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Loved and hated in equal measure? The religio-political legacy of Robert Mugabe

Date:06 September 2019
Author:Joram Tarusarira

On the death of former President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, CRCG Director Dr Joram Tarusarira reflects on his life and legacy.

A freedom fighter, a liberator, a Pan-Africanist, a dictator, a corrupt leader, a strategist, an oppressor, a statesman, an intellectual. Such antinomies characterize Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the former President of Zimbabwe who died today the 6th of September 2019 at the age of 95. He was liked and hated by many in arguably equal measure. In discussions, the topic ‘Mugabe’ has the potential to split the house right through the middle. Scholars, journalists and commentators have written vastly on this man in relation to politics, economics, society, law, religion etc. An avalanche of books and articles will certainly follow Mugabe’s passing on from various corners of scholarship.

As a social scientist always looking for the ‘religion’ factor in socio-political developments, this gives me an opportunity to engage with one of the controversial concepts in the study of religion and politics – secularism -  in a bid to understand  the religio-political dynamics in Zimbabwe, the country Robert Mugabe ruled for close to 40 years. (He was ousted from power in a military coup in November 2017.)

Commentators have argued that Robert Mugabe ‘abused’ religion for political expedience by either pushing it to the private sphere or co-opting religious actors. What is not interrogated is why Robert Mugabe was able do this without indictment. The default response has simply been to reiterate that he had power to do so. But what is further overlooked is the ideational basis of this power over religion. I argue that the answer lies in the practice of secularism, which is the framework for political governance in Zimbabwe.

At first glance it might sound preposterous to discuss religion and politics in Zimbabwe through the prism of secularism, firstly, because secularism is a framework developed in Western contexts, and secondly, Zimbabwe is a highly religious society. Furthermore, numerous arguments have been put up against deploying Western concepts, such as secularism, which emerged out of specific socio-political realities, to non-Western contexts, as if they are transcultural and transhistorical. However, secularism travelled beyond the Western contexts with the spread of Christianity, the expansion of European colonialism, global expansion of capitalism and the European system of states and modern science.

Secularism is the modern state’s sovereign power to reorganize substantive features of religious life through stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks and quotidian practices.[1] More importantly, secularism is not just an organizing structure, but a discursive operation of power.[2]  It is noteworthy that despite the dominance of secularism, the focus in studying religio-political dynamics in Zimbabwe is the nature and function of religion. Yet, secularism has the privilege to set the terms of religio-political interactions. This privilege has become naturalized to the extent that politicians have become blind to it. They view the imposition of their ideas, ideologies and values against religion as natural or normal.

It is this privilege that made it possible for Robert Mugabe to include and exclude religious actors from the political field when he deemed it fit. He was the embodiment of secularism and its privilege to determine what is right or wrong in religio-political conduct. Mugabe, thus, dictated the terms of secularism in Zimbabwe. This puts the meaning, promise and implications of secularism into question.

In recent times, Zimbabwe has been characterized by the decline of human security. The Commission on Human Security, in the report Human Security Now, defines human security as ‘…[protecting] the vital core of all human lives in ways that enhance human freedoms and human fulfilment. … It means creating political, social, environmental, economic, military and cultural systems that together give people the building blocks of survival, livelihood and dignity.’[3] Instead of human security, the government has advanced regime security. As such, in Zimbabwe we have witnessed overt violence, bad governance, international isolation, collapse of the health care system, collapse of schools, collapse of the economy, and many other ills. There are various factors at play here, including foreign interference in the politics of Zimbabwe, but I want to reflect on the role secularism has played in contributing to this decline of human security, especially muzzling religious actors interested in pursuing human security.

One scholar of religion summarized Mugabe’s secularism by referring to what Mugabe himself once said: ‘You church people you have no business with what we do with people here on earth, because your interest is in heaven….The church is spiritual, politicians are earthly and practical. Please, church people, do what you know best while we do what we know best; let not these categories mix.’[4] 

The preceding quotation is a clear demonstration of the myth and paradox of secularism, because it contradicts itself.[5] On the one hand, the liberal state claims to maintain a separation between church and state by relegating religion to the private sphere. On the other, modern governmentality involves the state’s intervention and regulation of many aspects of socio-religious life, dissolving the distinction between public and private and thereby contravening its first claim. This is a dynamic that continues to rear its head across the world. On the one hand Mugabe emphasizes the separation of the church and state. On the other, he interferes in regulating the operations of the religious, thus dissolving the distinction. It is also the threats he makes that made religious leaders stampede to sacralize him. It is not because they believed in him as a sacred entity, but the conditions were set for them regarding how to behave if they wanted to survive. 

On the basis of secularism, religious actors interested in pursuing broader objectives were vilified and pushed to the periphery. Cases in point include Pius Ncube, former Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, who was outspoken against the ZANU PF regime, Mugabe’s bad governance, and the undermining of human rights. State machinery including the media was unleashed on him. Another case in point is of Pastor Evan Mawarire of the #ThisFlag movement.[6] He produced videos in which he criticized the government’s bad governance and failure to respect human rights. He was arrested, arraigned before the courts charged with wanting to cause instability in the country and unseat a democratically elected government. He skipped the country to the United States of America before returning back home. On arrival on his return he was arrested again. All charges against Mawarire were eventually dropped.

Ncube and Mawarire advocated for respect of human rights, an end to poverty, functioning hospitals, jobs, freedoms: in short, for human security. Their own security was threatened, not only with physical violence but also because they lacked all other elements of human security. The human security of all Zimbabweans was also threatened, because the prophetic and critical voices were silenced. Human insecurity continued unchallenged. Some religious actors were encapsulated and captured to sacralize regime security, using secularism as the technology of silencing and subjectivation. 

Instead of confronting secularism, commentators have focused on religion and put up with the question of good religion or bad religion. It might be time to shift the focus from religion to the genealogy and effects secularism. 

Robert Mugabe’s sun has set, but his legacy remains contested. There is a general agreement across political divides in the country and on the continent that his contribution to the liberation struggle which brought an end to colonialism cannot be taken away from him. He is loved across Africa for pushing back on neo-colonialism. But concerns continue to be raised regarding how he presided over a harsh regime. Many lessons are to be leant by everyone from scholars, journalists, religious actors, politicians, civil society and so on, on various aspects – politics, society, religion, law, economics, conflict, peace, reconciliation. My own conclusion is he started well but could have left power earlier, a great lesson for those coming after him. His passing on is sad, but this is an opportune time for deeper reflection.


  [1]Talal Asad, Trying to Understand French Secularism, in Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, edited by Hent de Vries       and Lawrence E. Sullivan, DOI:10.5422/fso/9780823226443.003.0026

[2] Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton, Princeton University Press 2016)

[3] United Nation Commission on Human Security, 2003, 1994

[4] Cited in Joram Tarusarira, Reconciliation and Religio-political Non-conformism. London: Routledge

[5] Saba Mahmood, Secularism, sovereignty, and religious difference: A global genealogy?, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2017, Vol. 35(2) 197–209

[6] Ezra Chitando and Joram Tarusarira, Examining  Pastor Evan Mawarire’s This Flag movement in Zimbabwe: implications for understanding religionand human security, in Religion and Human Security, edited by Ezra Chitando and Joram Tarusarira. (London: Routledge)


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