Charles Masunungure used to be a policeman in Zimbabwe – a job that does not exactly inspire confidence in the general population.
The police were deployed by the country’s former dictator, Robert Mugabe, to keep him in power – and quash descent – but Masunungure was not a typical member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZPR).
“I wanted to serve the people I worked with, to council and support them – so I started doing pastoral and theological training,” he said.
“I can speak the same language as the police, I understand them but I developed into a different product.”
In time, his counselling skills were deployed in the community and the 48-year-old started mediating between the members of hostile political parties.
Inevitably perhaps, the policeman-turned-pastor was chosen as a commissioner in Zimbabwe’s nascent Peace and Reconciliation Commission.
The body started functioning in February under the man who deposed Mugabe in a coup – Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Having been sworn-in as president, Mnangagwa has promised the country a “brighter future” through economic and political reforms.
But his political opponents have a tough time stomaching the reformist credentials of a man who has spent most of his life at the top of Zimbabwe’s long-time ruling party, Zanu-PF.
They claim Mnangagwa won the county’s recent election through intimidation, harassment and various forms of “vote engineering” in rural areas.
Such accusations have been directed at Zanu-PF in every election since the country’s foundation in 1980.
Certainly, deep-rooted resentment and anger runs through spots like Mount Darwin – where Zanu-PF has never lost an election in six local constituencies – and it is here, in this impoverished, rural area, that the peace and reconciliation people come in.
Masunungure fielded a call from Mt Darwin just after the election informing him that 12 members of the opposition MDC party had fled their homes for safe-houses in the capital after Zanu-PF supporters had chased them out.
Instead of doing nothing – or passing the matter on to someone else – Masunungure went to Mt Darwin and talked to the district commander of the police and leaders of the political parties.
Eventually, he found a way to get the refugees home. Next, he called a community meeting in the ramshackle hall of a broken-down sports club in Mt Darwin.
Bitter political enemies – as well as officials like the police chief – were invited to sit down and talk in what Masunungure described to us as an “experiment.”
“One of the ways to promote healing – to promote understanding is – to get people to tell their stories,” he said.
“There is a method – a structure designed to try and get people to engage and walk in the shoes of another.”
Opposition members in attendance put detailed accounts of intimidation, harassment, discrimination (at the hands of biased officials) and partisan policing to local leaders of Zanu-PF – and two fascinating things occurred.
First, people in positions of responsibility were held to account – if only temporarily – by people in the community who felt they had a safe space to speak.
Secondly, when confronted with opposing views, group members starting working on mutually acceptable solutions.
For example, MDC members claimed that the ruling party only distributes food aid and services to supporters of Zanu-PF – so a group from the Mt Darwin West constituency agreed on the need for a multi-party committee to oversee distribution.
“I think you always get a payoff when you do your best. Every moment is special and if that moment is only one millionth of what you are hoping to achieve, well, that’s something,” says Masunungure.
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