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Reconciliation and Religio-political non-conformism in Zimbabwe

Date:20 December 2016
Author:Roos Feringa
Reconciliation and Religio-political non-conformism in Zimbabwe
Reconciliation and Religio-political non-conformism in Zimbabwe

Earlier this year, Joram Tarusarira published his important book that analyses religious actors and identifies a specific form of engagement that they display in contexts of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Joram Tarisarira is a lecturer in Religion and Conflict and Deputy Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen.In today’s post, the author provides a summary of the main insights from the book.

Later this week, we will also publish reviews of this major new work from Gladys Ganiel and Vlado Kmec. Stay tuned! 

This book comes out of the realisation that a distinct phenomenon of religio-political actors that emerged in Zimbabwe due to the socio-economic and political crises, conflict and violence since 2000, and the role they have played in the process of democratisation and reconciliation has inadequately been analysed by scholars of religion and politics in Zimbabwe. Much research has concentrated on missionary or mainline churches and their apex bodies. Non-doctrinal religio-political individuals and groups have been treated either as a marginal phenomenon or lumped together with confessional or ‘conversionist’ churches under the rubric of religious actors. This has consequently obscured the uniqueness of emergent religio-political organizations that have assumed a civil society character in pursuit of broader political objectives such as democratization, peace and reconciliation without seeking political office. This has also obscured the potential scientific advancement of scholarship on the intermeshing of religion, politics, peace and reconciliation that can be distilled from a critical analysis of such organisations. The book draws from fieldwork on three religio-political organizations in Zimbabwe namely the Zimbabwe Christian Alliance, Churches in Manicaland and Grace to Heal. It is guided by the concept of religio-political non-conformism, understood as individuals and groups who deviate from the dominant religious system’s beliefs and practices on political participation. It argues that Zimbabwe is witnessing a new consciousness of the role of Christianity on the political field. Thus, a contextual analysis is needed within prevailing political discourses on democratization, civil society, religious freedom, peace and reconciliation, as well as sociological concepts on religion in the public sphere such as the religious field, sacralisation, secularisation and the secular.

The emerging religio-political organisations demonstrate the transformation of Christian religio-political practice, characterised by extra-institutional expressions of religion understood as how people of faith are keeping their faith active outside or in addition to the institutional churches. The book shows that in the face of unsatisfactory religio-political culture, dissatisfied coreligionists emerge, conglomerate and organise themselves in pursuit of broader political objectives without necessarily cutting ties with their mainline churches. This results in an insider/outsider complex. Dissatisfied coreligionists have formed new extra-institutional groups and movements thereby demonstrating that Christianity in Zimbabwe has the potential to transform from being pietistic, as it is often perceived, to challenge the political systems and engage with those at the margins of society and the oppressed. The emergent actors operate outside the jurisdiction of the mainline churches because they do not conform to their [mainline churches] approach to political intervention, but still agree on doctrines that are not linked to politics and hence remain inside. The book demonstrates that it is possible for religionists not to conform to established conventions on particular issues but still remain insiders. This is contrary to the common perception that religious non-conformism always results in schism.

The book observes that since independence in 1980, mainline Christian denominations and organisations in Zimbabwe enjoyed a rather cosy relationship with the Zimbabwean state. But in the last decade, in light of the state’s abuses of power and use of violence against its own citizens, new Christian organisations and individuals have emerged to question the propriety of this relationship. It discusses the public discourses and socio-political projects developed by these groups in response to socio-economic and political conflict and violence, contrasting them to the relative silence and inactivity of many church institutions. It argues that structural features including a degree of separateness from mainline denominations, flexibility, and the ability to form networks with like-minded organisations play a key part in the effectiveness of religious actors in responding to political instability, conflict and violence. It concludes that religious non-conformism is not just stubborn departure from conventions, but a potential resource for alternative ways of interpreting life and establishing social values, influencing cultural dynamics and political culture.

