After Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Father Mukonori continued to play a role in national politics. He was close to and worked with Mr. Mugabe’s first wife, Sally. They ran a project to rehabilitate female guerrilla fighters and help them develop leadership skills when they re-entered society after the war.
He recalls fondly how he accompanied Sally Mugabe. who, he says, was angry with God and did not practice her faith after the death of the Mugabes’ only son in Ghana, Mrs. Mugabe’s native land. Mr. Mugabe, then in detention in Rhodesia, was not allowed to attend the funeral.
He says that Sally was traumatized by what she saw during the war and struggled spiritually. Father Mukonori says that he told her, tongue in cheek, that he hoped she would have a conversion experience like Saul. Later, she did return to the church. “She died a good Catholic, receiving communion three to four times a week,” he says.
He recalls too how he tried to bring white farmers and the government together, for example, to deal with the question of land. Father Mukonori has worked on the land reform and redistribution for a long time; he sees it as an important part of his ministry.
He says that he and Mr. Mugabe have discussed this issue “endlessly” over the years. He had hoped that Mr. Mugabe would not leave office until the issue was properly addressed. He says that it was an issue important to the former president too, and he wished that he had been able to deal with it effectively.
Father Mukonori says that he was, initially, approached by white farmers to help with the land issue, but later talks broke down because white landowners did not live up to their part of the deal. “My business is to get people together and to get them talking…. I engage government, I engage parties and I engage individuals—the president included.”
In the post-Mugabe era Father Mukonori will likely still have influence. He has been meeting with Morgan Tsvangirai, a former prime minister who had led the opposition to Mr. Mugabe through the Movement for Democratic Change Zimbabwe.
Father Mukonori says that Mr. Tsvangirai wants to discuss a way forward for the country with the new president. But on the day of their second meeting, the newly inaugurated president announced his cabinet. Mr. Tsvangirai’s wish “would have been that they discussed the issue before the new president announced his new government,” he says.
Although Father Mukonori has the support of his provincial, not everyone is comfortable with his role. He has been criticized inside and outside of the church. It cannot be denied, however, that over the years he has helped many people and facilitated many meetings and encounters between unlikely rivals. He helped many who were arrested unjustly get released.
It is easy to point fingers and disagree with him. Father Mukonori, however, understands how the politics of his country works and has dared to minister in a complex and tricky political reality. Listening to him carefully reveals that he is, at heart, trying to be a pastor.