The Bishop at Peace

Zoé Samudzi

This article appears in Protean Magazine Issue IV: Special Relativity. Print copies are now available at our store.


In Zimbabwean culture, married women are often colloquially referred to by the prefix “mai-” appended to the name of their eldest child. I am my mother’s eldest biological daughter, but still her youngest child. For some reason, my great-uncle, Bishop Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa, used to call my mother “maiZoé” instead of using my brother’s name, “maiShingi.”

The Bishop was my paternal grandmother’s elder brother. I have warm memories of sitting and playing on the couch with him at my parents’ house, during the brief time in the mid-90s that he lived with my family in the United States. When we had our last phone conversation, not long before my high school graduation in May 2010, I knew he was dying of cancer.  

He passed away at his home in Harare in April of that year, just six days before his 85th birthday. Over the phone, and with a fondness for me still in his voice even in this weakened state, he told me how proud he was of me; I sobbed when we hung up. I distinctly remember his warm and easy smile, his tenderness and almost impossible sweetness. He was one of the loveliest men I’ve ever met.

My mother, prone to sentimentality, is always keen to share stories about her child- hood and young adulthood in Rhodesia—more so than my father, who is more reserved about those memories. I knew my great-uncle had been a prominent political figure, and both of my parents supplemented the repetitive obituaries from international outlets like the New York Times and The Guardian with historical context and personal anecdotes. But there were large parts of his brief political career that neither one of them had told me about, most likely because they thought I wouldn’t be able to fully understand.

In 2021, I read Luise White’s Fighting and Writing: The Rhodesian Army at War and Postwar for the first time—and was alarmed by what I discovered in the introduction. One page was filled with historical detail about the 1978 internal settlement between Ian Smith’s white minority government, which was losing the protracted guerrilla war for native independence, and “several domesticated African political parties,” including the United African National Congress (UANC) led by Bishop Muzorewa.

An election—which was boycotted by the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), the two parties participating in the armed struggle—was held in March 1979, and the Bishop, one of the victors, was elected prime minister through near-universal suffrage. Rhodesia became the short-lived Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and the war entered its last months. Aerial attacks intensified as part of an offensive by government forces, now led—on paper—by my beloved great-uncle.

On the next page of her introduction, White writes that “1978 and 1979 were a period of cross-border bombing raids” in which the Rhodesian Air Force bombarded guerrilla camps in Zambia and Mozambique. The operations were called “hot pursuit,” and the new government had inherited the tactic of chasing nationalist guerrillas back across their respective borders and strafing their camps.

But as White tells it, the Bishop “did whatever whites told him to do, which was to exert a level of force, especially airpower, that previously had not been deployed.” My mom told me that she recalls him exclaiming something like, “What a good way to start the day!” upon hearing news of a successful bombing raid. When he died, Western news media eulogized the clergyman as a “man of peace,” a figure roughly akin to South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But I now knew a truth about his legacy that I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend a decade earlier. Whether deliberate or not, the Bishop’s negotiation with the apartheid leadership had laundered the aims of a racist government and a white society at large that sought to neutralize more radical African nationalist forces. The British government had adopted a policy of “no independence before majority rule,” which would guide Rhodesia’s transition from minority to Black majority rule.

Rhodesia’s universal declaration of independence from the crown in 1965 was declared illegal and met with diplomatic alienation and the United Nations’ first-ever economic sanctions; the internal settlement that the Bishop had helped legitimize was intended to normalize international relations without ever actually transforming conditions for oppressed Black people in Rhodesia. This was easily the worst thing I’ve ever learned about someone I loved.

Commemorating the dead, whether celebrating their life or their demise, is a revealing exercise that tells us far more about the society that produced the individual than the person themselves. The death of F.W. de Klerk in 2021 led to jubilation among young South Africans, who celebrated the conservative former president’s passing on social media. I did too. But any grim satisfaction in his end was soon replaced by an unsettling feeling; certain ambivalences in the published eulogies left me disquieted.

