A Whole Conference Dissolved

In December, 1992, the Zambesi Conference under the Zambesi Union of Seventh-day Adventists and the SDA Association of Southern Africa, headed by president Abdulla Ahomed, was voted to be dissolved at the Annual Council of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. A General Conference representative, Elder Kenneth Mittleider, a vice-president, was sent to Zimbabwe to execute this vote. However, according to the Zambesi Conference constitution, a 75% vote of the conference constituents was required to dissolve the conference.

President Ahomed spoke with Elder Mittleider and told him that the Zambesi Conference would abide by the legal constitution and a vote would be taken by the constituents regarding dissolving the conference. When a vote was taken by the constituent members, 83% voted to retain the Zambesi Conference. It was this decisive vote, not recognized by the General Conference, that created an independent Zambesi Conference with membership at that time of 1200-1500 members.

In January, 1999, after seven years of skirmishes over properties occupied by members of the Zambesi Conference (whose members had for the most paid for them) and other legal matters associated with the Zambesi Conference, the SDA Association of Southern Africa and the Zambesi Union of SDAs took their case to court against the Zambesi Conference. During these interim years of independence, because of active evangelism and missionary work, the Zambesi Conference Sabbath school membership has grown to between six and seven thousand members and the baptized membership now stands at 4,500.

A issue centrally in this dispute is property including 26 buildings consisting of the Zambesi Conference head office complex, houses occupied by pastors and other workers, church buildings, and a large built up campsite in the Vumba mountains. The combined value is estimated at $17 million Zambesi dollars. (The US equivalent is $460,000) As per policy of the Eastern African Division of SDA, all fixed property acquired by churches and conferences must be legally registered in the name of the property holding body, namely the SDA Association of Southern Africa which is registered at the deeds office in Harare, Zimbabwe. However, according to the constitution (constitutions have now been changed for the other three conferences in the Zambesi Union), all title deeds included the proviso that property was being “held in trust” by the association but remained the property of the legal owners, the Zambesi Conference. This designation of properties being “held in trust” by the property holding body is stated in all copies of the constitutions backdated to the establishment of the Zambesi Conference, in 1929.

In the case of the churches, local congregations who raised the funds for these buildings and who underwrote loans and guaranteed financial responsibility for repayment of same, retained the right of real ownership in the event of dispute. Additionally, local church membership and the Zambesi Conference leadership accepted all liability for expenses incurred in the maintenance and operation of properties and buildings. Witnesses testifying have clearly shown that the Zambesi Conference provided the major portion of all funds required in the purchase and construction of these churches, offices and houses. Receipts and documents can be provided by the Zambesi Conference to substantiate this claim of funding. However, in some cases, limited funds were provided by the Zambesi Union and the Eastern Africa Division.

Judgment which normally takes several weeks before publication, was delivered in a few days by the presiding High Court Judge. The ruling was totally in favor of the plaintiffs—the Zambesi Union and the SDA Association of Southern Africa. April 1, 1999, when the appeal by the Zambesi Conference was dismissed, the same High Court Judge also ruled that the Zambesi Union could move into the Zambesi Conference premises.’ This is somewhat unusual, since further appeal can be made and Justice Smith’s ruling could be overturned, thereby returning properties to the Zambesi Conference.

Even before the dismissal of the appeal was communicated to the Zambesi Conference, Pastor Ahomed was asked by Zambesi Union officials to vacate his home with one weeks’ notice. This request was denied as Zimbabwe law requires three months notice of eviction from homes. Conference churches, however, were vacated in less than a week. Members, nearly as a body simply walked away from the buildings they had sacrificed to build and maintain.

At the present time, members of the churches have been meeting in tents, under trees, and in rented facilities. The Zambesi Conference plans to appeal their case to the Supreme Court which they are entitled to do. However, an appeal cannot be made until the High Court Judge places his ruling in writing and as of the end of August 1999, this had not been done.

Members of the independent Zambesi Conference are of good courage in the Lord. They are moving ahead with plans to obtain new facilities and to continue evangelism in their country. High on the priority list is to develop the new camp facilities where children can attend, Pathfinders can be encouraged, campmeetings can be held, and pastors can more effectively be prepared to preach the everlasting gospel. If you would like to have a part in the development of this project and the work in Zimbabwe, mark your gift to Steps to Life for Zimbabwe. Pray for the Lord’s work in this part of the vineyard.