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A meeting with the "voice of the voiceless" : Archbishop Pius Ncube

He has a slight quiver of the eye, but otherwise you would never suspect that Pius Ncube, Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo and the Zimbabwe's best-known dissident, has just recovered from a stroke. The man of God appears cheerful: "Mugabe wanted to bribe me with a farm, but it was a temptation I was able to resist", he confides.

Foreign journalists are not tolerated in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, so our meeting takes place at some distance from Bulawayo. I am stopped by police patrols twice, but nothing untoward happens. Perhaps this is because I have demonstratively stuck a postcard with a picture of a lion into my breast pocket. After all, I am a "tourist frrom Dschoermany".

Seen from a distance, Ncube, with his large rimmed spectacles, bears a faint physical resemblance to Mugabe. But his opening remarks quickly sweep that impression aside.

"People disappear without trace"
"Mugabe has destroyed our country", he says simply. And then he take me through the facts and figures that tell of the horrors of "Mugabeland". Two million Zimbabweans have fled to neighbouring countries. Every week twenty of them return -- in coffins. 180 people starved to death in his diocese alone in the first four months of 2003. Inflation stands at between 800 and 1000 percent. Young girls and young boys resort to prostitution in order to survive. "In our country", the bishop says, "people disappear without trace overnight, others are tortured, the press is muzzled and the right to free assembly severely restricted." By speaking out like this Pius Ncube (below) has earned world-wide renown as the "voice of the voiceless". He appears a shy man and avoids grand gestures and publicity.


"Somebody has to speak out for the people"
Yet he is a persistent thorn in the side for Mugabe's regime of terror. Is he not in constant danger, after all everybody knows that Mugabe's thugs have few scruples who view "car accidents" as a convenient way of dispensing with political opponents. "Yes, I get threats", Pius Ncube admits. "They intimidated my elderly mother". "But everybody else has been silenced. Somebody has to speak out for the people". That is what Ncube does - constantly. He was in Germany in the summer and has just returned from Washington, where he was awarded a human rights prize. He briefed US secretary of state Colin Powell personally on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe.

Women - holding Zimbabwe together
But while western officials listen attentively to his message, African leaders ignore him. He says they are "a club of the rich with no interest in the welfare of their own people". Living in a country where the police beat up demonstrators, how does he retain his sanity, his composure, when constantly confronted with despotism and torture. "I pray for an hour every morning", he says "that gives me strength. Otherwise I would never make it". Just as I am about to leave, Pius Ncube says: "Please ask the Germans to continue to support our civil society - human rights groups, and above all our women. They are keeping Zimbabwe together".

Zimbabwe, 20th November 2003.

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