Zimbabwe politicians chase the religious vote

Charismatic religious leaders in Zimbabwe are drawing increasingly large crowds willing to do as they are told. (Philimon Bulawayo, Reuters)

Charismatic religious leaders in Zimbabwe are drawing increasingly large crowds willing to do as they are told. (Philimon Bulawayo, Reuters)

In the supercharged political atmosphere leading up to Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, a letter pinned in the foyer of Harare’s Sacred Heart Cathedral marked the turning point in relations between the mainstream Catholic Church and Robert Mugabe’s government. 

In the letter, titled “God Hears the Cries of the Oppressed”, the Catholic Bishops Conference accused Mugabe of repression similar to that of Pharaoh. They warned Mugabe, a devout Catholic, that he faced a “mass uprising” if he did not “repent”.

The criticism hit Mugabe hard and now he and his opponents seem to be looking elsewhere for the religious vote. They are taking the battle to the open-air spaces and sports arenas where the charismatic church movement is on a roll.

At the Anglican Cathedral of St Mary’s and All Saints in Harare, the pews are largely empty most Sundays. The church, torn apart by a political fight for control, has been deserted by its members. In contrast, the United Family International Church, led by Emman­uel Makandiwa, a young preacher in his 30s, draws up to 40 000 to his Sunday services at an arena on the outskirts of the city. At Easter, he drew more than 100000 to the country’s largest football stadium for a mass all-night prayer.

For politicians these numbers are hard to resist and among the throng were representatives from all sides. Seeing his opportunity, Zanu-PF’s political commissar, Webster Shamu, appeared on stage in a white suit to sing a Sam Cooke gospel song.

Swamped by politicians
Although Makandiwa himself has appeared at government events, including at a rally against Western sanctions, he has tried to steer clear of politics. But, like many pastors, he finds himself swamped by politicians hoping to share some of their glitter.

The charismatic leaders have become so popular with politicians that Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi described Makandiwa and other charismatic pastors as a “tourist attraction”.

With their ability to draw huge crowds, he said, “we are in for some serious domestic tourism with all its national benefits and value”.

Editors have also found that newspapers sell better when the activities and “prophecies” of the popular church leaders are carried on their front pages, instead of the more weighty issues such as constitutional reform and party politics. As a result, the “prophets” are dominating the front pages.

They have a strong hold on their followers and, should the pastors endorse candidates, their flock is likely to vote for them.

Prayer for peace
Mugabe may have seen this coming and moved early. In 2010 he appeared at an open-air mass gathering of a large Apostolic sect, complete in the white gown and staff that is the trademark of sect worshippers. Members of the church usually form a large part of the crowd at rallies and other national events.

Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been attending a series of “prayer for peace” rallies - mass prayer meetings organised by the Zimbabwe National Pastors’ Conference, a grouping of mostly Pentecostal church leaders.
He has professed his faith and told the gatherings that Zimbabwe’s problems would be eased by prayer.

Political analyst Blessing Vava said: “It is nothing new. Zanu-PF has been using every platform to gain political mileage. They have been into music, soccer, churches and, of late, clothing to try to lure as many followers as possible.

“Makandiwa is a good target because he commands a huge following.”

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