The politics of religion in Zimbabwe: land, agriculture and citizenship

Religion and politics have always had a close relationship. The early European missionaries provided a platform for the establishment of the colonial state and a modernising vision, while today the Pentecostal denominations along with the prophets from indigenous African churches are influential both in national politics and in local land politics. Meanwhile, although not as visible as before and to some extent incorporated into syncretic forms of Christian religious practices, traditional forms of religion remain significant to livelihood practices, informed by their connections with the spirit world.

Traditional, ‘ecological’ religion

In different ways religions of all stripes are deeply connected to land and resources. Traditional forms of religious practice highlight the importance of ancestral and wider territorial spirits. In some important ways, traditional beliefs are deeply ecological, with spirits defining territories, controlling rain and protecting particular sites – whether sacred groves or pools, where spirit mermaids (njuzu) reside. Angry spirits can destroy lives and livelihoods it is believed and must be appeased through appropriate forms of supplication and strictly managed religious ceremonies led by spirit mediums.

Across large swathes of the country, collections (rusengwe) were made led by spirit messengers (nyusa) who would travel to the Njelele shrine in Matabeland near one of our sites in Matobo. Such contributions would assure good rains and successful harvests for those communities. During the liberation war, the enlistment of key territorial spirits (mhondoro) provided the support for the guerrilla fighters as they fought to liberate the country. Meanwhile, hunters would draw on the assistance of particular ancestral spirits during the expedition, allowing them to hide from their prey before the kill. Land and resource control were centrally about religious adherence and practice, as the material and spirit world were always connected.

As people have converted to Christianity, such beliefs and practices are not so obvious today, but as a subterranean set of beliefs deeply rooted in culture they are never far away. The appeal of some of the new prophets lies in particular with mimicking traditional practices, dress and ritual as a way of extending their appeal. Spiritual forms of Pentecostal Christian religion show many overlaps, and even Roman Catholic fathers are reported to link their preaching in a flexible way to traditional forms.

Many churches are incorporating kurova guva ceremonies (bringing the spirit back some time after death to be sure it is not angry and revengeful) into their practices, ensuring peace and harmony with the spirit world – an important contributor to successful agricultural livelihoods. Syncretism and hybridity are the watchwords today.

Religion and the politics of the domestic sphere

The politics of religion are also evident in the domestic sphere, influencing in particular gender relations and inheritance. This has important implications for access to land and resources, especially for women. While Zimbabwe has progressive legislation on inheritance on the statute books, how this implemented varies widely.

For some churches accepting that women can inherit land on the death of husband is anathema, as women are assumed to take on subservient roles to men. Justified by ‘African tradition’, this is especially obvious in the Johanne Marange Apostolic church, where polygamous practices mean husbands often have multiple wives, all of whom work together for the family, along with their children. Amongst the wider network of Apostolic prophet churches similar beliefs are held, but this does not prevent entrepreneurial women become prophets themselves, often with significant church followings.

Conservative views on gender relations are evident too amongst the Pentecostal churches and some Protestant churches, but how inheritance plays out in practice is often involves a political tussle at the family level and outcomes vary. By contrast, more progressive views are expressed by other churches, with women involved in religious activity, although often in a minor role compared to men despite proclamations about empowerment and transformation.

Gender relations therefore remain a site of political contention across churches, and whether women gain access to resources and are empowered independently varies greatly.

Politics, parties and religion

Given the importance of religion in everyday life in Zimbabwe, it is no surprise, then, that politicians position themselves carefully. For example, the former president Robert Mugabe was a committed Catholic, educated by Jesuits in mission schools, while the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa has deep associations with the Methodists, while regularly praising other churches. Meanwhile, Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the opposition, and notably from a different generation, is a pastor and preacher linked to the AFM, and has become embroiled in the church’s in-fighting.

All political leaders make a point of being visibly present at significant events held by other churches than their own, and regularly consult with church leaders. The Pentecostal churches, as noted in the first blog in this series, often attract an educated elite often with business and professional connections. With significant funds at their disposal and with powerful, influential followers they cannot be ignored. Church leaders’ sermons (such as from Prophet Walter Magaya PHD (Prophetic Healing and Deliverance) Ministries and Emmanuel Makandiwa for UFIC (United Families International Church) are listened to attentively for their political proclamations. The same applies to the ZCC, an African indigenous church again with huge assets and influence and important followers. The Apostolic churches have a rather different following and so political constituency but remain very significant politically in many parts of the country, making mobilising church leaders and followers a key part of any election campaign, as happened in 2018.

Church leaders with significant followings are sometimes drawn into political wrangles, such as during the establishment of the Government of National Unity. Arbitration and brokerage are all part of the role of church leaders in order to maintain national peace. As one of our informants commented, the practices associated with the death of Queen Elizabeth II were all about assuring peace and stability (and of course the maintenance of a ruling elite) but managed through religious ritual authorised by to the state.  

Most of the new churches studiously ally themselves with the government of the day, gaining benefits in terms of political patronage as a result, as well as protection of their assets from expropriation, including land. Mobilising followers in advance of elections is often a feature of this association with political authority.

Troublesome priests

However, this supportive relationship with the state is not a certainty. The appeal of opposition politics among the more urban, elite Christian protestant and Pentecostal churches is a case in point. Other churches have taken a stridently independent stand, especially in recent years, although different factions and struggles over co-optation exist.

Some Anglican bishops spoke out over the violence following the 2018 election, calling for calm; others towed the ruling party line, resulting in serious divisions within the community. The Roman Catholic church has had a long tradition of association with struggles from below, including very visible support to the liberation struggle.

The Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace spoke out early about the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland through its landmark report, Breaking the Silence, in 1997. The publishing houses associated with the church have long offered outlets for critique of the state, whether through popular magazines such as Moto or the string of publications that came from Mambo Press in Gweru.

Changing religious and so political landscapes

Religious and political affiliations are closely connected therefore and so religion has a huge impact on how state authority is claimed and citizenship defined. As the religious landscape changes, notably with the rise of Pentecostal and African indigenous churches, so does politics and citizenship.

For example, the preaching of self-reliance and autonomy by the Apostolic faith churches affects people’s relationships with the state, with followers rejecting standard medical advice (rejecting medicine and vaccines in the pandemic, for example) or not committing to formal education, a feature of most Zimbabwean’s aspirations since the colonial period.

In these debates, land and agriculture are never far from the surface. As discussed in the previous blog, many institutionalised Christian churches have significant land holdings, with major investments linked to agriculture, as well as other businesses. Some of these holdings were inherited from the colonial era, while others have been established more recently. All reflect a particular relationship between church and state, which has changed over time. Some church lands were taken during the land reform, but churches that were in political favour lost little, and some have continued to accumulate through close connections to the party-state.

While the forms of territorial land control and ancestral spirit supplication are no longer as evident, certainly within the African indigenous churches the role of the spirit world is central and biblical teachings on land and agriculture remain significant across all denominations. Religious beliefs thus construct relationships to land and resources in particular ways, with important political implications – which is why all politicians from whatever background must pay close attention to how religious identities and positions are changing, particularly as elections loom.

This blog was first published on Zimbabweland and was compiled by Ian Scoones. It is the third blog in a short series – see also here and here It is informed by contributions from Judy Bwerinofa (Triangle), Jacob Mahenehene (Chikombedzi), Makiwa Manaka (Chatsworth), Bulisie Mlotshwa (Matobo), Felix Murimbarimba (Masvingo/Hippo Valley), Moses Mutoko (Wondedzo) and Vincent Sarayi (Mvurwi)

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