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Fr Albert Plangger SMB (1925-2019)

by Benjamin Takavarasha

Fr Albert Plangger who passed away peacefully on July 8 at the Mother House of his Missionary Society at Immensee Switzerland at 94, played a pivotal role in Zimbabwe where he spent the greater part of his live, both in his Catholic Church and in the country at large.

He was born on June 9 1925 in the village of Oberuzwil in Switzerland, the eldest son of Austrian parents. He had two siblings, a younger brother and a sister
who became a religious nun.

He received his priestly ordination on March 18 1951 by Bishop Francis Demon of Aliwal, South Africa, and as is the norm, celebrated his first mass.

He arrived in the then Southern Rhodesia in November 1954 and began his missionary work in the then Diocese of Gwelo, now comprising of Masvingo and Gweru
dioceses. After work at the mission stations of Driefontein and Holy Cross, Bishop Aloysius Heine, bishop of the Diocese appointed him his secretary and made
him diocesan education secretary. He was resident at Mambo Press. During all the years at Mambo Press in Gweru, he served as a priest in the Catholic parish St
Mary’s in the Senga township.

In 1972 he became managing director of Mambo Press printing and publishing establishment. Mambo Press, strategically located at the centre of the
country, became known throughout the country in particular for its numerous publications in the local Shona and Ndebele languages, thereby becoming a godsend avenue for writers in those languages, and to a smaller extent, as well as English.

Sadly the demise of Mambo Press, hopefully temporary, apparently occasioned in particular by the volcanic economic meltdown of 2008, has left a huge gap for a platform of budding talent of seasoned and aspiring writers in English and local languages.

His most enduring legacy in that role was the publication of the iconic Shona prayer book Mupiro , later expanded under the new title, Minamato. Plangger published a collection of pastoral letters of the Rhodesian Catholic Bishops under the title, Rhodesia — the Moral Issue.

To the extent that at least six of the pastoral letters were condemning the settler regime, the collection helps to put the ZCBC’s pastoral letters into context when they condemn the post independence establishment as they have done from time to time, and will certainly do the same in future as need arises.

His other notable publication is Tsumo-Shumo, Shona Proverbial Lore and Wisdom which he co-authored with Mordikai Hamutyinei in 1974. He also published Catholic reactions to the liberation war in Zimbabwe in 1994.

And together with one of his fellow missionaries, he published the fascinating history of the Gwelo Mission from 1946 up to 1977, the date when the first local African priest, Tobias Chiginya, was ordained as the second bishop of Gwelo.

Given the impact of the then Gwelo diocese to the wider Catholic Church across the country, the book should be a valuable item towards tracing the history of Catholicism in the country at large. On the whole, Plangger was a prolific writer but with the far greater number of his titles in his native German.

Mambo Press main newspaper Moto (= Fire) reached a wide readership, filling a huge gap left by the mainstream papers by Argus press, Rhodesia Herald and Bulawayo Chronicle in giving voice, inter alia, to the hitherto voiceless, also itself providing scathing criticism of the colonial government and support for African nationalist parties, undoubtedly bringing it into conflict with the settler regime, whereby the directors of Mambo Press had to submit increasingly under the censorship of the white Rhodesian government and working under the spectre of legal prosecution.

Although the title Moto derives from a biblical verse: Luke 12:49 (“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”), the settler regime perceived the name as signifying, not a figurative but an actual fire! Things came to a head in 1974 when the racist government expelled Father Michael Traber SMB, one of the priests working on the paper, for “subversive activities”, with the paper itself closed in the same year.

Two years later, Traber was followed by the expulsion of bishop Donald Lamont, Bishop of Umtali, who over and above his public utterances, had also used Moto as a platform. But for all the problems Plangger and his fellow directors encountered in particular with Moto, they never perceived this aspect of their work as a sideshow, but as integral to their mission, an aspect of the Christian mission formalised by the Universal Church in its declaration: “The church has the right, indeed the duty, to proclaim justice on the social, national and international level, and to denounce instances of injustice, when the fundamental rights of man and his very salvation demand it” (Justice in the World, 1971 Synod of Bishops).
All in all, the story of Plangger’s 62 years in Zimbabwe doubles as an piece of the country’s history.
* abridged version

Benjamin Takavarasha is the former editor of the Zimbabwe Chaplaincy Newsletter in the UK

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