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Christianity in the Propaganda of ZANU and ZAPU, 1965–1980

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 April 2023

University of Southampton


This article looks at how ZANU and ZAPU, the two main Zimbabwean nationalist groups in UDI-era Rhodesia, sought to present and engage with Christianity in their propaganda. Given that the Rhodesians cast themselves as defenders of ‘Christian civilisation’, it was inevitable that the media war would touch heavily upon ecclesiastical issues. It is contended here that the nationalists developed a powerful argument: that the Rhodesian government and the Churches of southern Africa were falling far short of the ideals of Christianity. This message then in turn served as an important part of their critique of the white minority regime.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2023

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The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers for this Journal for their helpful comments.


1 This was known as the ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’, or ‘UDI’.

2 In 1976 ZANU and ZAPU joined together as the ‘Patriotic Front’. The parties both added ‘PF’ to their names at the time of the 1980 election, competing as ZANU-PF and PF-ZAPU respectively: Reed, W. C., ‘International politics and national liberation: ZANU and the politics of contested sovereignty in Zimbabwe’, African Studies Review xxxvi (1993), 3159CrossRefGoogle Scholar at p. 55 n. 2.

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9 Nyarota, L. T., Religious leadership in national political conflicts: Bishop Abel Tendekayi Muzorewa and the national struggle against colonial rule in Zimbabwe, Eugene, Or 2013, 74Google Scholar.

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11 On ZANU and Maoism see Pradesh, P., Mao Tse-tung and Chimurenga: an investigation into ZANU's struggles, Johannesburg 1988Google Scholar.

12 Kriger, N., Zimbabwe's guerrilla war: peasant voices, Cambridge 1992, 96Google Scholar, 157.

13 On nationalist propaganda see M. Chikowero, ‘Broadcasting Chimurenga – engineering a postcolonial Zimbabwe’, M. Mushonga, L. Hazvineyi and M. Nyakudya, ‘Zapu’s “voice of the revolution” and the radicalisation of the nationalist struggle', and ‘Reminiscences of Zimbabwe's war radio broadcasters’ in S. P. Lekgoathi, T. Moloi and A. R. Saíde (eds), Guerrilla radios in southern Africa: broadcasters, technology, propaganda wars, and the armed struggle, London 2020, 65–83, 105–20, 121–35; and Ndlovu, E., ‘Radio as a recruiting medium in Zimbabwe's liberation struggle’, Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture xii (2017), 52–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A brief overview of Chimurenga music can be found in Mlambo, A history of Zimbabwe, 170–4.

14 R. A. Gumbo and E. J. M. Zvobgo, ‘Letter from the editors’, ZN ix (July–Dec. 1977), 3; A. Meldrum, ‘Eddison Zvobgo’, Guardian, 24 Aug. 2004, at, accessed 2 Oct. 2022.

15 Interviews in depth: Zimbabwe: ZAPU: George Silundika, Richmond, BC 1974, 2.

16 Mushonga, Hazvineyi and Nyakudya, ‘Reminiscences’, 126–8.

17 Frederikse, None but ourselves, 60–1; Ranger, T., Peasant consciousness and guerrilla war in Zimbabwe, London 1985, 178–9Google Scholar.

18 Banana, C., Politics of repression and resistance: face to face with combat theology, Gweru 1996Google Scholar; Urbaniak, J. and Manobo, B. M., ‘Canaan Banana, Churches and the land issue: revisiting theology of Zimbabwe's vilified prophet’, Political Theology xxi (2020), 225–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Muzorewa, A., Rise up and walk: an autobiography, London 1979Google Scholar; S. Uys, ‘The Rev Ndabaningi Sithole’, Guardian, 15 Dec. 2000, at, accessed 3 Oct. 2022. For others see Thomas, N. E., ‘Church and State in Zimbabwe’, Journal of Church and State xxvii (1985), 113–33 at p. 130Google Scholar.

19 J. Hampton, ‘Hugh Prosser’, Guardian, 27 Nov. 2015, at, accessed 3 Oct. 2022.

20 ‘Obituaries: John da Costa’, Daily Telegraph, 9 Apr. 1991, 19.

21 ‘The Right Rev Paul Burrough’, The Times, 31 Jan. 2003, 39.

22 T. Ranger and N. Bhebe, ‘Volume introduction: society in Zimbabwe's liberation war’, and T. Ranger and M. Ncube, ‘Religion in the guerrilla war: the case of southern Matabeleland’ in N. Bhebe and T. Ranger (eds), Society in Zimbabwe's liberation war, Oxford 1996, 6–34 at p. 16, 35–57.

