that country who need education, who need to find jobs, who need to become part, for the time being, of the Zambian nation.”
Osmers uses connections forged across a lifetime of ministry to open new educational and job opportunities for refugees. He coordinates college scholarships for the children of Rwandan refugees, many of whom have lived all their lives in Zambia. Many of the Rwandan exiles were intellectuals at the time of the genocide. In contrast to the subsistence farmers who have formed the bulk of the refugees Zambia has welcomed from other crises in the region, the Rwandans highly value quality education. Their young people, however, do not qualify for the Zambian government’s tuition grants.
Educational work has long been at the center of his ministry. As a parish priest in several African nations, he was a leader in the church schools movement and developed innovative catechetical programs. After an early retirement as Bishop of Eastern Zambia he served for several years as dean of St. John’s Anglican Seminary in Kitwe, Zambia.
Today his efforts focus on securing funding for Rwandans to train as senior nurses, teachers, and physiotherapists. The refugee crisis in the Middle East has made this work more difficult, as many of his most important partners, especially the United Nations and the German government, have turned their attention elsewhere.
Born into a prominent New Zealand family, Osmers first came to Africa in 1958, his conscience fired by Naught for Your Comfort, an anti-apartheid exposé published two years earlier by Trevor Huddleston. Huddleston was an Anglican monk then working in Sophiatown, a black slum district in Johannesburg. Osmers spent time with Huddleston, seeing the effects of apartheid firsthand, and resolved to return to Africa after ordination to join the struggle.
He came to Lesotho at Huddleston’s urging as a mission priest in 1965; he has lived on the continent ever since, “a refugee myself,” he joked. In Lesotho, he served in rural parishes and as a leader in the Student Christian Movement, then an important force for justice activism. Suspicious of his work, the South African government banned him from entering the country in 1970, a restriction that was not lifted for more than 20 years.
After the 1976 Soweto Uprising, anti-apartheid advocates fled South Africa en masse, and some resettled near his parish in Lesotho. “I was helping them with education, and with their meetings, and with international help,” he said. His assistance to the ANC members, as well as his criticism of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s decision to support chaplains in the defense force, drew the hostility of the South African Bureau of State Security. Security operatives planted a bomb in a package of ANC literature sent to his home in 1979. It exploded as he opened it, taking his left arm.
Osmers went on the offense after the attack, making an extensive tour of his native New Zealand to speak against the apartheid system, waving his stump of an arm as a symbol of the regime’s brutality. He was not allowed back into Lesotho, and was forced to abandon his parish and his many friends, an experience he recalled as “very traumatic.”
He relocated to Lusaka, where he worked even more closely with ANC leaders who had flocked to the capital, a widely known haven for African freedom fighters. There he led what he called “two separate lives.” He presided at Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Sundays, while secretly serving as chaplain to the ANC’s senior leadership. If Anglicans served as chaplains to the South African regime, he reasoned, the case for praying for the liberators must be just as strong.
Soon Osmers was reposted to Molepolole, Botswana, where he was the only member of the ANC not in hiding. He served there until 1988, when he had to flee a death squad sent by South Africa’s Bureau of State Security. He had just three hours’ notice and escaped with only a small bag of clothes.
He returned to Zambia, where he is widely regarded as a hero. He was elected bishop of the new Diocese of Eastern Zambia in 1995. He accepted the position only with great reluctance and retired six years later to allow a native Zambian to succeed him.
Osmers was named a Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007 for his services to the anti-apartheid movement. During the Anglican Consultative Council’s meeting in Lusaka, the Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town, honored him with the Archbishop’s Award for Peace for his “lifelong work as a faithful servant of God.” He is the subject of A Helping Hand, a South African Broadcasting Co. documentary from 2012.
“The life of faith is very challenging,” Osmers said. “When we look at Christ, who comes to us in our neighbor, in unexpected people and places, meeting us in the needs of others, it’s not enough to be giving care. One needs to be attacking injustice in a systematic way. … We have to work with others, encourage others, learn from others, as we work for Christ’s justice, freedom, and truth.”