It was a role he had become known for in Zimbabwe. “Whether opposition or ruling party, they all come to me,” Father Mukonori says. “I don’t look for popularity in the media or amongst Zimbabweans; I look for what I believe is just for individuals and the nation of Zimbabwe. I deal with things below the ladder, not for publicity.”
The Jesuit also facilitated talks between Mr. Mugabe and incoming President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mr. Mugabe had fired Mr. Mnangagwa as his vice president on Nov. 6, causing the latter to flee to Mozambique and then South Africa. Father Mukonori explains that he got Mr. Mnangagwa on the phone while he was with Mr. Mugabe. He says that Mr. Mugabe asked Mr. Mnangagwa where he was, if he was O.K. and repeatedly told him to come back to Zimbabwe.
Mr. Mugabe and Father Mukonori spoke about the issues of the moment during his intervention but also about “deep issues.” Father Mukonori says that in the midst of the political crisis they “started breaking into anthropology…and sociology.” He says over the years he has discussed life, land, joy, sorrow, good governance, bad governance, evil, sin, hell and heaven with Mr. Mugabe.
Father Mukonori is saddened by what happened. He blames the factional battles within Mr. Mugabe’s party for the events that unfolded after Mr. Mugabe dismissed his vice president. He uses strong language to describe what he sees as the problem: “Political debauchery… political division… slicing each other’s character… trying to position each other for power.”
These factional battles led to the firing of Mr. Mnangagwa so that Mr. Mugabe’s current wife, Grace, could succeed him, but, Father Mukonori says, that dismissal “broke the camel’s back.”
One cannot but help feel that Father Mukonori attributes Grace Mugabe’s greed for power as a serious contributing factor to her husband’s political demise. He speaks fondly about Mr. Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, but his demeanor changes when he speaks about Grace. When asked about her future after her husband dies, he says calmly, “I’m sure that people would do justice to her.”
After Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Father Mukonori continued to play a role in national politics.
Father Mukonori is the superior of the Jesuit Community in Chishawasha as well as the parish priest and director of the schools at Chishawasha mission. He is also the executive director of the Center for Peace Initiatives in Africa, which is part of the Africa desk of the United Nations.
He has a long history with Mr. Mugabe. The former president really got to know the Jesuit priest in 1973 and ’74, when Father Mukonori was working with Zimbabwean youth in exile preparing to fight for independence against the colonialist Rhodesian Army. He had been keeping them in touch with their families and informed about what the leaders in exile were saying. According to Father Mukonori, Mr. Mugabe and other former political prisoners heard of his work with the guerrillas and reached out to him.
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