JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - During his Sunday sermons at St. Mary'sCathedral in Zimbabwe, Archbishop Pius Ncube offers terrifying accounts of thestate-sponsored torture, beatings, rape and starvation that he says havebecome the reality of daily life under President Robert Mugabe's regime.
When the Australian cricket team played Zimbabwe in a World Cup Cricketmatch last year, Ncube led a demonstration of banner-carrying clergymen ontothe grounds protesting Zimbabwe's government.
Traveling abroad, the archbishop has urged U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other leaders to bring Mugabe's government to heel through economicsanctions or - better yet, he says - shutting off Zimbabwe's electricitysupply from South Africa.
In a country where most people are cowed into silence, the 57-year-oldarchbishop is the leading and often lone voice of defiance against thepolitical and economic turmoil that is causing Zimbabwe, he says, to "fall topieces."
For his exploits, however, the Roman Catholic leader pays a price.
His phones are tapped. He has received numerous death threats. Secretpolice follow him everywhere, watching him from the pews of his cathedral anddemanding he restrict his comments to spiritual matters.
In the state-run media, he is regularly slandered as an enemy of the state.Among the accusations made against him are that he has raped nuns andencouraged homosexual acts in state prisons.
President Mugabe, a Catholic, recently labeled the archbishop a "liar" and"unholy man."
Such challenges only make the archbishop speak louder. "I'm not backingdown on this. Why must the people of Zimbabwe suffer because Mugabe is drivingfor power at all costs? I'm not going to give in," Ncube said during aninterview last week in South Africa, where he is on a speaking tourhighlighting human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
In person, Ncube hardly measures up to the imposing human rights figuressuch as Nelson Mandela or Archbishop Desmond Tutu to whom he looks forinspiration. His face shows fatigue, his gray suit is rumpled, his eyes arehidden behind smudged black-rimmed glasses. His voice is light and somewhatraspy, comforting for consoling the sick and poor, but seemingly too weak tothreaten Mugabe's government.
Yet, it is not so much his personality or the forcefulness of his voicethat has made him Zimbabwe's top human rights campaigner; it what he iswilling to say.
"He is fearless and completely committed to the interests of the people. Hedoes not mince his words at all," says John Makumbe, a professor of politicalscience at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.
Ncube first came into prominence in 2000, when Mugabe began seizingwhite-owned farmland to hand to landless black peasants. Ncube did nothesitate to condemn the land invasions, which often turned violent and led toseveral killings of farmers.
While most clergy were afraid to speak out, Ncube openly condemned thepolitical violence that defined parliamentary elections in 2000 and thepresidential elections in 2002, accusing Mugabe of stealing the election byvote rigging.
Now, as Zimbabwe's economy collapses, hunger spreads and political tensiondeepens, Zimbabweans are looking to Ncube as perhaps the one man who mightoffer them help.
But during his visit to South Africa, Ncube gave a gloomy forecast for hiscountry. Violence, intimidation and vote rigging will disrupt theparliamentary elections scheduled for March, he says.
"Youth militia go out to the villages intimidating people, saying if wedon't win, we are going to come back and burn your home," he says.
Mugabe's government, he says, has stifled political discourse by shuttingdown the country's independent newspapers and passing laws that restrict theopposition party's ability to hold meetings.
"You are dealing here with very deceitful people, and there's no way youcan have free and fair elections," said Ncube.
Ncube's role as a clergyman makes it difficult for the government todismiss his criticisms as mere politicking. The Roman Catholic Church inZimbabwe has earned respect as an independent, critical voice. During thewhite regime led by Ian Smith before the country gained independence in 1980,Catholic leaders openly condemned the government's transgressions against themajority-black population.
Ncube, Makumbe says, plays on the conscience of Mugabe, who attended aCatholic boarding school, was married by a bishop and attends Mass from timeto time, "when he wants to show some penance."
The government would like nothing more than for Ncube to be quiet. Once hewas offered a seized farm in exchange for his silence, he says, but herefused.
Many of his supporters understandably fear for his life, as does Ncube.
"We will not be surprised if something quite nasty happens to him," saysMakumbe.
Ncube's criticisms do not end with Zimbabwe's government. He lashed out atZimbabwe's main opposition party - the Movement for Democratic Change -calling it too passive and weak to lead the people.
"We failed to raise a struggle leader. Someone who could convince people tosay `Hey, we've had enough of it now. Let's all rise and say we've had enoughof it. If everyone did that Mugabe wouldn't be able to shoot everyone,'" hesaid.
He blames African leaders for failing to denounce Mugabe last week during ameeting of the African Union. "All they do is back each other up and drinktea," he said.
Ncube singled out South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki for supportingMugabe "hook, line and sinker."
After promising to pursue a peaceful solution to Zimbabwe's crisis, Mbekihas failed to get Mugabe to agree to sit down for talks with the opposition.Ncube and other critics are pressuring South Africa to threaten to cutelectric power to Zimbabwe to force Mugabe to embrace democratic reforms.
During his stay in Johannesburg, Ncube visited soup kitchens, churchshelters and streets, meeting some of the estimated 2 million Zimbabwerefugees who have fled to South Africa to escape political intimidation andlook for work. Many of the families live on the street or live a dozen or moreto a room in apartment buildings, he said.
If a solution is not found soon to Zimbabwe's crisis, Ncube warned, anadditional million refugees could pour across the border. There is nothingleft to keep them in Zimbabwe, he says.