23 D. Maxwell, ‘Christianity and the war in eastern Zimbabwe: the case of Elim mission’, in Bhebe and Ranger, Society in Zimbabwe's liberation war, 88–9.

25 T. Ranger, ‘The Church and war: holy men and rural communities in Zimbabwe, 1970–1980’, in William Sheils (ed.), The Church at war (Studies in Church History xx, 1983), 443–61 at p. 454.

26 Thomas, ‘Church and State in Zimbabwe’, 131.

27 Auret, D., Reaching for justice: the Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice looks back at the past twenty years, 1972–1992, Gweru 1992Google Scholar.

28 S. Griffiths, The axe and the tree: how bloody persecution sowed the seeds of new life in Zimbabwe, Oxford 2017; Maxwell, ‘Christianity and the war in eastern Zimbabwe’, 58–90.

29 Nyarota, Religious leadership in national political conflicts, 74. For the history of the United Methodist Church see Kurewa, J. W. Z., The Church in mission: a short history of the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe, 1897–1997, Nashville, Tn 1997Google Scholar.

30 Hastings, A., ‘The Christian Churches and liberation movements in southern Africa’, African Affairs lxxx (1981), 345–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar; I. Linden, Church and State in Rhodesia, 1959–1979, Munich 1979; D. Maxwell, Christians and chiefs in Zimbabwe: a social history of the Hewsa people, c.1890s–1990s, Edinburgh 1999; F. Moyo, The Bible, the bullet, and the ballot: Zimbabwe: the impact of Christian protest in sociopolitical transformation, ca.1900–ca.2000, Eugene, Or 2015; Ranger, ‘The Church and war’; Zvobgo, C. J., ‘Church and State in Rhodesia: from the Unilateral Declaration of Independence to the Pearce Commission, 1965–72’, JSAS xxxi (2005), 381402Google Scholar.

31 Linden, I., The Catholic Church and the struggle for Zimbabwe, London 1980Google Scholar. On the Catholic Church in Rhodesia see also Creary, N. M., Domesticating a religious import: the Jesuits and the inculturation of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, 1879–1980, New York 2011CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McLaughlin, J., On the frontline: Catholic missions in Zimbabwe's liberation war, Harare 1996Google Scholar.

32 Bhebe, N., The ZANU and ZAPU guerrilla warfare and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe, Gweru 1999Google Scholar; N. Murdoch, Christian warfare in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe: the Salvation Army and African liberation, 1891–1991, Eugene, Or 2015; M. Lapsey, Neutrality or co-option? The Anglican Church and State from 1964 until the independence of Zimbabwe, Gweru 1986.

33 Maxwell, ‘Christianity and the war in eastern Zimbabwe’.

34 Ranger and Ncube, ‘Religion in the guerrilla war’.

35 J. McLaughlin, ‘Avila mission: a turning point in church relations with the state and with the liberation forces’, in Bhebe and Ranger, Society in Zimbabwe's liberation war, 91–101.

36 Hastings, ‘The Christian Churches and liberation movements in southern Africa’, 345–54; Lalloo, K., ‘The Church and the State in Apartheid South Africa’, Contemporary Politics iv (1998), 3955CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Taliep, N., ‘The role of religious leaders in anti-Apartheid mobilisation: implications for violence prevention in contemporary South Africa’, Religion, State and Society xliv (2016), 331–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Walshe, P., ‘South Africa: prophetic Christianity and the liberation movement’, Journal of Modern African Studies xxix (1997), 2760Google Scholar.

37 See, for example, Maxwell, Christians and chiefs in Zimbabwe, 125, and ‘Local politics and the war of liberation in north-east Zimbabwe’, JSAS xix (1993), 361–86 at pp. 363–4.

38 This is discussed well in Moyo, The Bible, the bullet, and the ballot, 1–11.

39 T. Ranger, ‘Religious movements and politics in sub-Saharan Africa’, African Studies Review xxix (1986), 1–69. One study of the relationship between decolonisation and a single denomination is E. A. Foster, African Catholic: decolonization and the transformation of the Church, Cambridge, Ma 2019.

40 Maxwell, ‘Christianity and the war in Eastern Zimbabwe’, 70–88. For a discussion of African Christianity more generally see E. Isichei, A history of Christianity in Africa: from antiquity to the present, Grand Rapids, Mi 1995, chs xi–xii; and L. Sanneh, Whose religion is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West, Grand Rapids, Mi 2003; L. Sanneh and J. A. Carpenter (eds), The changing face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World, Oxford 2005.

41 ‘Introduction’, ZR vi (?Sept. 1977), 30–4 at p. 32.

42 ‘Real enemy unmasked’, ZN iii (26 Oct. 1968), 1–2 at p. 1.

43 ‘Secretary General's Xmas message to all Zimbabweans’, ZR vi (?Dec. 1977), 2–4 at p. 2.

44 ‘Work on Christmas’, reprint of an editorial from Zimbabwe People's Voice, 23 Dec. 1978, 2, reproduced in Translations on sub-Saharan Africa no. 2063, Arlington, Va 1979, 96–7 at p. 96.

45 Zvobgo, ‘Church and State in Rhodesia’, 383.

46 ‘African Churches condemn racism’, ZN viii (May 1974), 24.

47 ‘Protected villages: a new form of detention camps’, ZR iii (quarterly edition) (?Oct.–Dec. 1974), 13–14 at p. 14.

48 J. Comaroff and J. Comaroff, Of revelation and revolution: Christianity, colonialism, and consciousness in South Africa, i, Chicago 1991.

49 On ZANU, the Catholic Church and Marxism see J. C. McKenna, Finding a social voice: the Church and Marxism in Africa, New York 1997, ch. vii.

50 ‘Smith's Selous Scouts assassinate missionaries’, ZN x (July/Aug. 1978), 10–11 at p. 11.

51 ‘Rhodesia: Zanu leader Robert Mugabe urges British governor Lord Soames to disband Selous Scouts army unit’, Reuters video, 20 Feb. 1980, 1:50, film ID VLVAES1AAR2GWU4VV85ITX64S2AQ9, available from British Pathé, at <>, accessed 10 Mar. 2022.

52 ‘Commentary warns Zambia Against Marxism’, Johannesburg International Service, 19 Sept. 1979, FBISDR - sub-Saharan Africa, 20 Sept. 1979, FBIS-SSA-79-184, E2.

53 Reproduced in R. W. J. Ellis, Without honour, n.p. 2006, 19.

54 Ranger and Ncube, ‘Religion in the guerrilla war’, 52.

55 Maxwell, Christians and chiefs in Zimbabwe, 125.

56 ‘How much does Muzorewa know of American justice?’, ZN x (May/June 1978), 44–8 at p. 47.

59 ‘Mugabe insists on transfer of full powers’, Paris AFP, 27 July 1978, FBISDR - sub-Saharan Africa, 28 July 1978, FBIS-SSA-78-146, E7.

60 M. Meredith, ‘Mugabe returns to finish the revolution’, Sunday Times, 27 Jan. 1980, 8.

62 ‘Role of the Churches’, ZR, 24 May 1969, 2.

63 Magaziner, D. R., The law and the prophets: black consciousness in South Africa, 1968–1977, Athens, Oh 2010, 12Google Scholar.

64 ‘The Church and revolution’, ZR, 5 Jan. 1968, 5–6 at p. 5.

65 Ibid. 6.

67 ‘The Christian Church and the liberation struggle: ZAPU’, in A. de Bragança and I. Wallerstein (eds), The African liberation reader, I: The anatomy of colonialism, London 1982, 183–6 at p. 184.

69 Maina, W. M., Historical and social dimensions of African Christian theology: a contemporary approach, Eugene, Or 2009, 70Google Scholar.

70 On Muzorewa see D. A. Mungazi, In the footsteps of the masters: Desmond M. Tutu and Abel T. Muzorewa, Westport, Ct 2000 and Nyarota, Religious leadership in national political conflicts. Muzorewa's (contemporary) autobiography is also illuminating: Rise up and walk.

71 ‘Muzorewa interviewed on attitude toward talks’, London, BBC Domestic Television Service, 1 Feb. 1978, FBISDR - sub-Saharan Africa, 2 Feb. 1978, FBIS-SSA-78-023, E3-E4 at E4.

72 ‘Voice of Zimbabwe discusses Bishop Muzorewa’, Lusaka, Revolutionary Voice of Zimbabwe People, 26 Nov. 1979, FBISDR - sub-Saharan Africa, 27 Nov. 1979, FBIS-SSA-79-229, E3–E4 at E3.

73 ‘Patriotic Front commentary criticizes Muzorewa’, Addis Ababa, Revolutionary Voice of Zimbabwe, 24 Oct. 1979, FBISDR - sub-Saharan Africa, 26 Oct. 1979, FBIS-SSA-79-209, E1–E2 at E2.

74 ‘Voice of Zimbabwe discusses bishop Muzorewa’, E4.

75 ‘Editorial: miracles vs realities’, ZN x (May/June 1978), 1.

76 ‘Role of the Churches’, 2.

77 ‘Profile of a traitor: Ndabaningi Sithole’, ZN x (Mar. 1978), 47–8 at p. 47.

78 Ibid. 47.

80 ‘Mugabe “Chitepo Day” message discusses elections’, Maputo, Voice of Zimbabwe, 18 Mar. 1979, FBISDR - sub-Saharan Africa, 20 Mar. 1979, FBIS-SSA-79-055, E3–E6 at E6.

81 UN Security Council, 34th session, 2119th meeting, 2 Mar. 1979, UN document S/PV.2119, UN Digital Library, at <>, accessed 27 Aug. 2021, 5.

82 ‘Editorial: miracles vs realities’, 1. This imagery was also used with reference to James Chikerema: ‘National enemies: puppet show in Salisbury’, ZN x (Mar./Apr. 1978), 45–6 at p. 46.

83 ‘Commentary on Muzorewa's political impotence’, Maputo, Voice of Zimbabwe, 14 May 1979, FBISDR - sub-Saharan Africa, 16 May 1979, FBIS-SSA-79-096, E2–E4 at E4.

84 ‘Editorial: Sithole and Muzorewa's auxiliary bandits’, ZN x (Sept./Oct. 1978), 1.

85 ‘The Anglican Church and the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe’, ZR, 1 June 1974, 1–3 at p. 1.

86 Ibid. 1–3.

87 ‘Lazarus awake!’, ZN iv (9 May 1969), 5–6 at p. 5.

88 Ibid. 6.

89 Zvobgo, ‘Church and State in Rhodesia’, 383–4.

90 ‘The Rhodesian regime's constitution’, ZR i (Aug. 1969), 3–4 at p. 4. On the Reformed Churches in South Africa see M. Plaatjies-Van Huffel and R. Vosloo (eds), Reformed Churches in South Africa and the struggle for justice: remembering 1960–1990, Stellenbosch 2013.

91 ‘African Churches condemn racism’, 24.

92 ‘Education and culture: political commissariat lecture series: liberation war is a vast school for the masses’, ZN x (May/June 1978), 57–61 at p. 58.

93 Maxwell, Christians and chiefs in Zimbabwe, 125.

94 ‘A short history of Zimbabwe's struggle: the barrel of our gun is growing hotter every year’, ZR (quarterly edition) (Oct.–Dec. 1973), 7–9 at p. 7.

95 N. Shamuyarira, ‘Education as an instrument of social transformation in Zimbabwe’, ZN x (Mar./Apr. 1978), 61–4 at p. 62.

96 J. Nkomo, ‘Why is the West so worried?’, in Zimbabwe: the final advance, Oakland, Ca 1978, 43–8 at p. 43.

97 ‘The Church and revolution’, 5–6 at p. 5.

98 Maxwell, ‘Christianity and the war in eastern Zimbabwe’, 74; Alexander, J., McGregor, J. and Ranger, T., Violence & memory: one hundred years in the ‘dark forests’ of Matabeleland, Oxford 2000, 169Google Scholar.

99 ‘Z.A.P.U.: its origins and direction produced by the publicity bureau of ZAPU (Patriotic Front)’, ZR vi (?Sept. 1977), 35–42 at p. 35.

100 Alexander, J. and Ranger, T., ‘Competition and integration in the religious history of north-western Zimbabwe’, Journal of Religion in Africa xxviii (1998), 331CrossRefGoogle Scholar at p. 19.

101 ‘Lazarus awake!’, 6.

102 ‘The Rev. A. S. Cripps’, The Times, 8 Aug. 1952, 6; ‘Guy Clutton-Brock’, The Times, 2 Feb. 1995, 21.

103 Shamuyarira, ‘Education as an instrument of social transformation in Zimbabwe’, 62.

104 Ibid.

105 Ibid.

106 Ibid. 63.

107 Ibid.

108 Ibid.

109 ‘ZANU delegate's address’, Dar es Salaam in English to East Africa, 12 May 1979, FBISDR - sub-Saharan Africa, 14 May 1979, FBIS-SSA-79–094, A2.

110 ‘Over two thousand mission churches may close down’, ZN v (Apr. 1970), 5–8 at p. 5.

111 Ibid. 8.

112 Zvobgo, ‘Church and State in Rhodesia’, 387–90.

113 ‘The real terrorists’, ZN v (Mar. 1970), 11; ‘Smith and Church’, ZR ii (May/June 1970), 7.

114 ‘The Church and the State’, ZR, 2 May 1970, 3.

115 Godwin and Hancock, ‘“We're all Rhodesians”’, in Godwin and Hancock, ‘Rhodesians never die’, 45.

116 C. Longley, ‘Church grant puts a strain on loyalty’, The Times, 16 Oct. 1978, 17; A. Roy, ‘Mugabe's army gets £45,000 from Churches’, Daily Telegraph, 11 Aug. 1978, 1, 28; ‘Aid for terrorists’, Daily Telegraph, 11 Aug. 1978, 14; M. E. Synon, ‘World Churches give £16,000 to Patriotic Front’, Daily Telegraph, 22 Sept. 1979, 6. See also P. Webb (ed.), A long struggle: the involvement of the World Council of Churches in southern Africa, Geneva 1994, 27–8.

117 Blake, R., A history of Rhodesia, London 1977, 366–7 at p. 374Google Scholar.

118 ‘Tangwena fights on’, ZN v (Nov. 1970), 5–6, 16 at p. 6.

119 ‘The Anglican Church and the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe’, 2.

120 K. Slack, ‘Granting aid to guerrilla groups’, letter to the editor, The Times, 28 Aug. 1978, 9.

121 ‘Puppets supported by reactionary Churches’, Zimbabwe People's Voice, 20 Jan. 1979, 6, reproduced as ‘Church support of Internal Settlement hit’ in Translations on sub-Saharan Africa no. 2079, Arlington, Va 1979, 173.

122 Ibid.

123 Ibid.

124 Cviic, K. F., ‘The politics of the World Council of Churches’, World Today xxxv (1979), 369–76 at p. 369Google Scholar.

125 This is discussed extensively in Maxwell, ‘Christianity and the war in eastern Zimbabwe’, and in Griffiths, The axe and the tree.

126 ‘Speech by Mr Robert Mugabe, co-leader of the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front’, Decolonization: A Publication of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, Trusteeship and Decolonization viii (July 1977), 48–56 at pp. 52–3.

127 Ibid. 53.

128 Ibid.

129 Zvobgo, ‘Church and State in Rhodesia’, 382.

130 ‘Inside Zimbabwe: from the death cells’, ZN iii (13 Apr. 1968), 3.

131 Ibid.

132 ‘Face to face’, ZR iv (July/Aug. 1975), 10–11 at p. 10.

133 ‘Oppression and the Church’, ZR (quarterly edition) (Jan./Mar. 1974), 2.

134 ‘Smith's Selous Scouts assassinate missionaries’, 11.

135 Interestingly, there were some clergy in the Church of England who endorsed a ‘holy war’ against Rhodesia, a point of view attacked by the Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 5th marquis of Salisbury, and rejected by the dean of Bulawayo: ‘Holy war to beat Smith “justified”’, The Times, 23 June 1969, 1; Lord Salisbury, ‘Call for holy war against Rhodesia’, letter to the editor, The Times, 1 July 1969, 9; C. A. Shaw, ‘Call for a holy war’, letter to the editor, The Times, 9 July 1969, 11. Shortly before UDI, the archbishop of Canterbury, speaking for the British Council of Churches, had advised Harold Wilson that Christians would not object to the use of force if it was deemed necessary to oppose UDI: Blake, A history of Rhodesia, 379–80.

136 ‘The Anglican Church and the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe’, 1.

137 ‘The Church and revolution’, 6.

138 ‘African education threatened by Apartheid laws’, ZN v (Sept. 1970), 10–13 at p. 12.

139 Ibid.

140 ‘The role of Churches’, 2.

141 Ibid.

142 ‘The Church and revolution’, 6.

143 ‘Lazarus awake!’, 6.

144 ‘From inside Zimbabwe’, ZR, 14 July 1973, 4–5 at p. 4.

145 McLaughlin, ‘Avila mission’, 95; ‘“Rhodesian whites are closed from the truth”: Sister McLaughlin tells the Voice of Zimbabwe in an exclusive interview’, ZN x (July/Aug. 1978), 33–5 at p. 35; M. Meredith, ‘The dilemma of bishop Lamont’, Sunday Times, 6 Feb. 1977, 17.

146 McLaughlin, ‘Avila mission’, 91, 98, 100–1.

147 ‘The Church and revolution’, 6.

148 ‘Lazarus awake!’, 6.

149 Ibid.

150 ‘Role of the Churches’, 2.

151 ‘The Christian Church and the liberation struggle: ZAPU’, 185.

152 ‘The Church and the State’, 3.

153 Ibid.

154 ‘Oppression and the Church’, 2.

155 ‘Role of the Churches’, 2; ‘Lazarus awake!’, 5–6.

156 Godwin and Hancock, ‘Rhodesians never die’, 129.

157 Ranger and Bhebe, ‘Volume introduction’, 19.

158 ‘“Sharing common suffering, enjoying common benefits”: an interview with ZANU president Mugabe’, Southern Africa xii (Sept. 1979), 3–5 at p. 5.