Case of embattled archbishop in Zimbabwe becomes Rorschach test

New York

In one of the world’s most tightly controlled media environments, the truth on most matters is notoriously difficult to establish, a point that certainly applies to yesterday’s resignation of Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, following charges of an affair with a married woman.

The Vatican announced Sept. 11 that Pope Benedict XVI had accepted the resignation of Ncube, 60, the country’s most outspoken critic of Zimbabwe’s authoritarian leader, Robert Mugabe, whom the archbishop has repeatedly called a “megalomaniac.” Misrule under Mugabe is blamed for an escalating economic and political crisis, including widespread hunger, corruption, and human rights abuses.

Reports of an alleged tryst between Ncube and Rosemary Sibanda, a parish secretary in the Bulawayo cathedral, first surfaced in the Mugabe-controlled press in mid-July. Grainy still photos and video, apparently obtained from a hidden camera in the archbishop’s residence, show Sibanda in bed with a man identified by the state-run press as Ncube. The images, however, are of poor quality, and most experts believe positive identification is impossible.

Ncube has rejected the charges, though so far without an unambiguous denial of any relationship with Sibanda. Onesimus Sibanda, the woman’s husband, has filed a 20 billion dollar lawsuit against Ncube in the Zimbabwean currency, estimated to be worth about $80,000 in terms of real value.

In a statement yesterday, the archbishop said he had resigned in order to face the charges “as Pius Ncube, an individual, not that the holy Catholic Church of God should seem to be on trial because I am its head.” Ncube said he would devote himself to a new charity group, the Zimbabwe Humanitarian Support Trust, intended to bring food and medical relief to the country’s poor.

The case has rapidly become a Rorschach test for public opinion, with various parties drawing conclusions even in the absence of conclusive evidence. Pro-Mugabe media assert that Ncube has been disgraced; Zimbabwe’s information minister, Bright Matonga, yesterday said Ncube’s resignation is “proof of his guilt, and we hope that God will forgive his sins.”

Supporters of the archbishop, meanwhile, claim the charges amount to a smear campaign. Ncube said yesterday he was the victim of “a state-driven vicious attack not only on myself, but, by proxy, on the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe.”

Some Western observers seem initially inclined to take the reports seriously – based either on generalized perceptions that clerical celibacy is only spottily enforced in Africa, or as an extension of sexual abuse scandals in the United States and elsewhere. Some Africans, meanwhile, see the clash between Mugabe and Ncube in tribal terms, since Mugabe is a member of one of the two main rival ethnic groups in Zimbabwe, the Shona, while Ncube comes from the other, the Ndebele. According to this school of thought, pro-Mugabe Shona tribesman conspired to frame Ncube.

It hasn’t helped matters that a private detective purportedly hired by the husband to investigate the alleged affair is a Shona tribesman, Ernest Tekere, who is also a former employee of Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organization reportedly linked to anti-Ndebele atrocities in the 1980s. Some observers believe Tekere was actually put on the case by Mugabe in order to discredit Ncube.

Ncube yesterday told Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, that he would “never admit” that the photos are authentic. Ncube also said that he would not have resigned on his own, but did so in obedience to a request from Benedict XVI.

Just nine days ago, the Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe issued a stirring defense of Ncube, asserting in a Sept. 3 statement that the charges against him were “outrageous and utterly deplorable” and “constitute an assault on the Catholic Church.” Yesterday, however, the conference issued a brief statement simply confirming Ncube’s resignation.

The Catholic Information Service for Africa, a Kenya-based news agency operated by a consortium of Catholic missionary orders, yesterday published an editorial calling the charges against Ncube “unproven.” The editorial concluded, “Archbishop Ncube’s pledge to continue the struggle should energize Catholics and all Zimbabweans as they work harder to bring to an end the tragic crisis in the once prosperous southern African nation.”

If the merits of the charges against Ncube are difficult to ascertain, it’s also unclear what his future may hold. He’s vowed to continue to press the case for political reform.

“I have not been silenced by the crude machinations of a wicked regime,” he said in a statement issued from his office in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second biggest city. “I am committed to promoting the social teachings of the Church, and to working among the poorest and most needy in Zimbabwe.”

The Archbishop Pius Ncube Solidarity Coalition, a group bringing together about 60 civic organizations, said in a statement yesterday that it would continue to back the archbishop despite his resignation.

“We take comfort in the fact that he is going to continue his campaign for democracy, justice and freedom,” the statement read. “He is an important voice that must always be heard.”

Ncube’s role as a focal point for opposition to Mugabe dates to the 1980s, when he witnessed massacres in Matebeland, the region around Bulawayo, carried out under orders from Mugabe. The Zimbabwean army, at the time assisted by advisors from North Korea, is said to have killed at least 20,000 people, including unarmed civilians, in a crackdown on a rival political faction.

In April, Ncube led the country’s bishops in issuing a pastoral letter that unambiguously told Mugabe that he should step down or face “open revolt.” At the time, Mugabe warned that the bishops were embarking on a “dangerous course.”

Ironically, Mugabe himself is a baptized Catholic who was educated in Jesuit institutions, and who claims to be a regular Mass-goer. Just days ago, he made a donation of 300,000 Zimbabwean dollars, or roughly U.S. $1,000, to the church-run Marian Association, a group of Catholic women in Zimbabwe.

The search for a replacement for Ncube in Bulawayo may be complicated by the fact that the papal representative in Zimbabwe, American Archbishop Edward Joseph Adams, has recently been appointed the new nuncio in the Philippines.

Under the terms of the Code of Canon Law, Ncube has resigned from the Bulawayo archdiocese but remains a Catholic archbishop.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here