De Klerk’s initial support for apartheid as part of the leadership of the last white-controlled South African administration was roundly condemned. But the obituaries’ framing seemed to imply that, owing to his later role in dismantling the apartheid system, he was a man dedicated to universal suffrage— or at the very least, a pragmatic recognition that white minority governance was no longer viable in the face of the international ostracization of apartheid South Africa, the pariah state.

The laudatory narratives of the eulogies were tightly focused on events in 1994 and afterwards. Inevitably accompanying them in print was the glowing photograph of de Klerk holding hands with South Africa’s first native head of state—the person with whom he shared a Nobel Peace Prize, Nelson Mandela. The New York Times, for example, described de Klerk’s alleged political about-face: his abandonment of the National Party (the party once led by his uncle J.G. Strijdom, the second apartheid-era Prime Minister) and his support for negotiations with the African National Congress. They overwhelmingly failed to mention that de Klerk was the Minister of Education from 1984 to 1989, a period during which he oversaw “Bantu education,” the educational system embedded within the segregated structure of “separate development” (de Klerk preferred this gentle euphemism to the harsh Afrikaans “apartheid”), which grossly disadvantaged native learners.

The panegyrics in the Western press also failed to mention that the National Intelligence Services, Security Police, and other organs of the apartheid state systematically destroyed reams of documents that implicated the de Klerk government—the same government widely celebrated for embracing the spirit of racial transformation—in scores of crimes against humanity. Over nearly eight months in 1993, so much paper and microfilm documentation was destroyed by the NIS that they had to requisition the Iscor smelter, a steel plant furnace in Pretoria, to incinerate the extraordinary volume, which weighed around 44 tons.

In October, just weeks before he received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, de Klerk had ordered a death squad raid that killed five schoolchildren in the Transkei region, which was designated as a Bantustan for Xhosa people. In the decades after he left politics, he made only qualified apologies for apartheid, claiming the racial institution should not be classified a crime against humanity because more Black people had been killed by other Black people than by the state. And so it went: The New York Times and its ilk facilitated the posthumous absolution of a white nationalist.

The treatment afforded to de Klerk and so many others forced me to, once again, weigh the disparities between historiography and its popular narrativization. What, after all, is the function of the political eulogy? Can it be considered historical recitation? To what extent is it indebted to accuracy? And what is the ideological utility of the choice to uphold the moralistic Christian idea that it is improper to speak ill of the dead?

Is the purpose of a eulogy to separate one’s civilian life from their political identity as leaders? Is it the final punctuation of an individual’s historical legacy, or does the eulogy become yet another archival text through which publics must sift as we seek to clarify what constitutes historical facticity?

Unlike the post-facto remembrances of South Africa’s de Klerk, my great-uncle’s eulogies and obituaries were my first real introduction to his political life. At the time, I felt equally stunned and proud to learn that he had made contributions to the Zimbabwean independence struggle. But in the years that followed, I’ve come to realize how the struggle’s various narrativizations have been triangulated within a constellation of political interests and mythologies.

Some actors have been cast as vanguards, while others are relegated to historical footnotes or altogether displaced. Family proximity unsettles the intimacies between the personal and political even further, as my gradual acquisition of the “real story” of the Bishop’s career often contrasts sharply with personal memory filtered through lenses of personal affection and familial reverence.

Critical historical scholarship has not been especially kind to the Bishop, and reasonably so. To understand his perspective—at least, as it was filtered through his conscious self-representation—I finally opened the weathered copy of his autobiography, Rise Up and Walk, that had been in our home for as long as I can remember. The book, now out of circulation, was published in 1978, shortly before he was elected prime minister.

The first sentences of the jacket copy trumpet his credentials as a practical leader: “Black Rhodesians call him a unifying force. White Rhodesians call him a source of a sensible future.” The text’s pronouncements are annotated by my father’s penciled notes, his familiar handwriting marking towns and border crossings that featured in his childhood: his birthplace in Bulawayo, the location of his mission school near the border with Mozambique in Mutare (still called Umtali on this colonial map), the capital Harare (Salisbury) in the northeastern Mashonaland Province.

