COLUMN | Rising above Zimbabwe’s toxic mix of religion and politics

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

By Takura Zhangazha

Religion has always been integral to Zimbabwe’s national consciousness, historically and in the contemporary. 

From what is widely accepted as fact, the majority of Zimbabwe’s liberation heroes and leaders had religious backgrounds. From Mbuya Nehanda, Lobengula, Chaminuka through to our modern nationalists, the prospect of a better Zimbabwe had a narrative embedded in religious parlance.

Initially based on African traditional perceptions of what links everyday existence and the afterlife, through to the missionary Christian education as linked to colonialist hegemony, the ideal society appears to have been based on one or the other religious philosophy. This is based either on identity or assumptions of modern colonial modern progress, especially via missionary education.

It is as contradictory as it can be considered an oxymoron, more so when in our liberation struggle we mixed the two to good effect. The missionary-educated liberation leaders, the spirit mediums, and the socialist-trained comrades combined to win the country from minority settler government. 

The ideological result was almost a combination of everything. History met with modern nationalism, and both met with African Traditional Values and Christianity. This is a general interaction that is still playing out today. African traditional religion is ironically playing an abstract, limited role, even after independence, particularly in relation to Christianity in its three major forms, at least as defined by historical developments in the global north.  

These formats being; Orthodox (established churches such as the Catholic, Anglican or Methodist church institutions), Pentecostal (as imported from the United States of America) and with reference to our context, African Pentecostalism (as hybrid versions of the latter but led by Black Africans).

But this is not a write-up on the history of religion in Zimbabwe. What is more significant is the reality of its occurrence among us, and how it has had a fundamental impact on our assumptions of national consciousness, particularly one we would want to consider progressive. 

Our national politicians have fallen over themselves seeking endorsements from religious organisations, not only for electoral purposes, but also as validation for their national political leadership, both technically and spiritually. 

What they inadvertently do in their search for votes or validation is that they promote a continuing ambiguity between religion and secular politics. This is understandable for comrades that are not visionary about the future of the country. It remains the easier option to harness religious sentiment to a specific electoral campaign.

Yet, it misses the key point of the historical importance of religion in national consciousness that should not remain static. We must always recognise the ideological and value-laden role of both African traditional religion and Christianity in the historical fact of our liberation.  

Our challenge is, however, the fact that we should stop instrumentalising desires for faith for political purposes, especially for ephemeral political purposes such as elections. 

But it’s a reality that we know we must live with, because churches/religions, whatever their denominations, are essentially a reflection of corporate entities and have historically always been embedded with the state and private capital in creating a specific version of a reality that we eventually cannot resist, even if we wanted to.  

This is all because of what Gramsci referred to as hegemony. We can only resist it individually, or in collectives that still have limited impact on the state of affairs in our national political economy. 

What is important is for us to begin to question the toxic mix of politics and religion that appears to be gaining credence in our national consciousness. 

Whereas religion provided an ideological base for our liberation struggle, it is no longer enough that we fail to expand it to a newer critical national consciousness, based on the same said history.

There are three key points that I would like to conclude by. The first is that religion helps in forming an ‘other regarding’ consciousness. In most religions, the family is considered the ‘basic unit of society’. This means while we consider family as fundamental to our existence, it remains important that we understand that we all have families and therefore we need to be a holistic national family and, therefore, look after each other. 

The second key point is that religion is not static. Churches have split and prophets have been accused of varying criminal acts. Religious philosophies have changed over time. But it is important to continue to separate religion and politics, and retain the value of a secular state as beneficial to everyone.  

Mixing religion and politics has added political expediency, but it generally does not end well. 

Finally, we need to stop being abstract about our political-economic realities. There is no religious book that will solve our problems, no matter how much we pray, in whatever faith, or with whatever leader who shares our specific faith. 

Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (