Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Laughing at Power: Religion, Violence and Politics in Harare’s Budiriro Suburbs.

By Takura Zhangazha*


Religion has always been integral to Zimbabwean politics.  In fact it has been a launch pad for political consciousness in various phases of our national history. Whether one refers to the ‘Traditional’, ‘Orthodox’,   ‘Pentecostal’ , 'Islamic' or  ‘Apostolic’ these varying strands of religious persuasion have invariably had a direct effect on how our national politics is conducted or understood. 


There is probably no greater recent evidence of this than this week's  Budiriro incident where members of an African Apostolic church, Johanne Masowe Echishanu sect  violently clashed with the police in Harare.  And in somewhat revenge fashion, the ruling party’s youths descended, in the company of the police,  on the church’s shrine a couple of days later not only to denounce it, but to reassert some sort of political authority on religious practice. 


The public debate that has ensued, as reported by the mainstream media, has been largely characterized by sentiments reflecting a specific ridiculing of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP). Mainly on the basis of the latter’s public profile as a police force that is considered as one that regularly violates human rights and functions on a politically partisan basis.  So the public sentiment has been aggregated, by the media, as being that of the ZRP getting its ‘comeuppance.’


Some civil society organizations such as the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR)  and other legal experts have weighed in with  assessments of the unfortunate incident. They have argued in favour of the rule of law while also questioning the locus standi of the head of the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe to seek to ban another church in terms of the new constitution and other legal instruments. What is however evident is that the new constitution is neither known nor viewed with any popular seriousness as to its importance. 


The incident however has multiple meanings beyond the legal.  And that is why it has been such a hit on social media as well as the NewsDay website that first published videos and pictures of the violence.


There is however limited reason to doubt the connection of this specific church or those that sought to ban it to the political establishment. The finer and possibly final details of the connections or alleged abuse of children must be left to the courts to judge or the media to investigate in the democratic public interest. 


What is evident is that since the catastrophic economic meltdown that began in  1997, there has been a much more energetic phase of religious practice and conduct in the Zimbabwean way of life. A phase that is more publicly visible and even publicly defended/justified simply on the basis of faith. 


Such religious trends have been referred to by anthropologists as being part and parcel of millennial capitalism. Especially where and when such religious fervour dominates the social lives of a significant portion of a populace  and is characterised by political courtship of previously ignored religious movements/ sects.


 Hence in the run up to the last general election in July 2013 we were not too surprised to see the main presidential candidates sitting in the midst of popular African Apostolic church gatherings soliciting for votes. To the extent that we could not avoid laughing at the spectacle of what politicians can do to get votes. Even where it presumably involved faith and belief.


The social media angle has been that of humour and memory of how politics comes full circle. There is knowledge that the African Apostolic churches have long been the turf of Zanu Pf politicians.  



The humour however has transcended the partisan and become more akin to general ridicule at the political establishment.  Largely as a form of resistance to the same said establishment.  As argued by African academic  Achille Mbembe in his seminal essay/book, ‘On the Post Colony’, laughing at power or the ridiculous exposure of its vulnerability is a general habit of those that are oppressed.


The Budiriro incident is therefore evidence of how the state interacts with the personal.  Not from a legal perspective. But instead from understanding the current placement  of the Zimbabwean 'underbelly'.  


If one undertook an assessment of the life stations of those that worshiped at this shrine in Budiriro, it is probable that they are considered to be part of the ‘low rungs’ of the Zimbabwean economic ladder.


Together with the probable coincidence of their willingness to seek political protection via electoral support to political parties, these worshipers have become opinion cannon fodder for the purposes of entertainment.  And is typical of the poor in Zimbabwe, they are tragically regarded as a measurement of ‘how not to do anything’. In the process, their story is lost in the conundrum of self righteous judgment.


But back to the role that religion plays in our national political psyche.  The interaction between the state and Church has been laid bare in a glaring manner with the Budiriro incident.  The Church in its various forms is not a neutral arbiter in the affairs of the country.


Both by way of its complicity in electoral campaigns and results.  Or by way of the protection it expects from sitting governments. Be it ‘Orthodox’, ‘Pentecostal’, ‘Traditional’,  African ‘Apostolic’ or ‘Islamic’   where it avers from what the state wants, it becomes as vulnerable as the rest of us. Only to re-emerge either stronger or weaker in the next electoral campaign period. 
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)