The book was admittedly an emotional read; I discovered things I had never known about my paternal great-grandparents. I was delighted to learn my great-grandfather Haadi was only 5’2”, and that my great-grandmother’s mother, Maitirwa, had the same totem as (and was therefore related to) my dear maternal grandmother. The Bishop was born on April 14th, 1925 in Umtali, Manicaland. He spent his early years living with his grandparents, who had been forcibly moved to the Makoni Reserve, an area created for Africans under the 1930 Land Apportionment Act. Like so many native children in Rhodesia, he attended a rural mission school.

Eventually, he become a teacher, then a lay evangelist, later matriculating at theology school at the Old Umtali Mission. His commitment to justice and equity led him to become increasingly political. Soon, he would infuse his sermons with a sense of political responsibility: a “total gospel” that taught that “to love as God loves means to be in total service to the total man.”

On November 11th, 1965, Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith unilaterally declared Southern Rhodesia independent from Britain, citing his wish to “preserve Christian civilization.” My great-uncle was already at odds with the Methodist establishment and other white Christians who constituted the Rhodesian elite; Smith’s breakaway from the crown only heightened these tensions. In August 1968, at the United Methodist Church’s African conference in Botswana, he was elected the Bishop of Rhodesia—the first African to lead a major Christian denomination in the colony.

In a national address made shortly after Smith declared Rhodesia a republic in 1970, the Bishop proclaimed that the country needed “free men—men free from fear.” He addressed a national public, 98% of whom could not vote in the upcoming election. Instead of voting for the segregationist, white supremacist Rhodesian Front, he insisted, they must “vote instead for people who are free from the intoxication of racialism.” He decried the minority government’s midnight raids in Black townships and warned that the government’s use of anti-communism as a pretense for racial violence would inadvertently cause communism to spread in Rhodesia: “The denial of opportunities for advancement on merit to persons of all races… has caused African young people to look elsewhere.”

In 1971, Muzorewa formed the African National Council (ANC), a political body
with a markedly Christian ethos organized in opposition to the Home-Smith Proposals. Each of the country’s four major population groups— white, Black, “coloured,” and Asian, following apartheid convention—would have to approve new constitutional proposals, which were overwhelmingly an affirmation of the 1969 referendum that transformed Rhodesia into a republic and further codified political conditions of apartheid. The proposal was intended to facilitate rapprochement between Rhodesia and Britain following the crisis of Smith’s independence declaration.

The ANC sought to become a legitimate representative of unified and non-partisan (so as to avoid the factionalism among existing African nationalist groups) political will. Its efforts were tremendously successful, unifying a large percentage of the Black majority around a “no” vote and leading the British government to withdraw from negotiations. From here, it seemed the ANC had a clear mandate for leadership beyond the political visions of ZANU and ZAPU, and it filled a vacuum left by the more radical nationalist leadership, who had been imprisoned or banned. On March 10th, 1972, the lobby group was transformed into a political party: the African National Council became the United African National Council, proceeding with Muzorewa as its president. This overconfidence would prove fateful.

The Bishop’s liberalism, his emphatic religious pacifism, was innocuous enough until he became further enmeshed in the struggle as a politician. The second half of the Bishop’s autobiography painstakingly details the UANC’s formation, his reservations about engaging with the Smith regime, his interactions with frontline leaders like Samora Machel of Mozambique and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and later, his exile to Mozambique’s capital of Maputo, supposedly at the behest of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere.

While departing a meeting in Dar es Salaam in 1975, Nyerere warned that, as leader of the African National Council and “Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe cadres,” Muzorewa was especially vulnerable: “There seems now to be no alternative to an intensification of the armed struggle—no hopes of a peaceable settlement,” he prophesied. Muzorewa’s return to Rhodesia made him susceptible to state detention or assassination. Days later, a complementary warning from James Chikerema, a close ally of Muzorewa who would become vice-president of the UANC, forced a deeper reevaluation of his safety. The fact that grenades had been tossed into the Bishop’s home “demonstrated there was physical danger for [Muzorewa] and [his] family if they lived in Salisbury.” In November 1975, he moved his family to Mozambique.

