The National Catholic Review

The people of Zambia voted on Dec. 27, 2001, in the election of a new president, members of Parliament and local councilors. Though the president gained only 29 percent of the vote and none of the 10 major parties gained a majority, the stage is set for a new direction in Zambian politics. Questions continue to be asked about the free and fair nature of the elections, but at least the principles of democratic governance, which have been championed by the churches, among others, remain central.

The past decade has been marked by the increasingly active role of the churches in African politics. People had come to expect churches to remain somewhat unnoticed in the political realm, perhaps since the churches’ role in anti-colonial protests had been at best ambiguous. As a result, Zambia’s churches did not feel confident in their ability to criticize new African leaders who might regard them with suspicion.

As part of the lead-up to the recent Zambian elections, officials of the Catholic Church, including the archbishop of Lusaka, Medardo Mazombwe, campaigned vigorously (and ultimately successfully) with other churches and nongovernmental organizations against a proposed amendment to the country’s constitution, which would enable Dr. Frederick Chiluba to be a candidate for a third term as president.

In some respects, the political involvement of the Catholic Church in Zambian politics is not entirely new. But in the eyes of many Zambians, the Catholic Church’s role has become clearer, moving from a position of apparent neutrality to a point where it is now regarded as the most outspoken of the Zambian churches.

This perceived change in political outlook can be attributed, in the long term, to the Second Vatican Council and to the waves of liberation theology that followed the council. More immediately, however, it may be derived from the fact that as the political leadership lost credibility in the 1970’s and early 80’s, the church gained the people’s confidence.

In 1953, when Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) was amalgamated with Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) and Malawi (Nyasaland) to form what came to be known as the Central African Federation, the situation was very different. The nationalist leaders enjoyed the wide support of their people, while the Catholic Church struggled to maintain credibility. At that time, a Catholic spokesperson wrote: Provided there is no question of principle involved, it is the practice of Catholic missionaries to take no part in advocating or opposing contentious political solutions. This somewhat apolitical approach characterized much of the Catholic Church during the early 20th century in Africa. In this era, the church perceived itself to be above politics and was looked upon with ambivalence, especially by African nationalists.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Catholic Church, like many churches at the time, received land grants from the colonial administrators for missionary work. Cecil Rhodes, one of the entrepreneurial giants of the British colonial era, invited churches, the Catholic Church among them, into his newly acquired territories. Subsequently, the Catholic Church worked closely with colonial governments, particularly in British Africa, to provide education and health care for the local populations.

Nationalists generally agreed that the churches had contributed much to the education, health care and welfare of their people, and for this they were grateful. Yet when it came to being critical of the colonial setup in a systemic and institutionalized way, the churches often remained silent, claiming, again, to be above politics.

Fortunately, at a less official level the situation could be different. In 1999, when Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, former president of the Republic of Zambia and an early leader of Zambian nationalists, was asked if he felt that the churches should have been more supportive of the nationalist cause, he said: I will not hesitate to say yes. They should have been more involved, but I think that the weakness of the church as a whole was taken care of by what individual priests did.

Dr. Kaunda had in mind the support he had received from people like Fathers Paddy Walsh, Bob Thompson and others within the Catholic Church, as well as a number of clergymen from other Christian denominations, like Colin Morris and Melvyn Temple. Kaunda particularly commended the Catholic Church’s initiative in publishing a newspaper like The Leader, which featured articles that enabled Kaunda and other nationalists to articulate their perspectives. Furthermore, the statement of the bishops’ conference in 1958 was a political landmark, strongly criticizing the political system in its failure to respect the rights of individuals regardless of race or color.

After independence in 1964, the Catholic Church maintained an apparently satisfactory working relationship with the new government. Despite differences on the matter of the handover of primary schools, abortion legislation and repeated attempts to introduce scientific socialism in the 1970’s, the voice of the Catholic Church remained somewhat muted. This is not to say that the Catholic Church altogether failed to speak. Together with other mainline churches, it confronted the state on the attempted imposition of scientific socialism in 1979. But it was less clearly heard in the matter of the handover of primary schools and the introduction of abortion legislation.

In this postcolonial period, as the Catholic Church worldwide became more political after the Second Vatican Council and the emergence of liberation theology, it became less political in African countries, Zambia included. Even as Zambians assumed more leadership positions within the church, they rarely criticized their government openly, notwithstanding its tendency to become more totalitarian and atheistically socialist.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Catholic Church in many parts of Africa began to play a pivotal role in transforming single-party dictatorships into multiparty democratic states. This was true in Zambia as well. After the 1958 statement by the bishops on race relations, the next intervention of comparable momentthough more effectively communicatedcame after the food riots of June 1990. Much to the displeasure of then-President Kaunda, the years of respectful silence had ended. The church realized what it had suspected for some time: first, the government had lost touch with the people and, second, the church itself had sufficient everyday contact with rank-and-file citizens throughout the country to critique Kaunda’s leadership.

After the reintroduction of a multiparty state system in 1990, the Catholic Church continued to promote justice as the way to peace. This had special significance in a context in which those politicians who presented themselves as being so pluralistic in the early 1990’s found it difficult to countenance opposition within a year when they were in power.

One of the more high-profile roles the church has assumed in the past few years has been the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel the debts of developing countries like Zambia. The church focused on the potential injustices involved in forcing poor people unable to afford the basics of life to pay interest on loans from which they never profited. It also challenged political leaders not simply to create scapegoats (e.g., the debt burden and the pathetic legacy of the Second Republic inherited from the Kaunda years) but to act responsibly as a means of maintaining concern for the poor.

More recently, on Jan. 25, the Zambian bishops met with the newly elected president, Levy Mwanawasa, urging him to heal a deeply divided country. Zambia’s 10 opposition parties and international observers had accused Mwanawasa’s party of rigging the election held on Dec. 27, 2001. Stressing the need for constitutional reform, the bishops also stated that there is a perceived acceptance of corruption as the norm, not only in government but in the psyche of our people. They also said that President Mwanawasa will need great wisdom and resilience to bring the country out of its current state, noting Zambia’s deep-rooted social and economic problems.

From 1891 to 2002, the Catholic Church has attempted to spread the Christian faith among the various peoples of Zambia. It has progressively become more aware of its political role in securing and preserving people’s rights. With other churches, it has helped people to recognize and claim their rights to be heard in the corridors of state power. As a new president begins his administration and a new government begins in Zambia, the Catholic Church, which in conjunction with many others has done much to restore democracy, is challenged to ensure that a just and democratic system will be sustained.

Brendan Carmody, S.J., an Irish Jesuit who has worked in Zambia since 1972, has taught at the University of Zambia in Lusaka.