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Tolerance, respect for freedom


The church is not supposed to act as an expert and offer technical solutions for political and economic problems. But the church has been taught by her Lord and master basic principles of leadership which apply in many social environments, including politics and economics.

Guest column: Oskar Wermter SJ

“The greatest among you must behave as if he were the youngest; the leader as if he were the one who serves.” (Luke 22:26). If we follow this advice, we cannot rule with unlimited power and impose superior force, for example, by using the military in civil conflicts.

“We do not need a strong man or woman, but strong institutions” (Rebuild Hope – a letter by Zimbabwean Bishops, 17 Jan 2019, no. 8). A democracy, which ultimately is based on the sovereignty of the people, cannot be an oppressor of the people, or it becomes a rule by just one person or a few persons over the majority. This lack of freedom would render the “war of liberation” pointless.

That is why we have this crucial constitutional device called “the separation of powers”. No one and no party rules over all aspects of government. The Executive branch of the State does not interfere with the courts (Judiciary), and the courts do not give directives to Parliament (Legislative).

Each of these three branches of State has power, but none has all the power. To limit power and give to each only a limited amount of power and authority is essential if the “little person” on the street, that is the individual citizen, is not to be crushed by military boots like a cockroach.

This creates a system of checks and balances. The President, by submitting his proposals to Parliament, gets the backing of the majority. If he neglects Parliament, he will rule like a dictator and his reign will become totalitarian. Individual rights are no longer respected. He reserves to himself total sovereignty, which really belongs to the electorate.

The system of checks and balances, of one arm of government setting limits to the others, will collapse.

He will deprive the people of their voice and there is no dialogue between ruler and those under his rule. There is no hope for justice and no trust and confidence in the leaders that they will be servants of the people.

Only if power and authority rest with the majority is there hope that the common good, not just the good of individuals and individual parties, will be served.

“Sovereignty of the people” means that the leader is aware that he was given his power and authority by the people. This power is also limited by time. The Constitution does not know “life presidents” (being president for life, that is until his end).

No arm of government has total control and unlimited power.

Neither police nor the army must think, “Since we act on behalf of government our power is as unlimited, and we are as unaccountable and independent, as our leaders.” Such a police or army has no place in a democracy since they do not accept that they are servants, not dominating dictatorial forces, answerable to no one.

“Politics is an essential means of building human community and institutions, but when political life is not seen as a form of service to society as a whole, it can become a means of oppression, marginalisation and even destruction.” The man who said this is not a Zimbabwean. He is a man with a worldwide vision, Francis, the Bishop of Rome.

His fellow bishops here in our country back him: “We call upon all people to exercise tolerance towards each other and to express their constitutional rights in a peaceful and nonviolent manner. Peaceful protest is provided for in the Constitution. …….We urge you to always shun violence and be mindful to respect everyone’s rights, especially those who do not agree with you.” (ZCBC, 17 Jan 2019).

To respect the freedom of those “who do not agree with you” sounds like a vision of heaven. Can we become such a heavenly country?

Oscar Wermeter SJ is a social commentator. He writes in his personal capacity.

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