The Bishop’s treatment of his own narrative reads like something between origin story and sales pitch: a deeply subjective recitation of movement history through a relitigation of partisan squabbles and personality conflicts, which ultimately positions him as reasonable and unfairly maligned. In this recounting, he attempts to illustrate his ability to lead, as if he was crafting his own political reintroduction to the world. Yet a consideration of the broader context reveals that at this same point, his short- comings as a political strategist were becoming increasingly undeniable.

It wasn’t until years after the inception of the armed struggle that the Bishop, an avowed believer in non-violent direct action, would belatedly recognize its justified motivations and legitimacy. Describing how Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.’s insistence on non-violence failed to “defin[e] the intensity of the provocation,” his Christian sensibilities eventually led him to question “whether God himself would wish [him] to hide behind the principles of non-violence while innocent persons were being slaughtered.” He came to believe in the necessity of “righteous violence” for self-defense after all efforts at peaceful negotiations had been exhausted.

This conviction would be further affirmed after he saw the consequences of Rhodesian military aggression. He describes witnessing the aftermath of the horrific August 1976 Nyadzonya massacre: the bullet-riddled bodies of the dead, the grievously wounded survivors in the hospital in Chimoio, the burnt huts and blood-soaked earth and cut telephone wires, empty cartridge shells scattered on the ground and the bootprints of Rhodesian soldiers in the dirt—“big earth heaps above trenches which had been filled with the broken bodies of the victims.” Almost 700 people—unarmed civilians—were buried there.

As I read his words, his horror, heartbreak, and hardening political resolve became palpable. “Openly we comforted each other by declaring that this was war,” he wrote. “All of us made resolutions that the enemy must be made to pay for this dastardly crime.” He multiply condemned Ian Smith in the strongest terms his mild disposition would allow. But less than two years later, on March 3rd, 1978, he would sign an internal settlement with Smith and two other moderate leaders and establish an inter- racial coalition. Serious negotiations between the Bishop’s UANC and Smith’s Rhodesian Front government began shortly before another catastrophic Rhodesian Defense Forces raid.

In November 1977, the military targeted the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (the military wing of ZANU) headquarters in Chimoio and a smaller camp in Tembue, Mozambique. The strike, Operation Dingo, killed an estimated 3,000 fighters and wounded just as many. Reading this account nearly half a century later, I know that I could never comprehend the precariousness of the Bishop’s position when he made the decision to compromise with the party of his colonial masters. And I certainly cannot appreciate the urgency he must have felt after his conciliatory offers for unity were rejected by ZANU and ZAPU, after which point he came to believe that his only politically viable option was to negotiate with the apartheid government.

But I am incredulous at the dissonance of his about-face. At one point, my great-uncle describes his sense of betrayal and bitterness upon learning that a ZAPU defector had led Rhodesian forces to the camp. He wrote: “And I wondered, how much money had this man been offered to be a Judas?” Another uncle once told me that he doubted that the Bishop had ever intended to betray the struggle.

The Bishop, once a popular figure who had taken a principled stance against the regime, eventually became susceptible to, in his own words, the very “delight in playing off one group of Zimbabweans against the other” that he had condemned after the Nyadzonya massacre. The most bitter irony is that the Bishop could conceivably be denounced as a traitor with the very same fervor with which he himself condemned the ZAPU defector. This is a heartbreak I struggle to put into words.

My father offhandedly told me a story about the time Jimmy Carter extended an invitation to the Bishop to meet with the president at Camp David; my dad was invited to join. He largely agreed with the Bishop’s politics and pragmatically recognized the difficulties of ending a war, but my father held a deep fundamental opposition to the Rhodesian military’s “hot pursuit” operations. Though the Bishop had been elected prime minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, it was obvious to many that he was merely being puppeteered by the whites, who still retained the true political power in the country. Appalled by the continuing violence that the Bishop had sanctioned, my dad refused the invitation, devising some excuse about schoolwork. (He was an undergraduate in South Dakota at the time.) Even for my politically measured and understanding father, conducting airstrikes against one’s own countrymen was beyond the pale.

