Mugabe's party widens supporter catchment area, targeting apostolic sect faiths

Harare, Zimbabwe - Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe' s Zanu-PF party is making a two-pronged approach on apostolic faith sects in the country with a view to having all of them immunize their children against killer diseases, while at the same time increasing its support base.

The party's highest decision making body outside congress, the political bureau (in short politburo), decided at its meeting in Harare on Wednesday to push the government to engage the apostolic sects so that they immunize their children against measles.

It also wants the party's commissariat department to mobilize the church to support its programs.

Zanu-PF has begun a massive mobilization drive ahead of possible elections in 2011. Mugabe and MDC leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai have intimated that fresh elections may be held next year, with or without a new constitution as had been anticipated.

However, their colleague in the inclusive government Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara of the smaller MDC faction, has dismissed the possibility of elections next year, although as a junior partner in the government, his word may not carry the day.

Even though the Zanu-PF says the government should lobby the sects to immunize, the intention goes beyond health issues with the party lately targeting them as a potential support base. It will, therefore, not be surprising to see it using its health and commissariat departments to indoctrinate the sects both politically and health-wise.

Also, given that the minister of health and child welfare in Zimbabwe's inclusive government is from Tsvangirai's MDC party, Zanu-PF will find the use of its own structures to reach out to the sects being the most desirable route. The sects command huge followings, with their numbers increasing everyday.

Zanu-PF entered into a power-sharing agreement with the two MDC factions after losing a lot of ground in the 2008 legislative elections, and the disputed presidential election won by Mugabe after Tsvangirai withdrew from the race. Tsvangirai, who had won the first round but failed to attain 50 percent or more of the vote, withdrew because of the violence that preceded the run-off with Mugabe.

Zanu-PF now wants to reclaim lost glory and is leaving no stone unturned in its quest to do so.

The party's information and publicity secretary told the Herald that the politburo had urged to commissariat department to continue engaging various groups such as the Church to support the party's programs, adding that the government should work with apostolic sects on the issues of measles and hygiene.

All the apostolic faith sects, except probably one (Johane Marange), do not immunize their children against the six child killer diseases - measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, poliomyelitis and neo-natal tetanus - although the government provides the service free of charge. Neither do they visit hospitals and clinics for conventional medical care, leaving their children's fate in the hands of God instead.

An apostolic faith sect member who refused to be named told Xinhua in an interview on Thursday that most sects did not seek conventional treatment because they believed that only the power of God and water could sustain a person's life.

"God looks after the person's life, while water is the life. That is why you see them blessing water which they use to treat each other. That is also why they do not eat a lot of foods, preferring the more natural ones like vegetables and beef.

"They do not want to visit hospitals because they fear that they may eat food contaminated with some foods they are not supposed to eat, such as pork," he added.

Measles, a highly contagious viral respiratory infection that causes high fever, skin rash, running nose, watery eyes and a cough, mainly among children under the age of five, has proved to be the biggest of the killer diseases, with about 98 percent of the deaths occurring among the apostolic sects.

The disease was once brought under firm control in the 1990s, accounting for only one life in 1998, but lack of immunization may result in resurgence because the danger of the disease spreading is very high because vaccination is not 100 percent effective and exposure may lead to infection.

What this amounts to is that some people who immunize their children against the killer diseases end up being compromised by the faith of others who do not see the importance of taking preventive measures.

Some sects have been known to hide away their children during vaccination programs, even running away with the sick on whom they pour "holy water", leaving the authorities helpless because they cannot force the parents to have the children vaccinated against their will.

The law only empowers the minister responsible for health to institute measures that protect everyone in an emergency, but bars the same from forcing people to access a service that prevents them from being threats to public health.

However, Zanu-PF now looks set to use the resistance to its advantage by persuading the sects to come on board and at the same time embrace the part's principles.