Tsvangirai heckled by anxious asylum-seekers

25 June 2009

by Pat Ashworth

Robust exchange: protesters outside Southwark Cathedral last Saturday, where Morgan Tsvangirai (below) was speaking   PA PHOTOS

SOUTHWARK Cathedral was the scene of angry protests on Saturday against Morgan Tsvangirai, prime minister of Zimbabwe’s government of national unity, and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler, had to appeal for Mr Tsvangirai to be heard, as exiled Zimbabweans heckled and booed him for suggesting it was safe for them to return to their country. Mr Tsvangirai left the pulpit for two minutes while the Bishop made his appeal, and cut short his prepared speech to take questions from the protesters.

More than 1800 people had packed the nave and side aisles to hear Mr Tsvangirai, who is on a global tour that has taken in meetings with President Obama and European heads of state, including Gordon Brown. Foreign govern­ments have been refusing to resume aid until the country can meet the conditions they have laid down over human rights and governance.

An icon of the Zimbabwean martyr Bernard Mizeki had been placed in front of the pulpit, from which Mr Tsvangirai told his audience that inflation had been cut, schools had reopened, and shops were better stocked. It was when he announced, “We have also made sure that there is peace and stability in the country,” that the protests erupted. They increased in volume when he appealed to exiles living in the UK to return home and help rebuild the country.

“Our mission is to create the necessary space, the necessary freedoms for Zimbabweans . . . to make sure that we give the people of Zimbabwe hope. Zimbabwe is changing for the better, and that change is for you and me to ensure that we can build a Zimbabwe together,” he said. When the jeers got louder, he insisted: “I did not say you must pack your bags and go back tomorrow.”


Dr Butler intervened to say: “The Prime Minister and you are guests in my house. Let us listen to one another. Let us treat our fellow guests with courtesy and listen to what the prime minister has to say.”

Dr Butler intervened to say: “The Prime Minister and you are guests in my house. Let us listen to one another. Let us treat our fellow guests with courtesy and listen to what the prime minister has to say.”

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Colin Slee, said on Monday that the cathedral had thought that there might be protests. The diocese was linked to four-fifths of Zim­babwe, and had very close con­nections with the Church there. It understood fully what was going on in the country, which was why the MDC had asked to hold the event in the cathedral.

“We were well aware that there is very strong feeling in the community in this country on three levels,” he said. “There is grave anxiety about Mr Tsvangirai’s participation in the shared government, and the ques­tion arises for them as to whether the MDC has sold out.

“Second, very many of the resi­d-ents in this country are here, legally and illegally, as asylum-seekers from blatant persecution. They will therefore not be happy with a simple reassurance about safety if they return, but will want evidence. They were assessing that evidence from Mr Tsvangirai.

“They have also been very poorly treated by the British Government, and have grave anxieties about Mr Tsvangirai reaching a deal with the British Government which will force them back home. They continue to be in close contact with people in Zimbabwe, and are not convinced that the country is generally more stable than a year ago. So they wanted to raise these issues with him, which they did.”

The cathedral had had no idea how many would come, and had arranged for speakers to be set up in the churchyard. In the event, the nave was cleared of chairs and 1863 people were accommodated. More were outside in the churchyards. “We did expect good African spontaneity and we got it,” said the Dean, who paid tribute to the Zimbabweans for being “unfailingly nice” to the cathedral staff.

Some of the Africans had apolo­gised for the singing and dancing that broke out at the end, but that had caused no anxiety at all, he said. “As far as we were concerned, it achieved everything we set out to offer. I think it was good fun myself. I’ve seen a number of occasions here in my time which have been far more worrying than that. But there were people who were jumpy. We are a lively church.”

Mr Tsvangirai gave an impromptu press conference afterwards in the cathedral’s Garry Weston Library. He defended his co-operation with Pres­ident Mugabe as a necessary process for rebuilding the country, and reportedly told exiles, “If you want to come and rebuild the country, please do so.

“But if you want to stay here as a permanent refugee, please do so again. But I don’t think the UK Government will appreciate the fact that, when things have been settled back home, then you are still seeking asylum.”

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