In the final chapter of the Bishop’s book—titled “Will a Free Zimbabwe be Truly Free?”—he articulates the three qualities that make up true freedom: “freedom from outside control, the sovereignty of the people, and self-determination of the nation’s political and economic life.” He proposed Zimbabwean socialism as a national ideology, a perplexing offering in light of his previous anti-communism, and a revelation of some degree of political illiteracy. It would employ a mixed economic model that would incentivize economic growth through central planning while embracing an indigenous cultural ethos, prioritizing social welfare and communal responsibility.

He emphasized a need for land redistribution, the movement of farmers from Tribal Trust Lands to more arable fields, and the achievement of economic development “without a new dependency on foreign governments, banks, and corporations.” He extolled a free Black country with a fair and independent judiciary, which would strive for independence and self-accountability. In his vision of Zimbabwean socialism, the head of state would serve a limited term and be regularly replaced in elections. In this idealistic projection of smooth democratic transition, leaders would act as cherished grandfatherly elders, nurturing future generations from the wings after their time in power. It’s a particularly revealing proposition: he was certainly envisioning for himself a place in history as a beloved political vanguard, rather than a native figure implicated in a short-lived sham country.

In December 1979, Prime Minister Muzorewa was a signatory to the Lancaster House Agreement, which declared an end to the 15-year war, the immediate dissolution of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and a path to elections with universal suffrage. As a candidate in the general election the following February, the Bishop’s rallies were poorly attended, and he often lashed out at his Black opponents—a tendency that seemed completely antithetical to his lifelong ethos of unity. In a New York Times article from January 31st, 1980, journalist Nick Ashford described his impression of the Bishop’s vitriol as that of “a man who knows he is losing support and who does not know how to reverse the tide.”

There are some unsettling resonances in this attitude: a foreshadowing of a political culture defined by old men whose claim to office is a sense of entitlement to election. Jacques Mallet du Pan’s adage that “like Saturn, the revolution devours its children” is a well-established indictment of Africa’s post-independence partisan politics, but it’s nevertheless disappointing to see how a taste of power can debase even the figures you hoped could withstand the pressure. Of the 80% of Parliamentary seats for Africans (20% were reserved for whites, per the Agreement’s conditions), the Bishop’s UANC party won only three seats, a far cry from the 51 previously gained during Zimbabwe-Rhodesia’s general election in April 1979. Robert Mugabe, who had risen to lead ZANU, won a landslide victory and was elected the first Prime Minister of independent Zimbabwe. The Bishop had only held the prime ministership of the internationally unrecognized Zimbabwe-Rhodesia for a few scant months: from June 1st, 1979 until independence on April 18th, 1980.

I wish I’d had the maturity or wherewithal to ask my great-uncle about his life and career before he died. I have questions that are impossible to answer on my own—questions I’m not sure he would have even been able to answer. Doing so would demand an almost impossible honesty, both from my great-uncle and myself, as all these questions are inextricably entangled with my own diasporic feelings and uncertainties. Like many young Zimbabweans, I’m a subject implicated in dubious politics through familial relation. I wonder how many of our elder family members are haunted by the war and the years of colonial humiliation that preceded it; many of them, understandably, don’t talk about these difficult memories freely or with ease.

But if I could, I’d ask the Bishop why his own actions as a politician seemed to diverge so dramatically from his vision for a Zimbabwean socialist future. I’d ask him if he felt bitter about his electoral defeat, and what he thought about Mugabe’s subsequent 40-year rule. I’d ask if he regretted ever going into party politics, and if he felt that, in retrospect, he might have been better suited to a life as an activist-theologian.

I’d ask what it felt like to shake Ian Smith’s hand for the first time. I’d ask if he ever had dreams about what he had seen in Nyadzonya. I’d ask him whether he actually approved any of those catastrophic air strikes.

I’d ask if there was anyone from whom he should ask forgiveness, and who they were.

I’d ask him how he thinks history should remember him. ♦

Zoé Samudzi is a writer, editor at Parapraxis Magazine, and assistant professor in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design.


Featured wall sculptures are by Zimbabwean visual artist Wallen Mapondera.

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