If a picture is worth a thousand words, what do those of Rowan Williams and Robert Mugabe together say?

Oct 20, 2011

Church of England boss Rowan Williams was recently in Zimbabwe to encourage the faithful at a time of a difficult split within the local church. A highlight was also his meeting with President Mugabe, to ask him to use his ‘good offices’ to prevent what is seen as state support or sympathy for one of the feuding church factions. How did it go?

News of the impeding visit caused a big stir, perhaps as much in secular England as among Anglicans in Zimbabwe. Any meeting of a prominent Briton with Mugabe, especially if there is a hint of tension in it as was suggested was likely going to be in abundance in this case, gets many Britons very excited.

The hope is always that the person brave enough to actually go into the feared lion's den will restore Britain's honor with regards to its role in The Zimbabwe Crisis by bringing back to London (Daily Mail, Telegraph and Sky TV in tow to provide exciting live coverage), the much coveted trophy of Mugabe’s head.

Archbishop Williams gave a rousing sermon to thousands of Anglicans in Harare. The pointed barbs against Mugabe’s government played very well, perhaps far more so in London than where they were delivered. Mugabe is pretty immune to criticism, and he certainly wasn’t going to loose any sleep over the effectively harmless comments of a gentleman coming for a day or two to represent the Church of England.

Not so frequently these days, but there was a time Mr.Mugabe was often described as ‘a devout Catholic.’ His sentimentality for the Church of Rome is said by some to be as strong as his affection for many aspects of British culture. Anglican and Catholic churches are cousin churches, and both have many adherents in Zimbabwe. For all these reasons Mugabe did not want to be seen as counter-attacking the visiting world leader of the Anglicans.

So for some in Williams’s corner, looking for any points to score against the despised Mugabe, his sermon seemed like a net win. They were able to say to themselves with great satisfaction, ''the archbishop went there and kicked hateful Mugabe's ass.'' Williams could now run for prime minister in Britain next week and win by a massive landslide.

Williams, having been fully apprised of Mugabe’s tactics of attack and seeking to deflect them, had preceded his sermon by also expressing contrition for the Church of England’s rather messy history as fervent enabler of some of the worst aspects of the Rhodesian era. Mugabe was obviously in an expansive mood and chose not to bite on this juicy, ever-present potential propaganda cherry against the Anglican Church, no doubt with the voting strength of church members in mind.

But then Williams and fellow bishops of the church went to visit Mr. Mugabe to present a file record of alleged persecution of members by ex-communicated/break away bishop Norbert Kunonga, and his alleged support by organs of state including the police.

It was somewhat of a climb down from the previous high of the fiery sermon. There was no escaping the suggestion of the fire-breathing bishop taking on the bad Mr. Mugabe on behalf of persecuted Zim Anglicans (and also for Britannia, where Mugabe might as well be the devil even to non-believers.) But that was then followed by the same bishop almost sheepishly going to plead for assistance from the devil to solve a fight within the church. There certainly was a sense of humiliation about it, reflected even in Rowan’s demeanor in
released photos of the much-anticipated meeting.

The pictures tell some fascinating stories of their own. Look at poor Williams, bravely doing his duty on behalf of his persecuted flock, but wanting to clearly show the cameras he didn’t enjoy what he had to do, and didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Look at how studiously he draws his hand away from Mugabe’s attempt to hold it.

There had been some fears expressed in the British press that the crafty Mugabe would use the meeting with the innocent man of God for propaganda purposes. So perhaps the foreign office in London and the embassy in Harare had warned Williams, ‘’Whatever you do, don’t let him get his hands on you!’’

It was awkward, almost comical how Williams went out of his way to show disdain for the man he had requested to grant him an audience. It seemed a rather strange way to reach out to a perceived sinner, but
perhaps for the Church of England Mugabe is beyond the pale; bloody absolutely, wickedly irredeemable.

Come to think of it, for many in Williams’s corner, his body language might have been a propaganda victory of sorts for him. ‘’I went right into the belly of the beast as was my duty, but not for a moment did I let it
think it could befriend me.’’

While all the robed African clerics accompanying Williams are pictured with wide grins on their faces (all of them looking painted on), Williams barely ever shows his teeth, lest it be mistaken as approval of Mugabe, which would be worthy of a virtual death sentence back home in London. The only sort of concession he makes to his host is a slight, vaguely humble stoop while he is busily pulling his hand way from Mugabe’s.

Mugabe, on the other hand, surprised and must have even disappointed many by not acting at all according to his Telegraph/Daily Mail stereotype as a rabid, British-chewing monster. He seemed cool and relaxed, smiling bravely throughout Williams’s snub of his proffered hand.

The ‘brutal dictator’ let Williams’ criticisms of him, including at the sermon two days before, seemingly roll completely off his back, like a, well...a broad-minded democrat. If there were any who breathlessly, fearfully expecting that the much feared and loathed Mugabe would chop off Williams head right in public; phew, at least on this occasion the good archbishop escaped with his life.

Mugabe played good host far more graciously than Williams acted good guest, at least at the sessions whose photographs have reached the public. If anything, Mugabe came close to embarrassing himself by seeming too eager to present a facade of friendly harmlessness to Williams and to the cameras.

Mugabe has recently shown a discomforting, neocolonial-appearing tendency to seem over-eager in the company of British personages. The African clerics respectfully went along with it with their almost maniacal grins, but Williams seemed to have been drilled rigorously in the nasty charm tricks of Mr. Mugabe and how to avoid falling for them.

Accepting the credentials of the new UK ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mugabe recently ‘pleaded’ with her for better relations between the two countries. While there was great fear in some British circles that Williams’ visit would be seen as a move in that direction (''Unacceptable, we can't ever forgive him for the white farm land grabs''), Mugabe may have seen it as a sort of consolation prize. Rowan may not be the much-loved-by Mugabe queen of England or the Libya-bombing, gay-marriage-supporting (two issues that make Mugabe see red) prime minister David Cameron in whom he has reposed hopes of re kick starting relations, but what the hell, he seemed close enough.

A day or two after Williams’ visit, a court judgment went against rebel churchman Kunonga. Some immediately declared this a miraculous, immediate result of Rowan’s persuasiveness his meeting with Mugabe. We may never know, but that simply wouldn’t be like Mr. Mugabe at all, on many counts.

Actually, there was something quite sad about the whole affair of the meeting of Williams and Mugabe. That overall sadness is well captured in the photos, even behind the plastic smiles and Williams’asking to meet Mugabe and then acting like he can’t bear the very feel of his touch. It is many ways a metaphor for the whole colossal debacle of official relations between Britain and Zimbabwe: two countries tied together, but that see almost nothing important from the same perspective, and are both quite angry, bitter, self-righteous and accusing about it.

The Zimbabwe Review


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