The book concluded that the decision of religio-political organisations to operate outside the jurisdiction of the mainline churches provide them with a vantage position from which to challenge both the state and the churches, in pursuit of democratisation and reconciliation. They do not conform to the political elites’ conception of how the religious should participate in politics or address conflict and violence. Political elites argue that processes of democratisation are political, and religious actors should have nothing to do with them. Furthermore, they perceive the reconciliation process as limited to addressing individual psychological trauma experienced by people during conflict. The book argues that the democratisation process is a key aspect of reconciliation. Reconciliation transcends institutional or procedural recovery after conflict. It deals with attitudes that are broken during conflict. Reconciliation oils the wheels of democratisation, and democracy safeguards reconciliation, because the provisions of reconciliation will be enshrined in the constitution. The two are interdependent but the concept of reconciliation is often left out of the democratisation debate, allegedly because of its religious overtones. Reconciliation is not necessarily religious, as politicians argue and pursuing democratisation is a key part of the process of reconciliation. Transition theory has neglected the importance of coping with the past as a prerequisite for the implementation of democratic institutions and the development of civic virtues within civil society. In pursuit of democratisation, the movements tackle those issues that are politically sensitive in a manner that exposes the political elites especially those from the ruling ZANU PF party. The state does not allow open and public discussion of these issues and/or has even banned the discussions all together. Legislation is put into place to control the flow of information. A case in point of such laws is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Addressing these issues attracts the wrath of the state. However, the movements in question override these sanctions.

The strategies these organisations employ signify an attempt to bring back the public sphere as a site of discussion of common public affairs and to organise against arbitrary and oppressive forms of social action and public power. The strategies have a dual effect of mobilising and gathering people, and enlightening people about their dues as citizens. Demonstrations, prayer rallies, workshops inter alia are opted for as ways to reach people. For the state, gathering people in the public square is threatening as we saw with the Arab spring. Violent disruption of the meetings and arrests become a sanctioning measure for the state.

Emergent movements do not conform to the political approaches of the mainline churches, and vice-versa, the mainline churches are opposed to the strategies involved in the work of the non-conformist emergent organisations. They opt for back door silent diplomacy, which only works in normal situations where the state respects the rule of law and respects the principles of participatory democracy and not in abnormal situations such as the one Zimbabwe had degenerated into. The reaction from the mainline church leaders shows a conflictive frame of values between them and the emergent movements.

The state seems to welcome the humanitarian and social contribution of religious actors but does not allow for a critical and active contribution to political issues by them. Instead of the secular nature of the state policy working to safeguard the freedom of choice and conscience, without the state privileging any belief or religion, the policy is used to justify the exclusion and repression of critical religious voices. It is used to delimit the realms within which religious actors can participate or cannot. The state sanctions adopt and co-opt other religious churches and organisations so that they provide it with the sacred canopy. This is selective application of the policy of secularisation of the state if not a direct affront to it.

Organisation structures and systems can be enabling or limiting in the pursuit for social change. It emerges from the case studies that hierarchically and bureaucratically structured institutions are less strategically positioned to quickly make decisions and mobilise for action, a requirement in an environment where there is constant and live jostling for power and resources, than loosely connected and led.

Constant and consistent non-conformism generates transformative potential, which leads to social change. The political culture in Zimbabwe has been dominated by neo-patrimonial politics, a system through which power and resources lie in the hands of those with high political connections, at the expense of the common grassroots people. The strategies employed by the non-conformists have been an antidote to this culture. The organisations in question, while pressurizing the elites, have the grassroots as an important stakeholder in the endeavour for political transformation. They have put emphasis on the grassroots as the basis for an effective political transformation, who must be brought back into Zimbabwe’s public sphere. The entire pursuit for transformation is under the broader objectives of democratisation, peace and reconciliation.


Tarusarira, Joram. 2016. Reconciliation and Religio-political Non-conformism. London: Routledge/Taylor and Francis


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