Great Britain was not responsible for the Gukurahundi genocide, but it did not use its obvious influence in Zimbabwe to stop the brutality. To Matabeleland, memories of the time are essential because that is the best way of keeping the atrocities real in our minds. When the Mugabe regime authorised the use of a specially trained army unit to raze villages down and execute unarmed civilians in Matabeleland the world looked away and acted as if it was not happening. For the duration of that illegal operation, minimisation was the preferred policy among those who knew the truth, had the capacity to stop the murders and should have acted to stop the killings, but chose not to.
Britain as the former colonial ruler still wielded a lot of economic and political influence on its ex-colony to stop Gukurahundi atrocities. Instead, the British government favoured a sympathetic and constructive advice strategy rather than strong criticism of Harare and with that abdicated its responsibilities to Matabeleland civilians; it chose not to interrogate ZANU’s assertion that it was dealing with dissidents in the region, nobody officially questioned the proportionality of the intervention.
Largely owing to the British government’s stance, major international political bodies refrained from challenging the 5th Brigade activities to be put under control; there were no rules of engagement laid out to prevent or minimise collateral damage. In fact, Britain was satisfied with the operation because the white community resident in Matabeleland were reportedly safe, and so was their property.
Often when no one else acknowledges your abuse you sometimes feel that it is not real; this was Matabeleland’s experience, people felt confused. We went through a phase where we could not trust our own experience and perceptions. That denial of our experience by others led us to suppress our memories, thus further obscuring the issue.
Denial and minimising of the Gukurahundi genocide is a political gift to ZANU PF, but it is becoming a major hindrance in addressing the issue hence it should be a target of detection and measurement. We need to appreciate the acknowledgement or denial of the atrocities to pitch our interventions to a level where they can be understood by all who call Matabeleland home. At the moment there is no agreement in how best to progress. We have those individuals for whom the genocide is a thing of the past and subscribe to ‘let bygones be bygones’.
Perhaps the most dangerous individuals and groups are those seeking acceptance by mainstream Zimbabwean society and have figured out that mainstream Zimbabwean society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimise the differences that separate him from the majority. It goes without saying that those who minimise Gukurahundi are rewarded with better treatment by ZANU PF systems and institutions, they thus feel obligated to work harder to suppress the pain in our communities.
Basically if you study the attitudes of our own people who want acceptance into mainstream institutions to reduce risk to themselves, there is a misnomer: People think that by associating with ZANU PF and getting rewarded for it, they are safe. In reality their risks are not reduced, they present themselves for closer monitoring by the state that expects them to work against their communities for the benefit of the state; these people do not solve problems, but delay a repeat of the same aggressive behaviour by the state should its needs not be met. The state is not interested in their safety but its own public image.
ZANU PF is the only beneficiary of Matabeleland people’s Gukurahundi amnesia. It is no surprise that the party is so invested in the promotion of forgetfulness which will help it escape accountability for the crimes. Quite clearly, secrecy has failed, now the party is deploying attacks on the credibility of the victims thereby tempering with the international community audience.
To end our own denial of the atrocities we must remember them, document them and recite them. Allowing ourselves to remember is a way of confirming in our own mind that we did not just imagine the Gukurahundi atrocities, they happened. Because Mugabe reduced the atrocities to ‘a moment of madness’, and chose not to acknowledge our pain, some of our own people have fallen into the trap that perhaps it was not as bad as we make it out. In order to acknowledge to ourselves that it really was that bad, we need to remember as much detail as possible.
The ZANU PF government must understand that the denial of justice for Gukurahundi survivors is a gaping wound that will not heal, that the enforced silence against those early 1980s killings in the region is not a solution, and as long as Matabeleland people are made to feel that Zimbabwean society is an organised conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, nobody will be safe.
Gukurahundi killings is ZANU’s history; surviving the Gukurahundi is Matabeleland’s history. We have a once in a generation opportunity to do the right thing; let us call genocide, genocide. Let us not minimise the deliberate murder of over 20,000 people including unborn babies. We are trapped in a conflict between the will to deny Gukurahundi atrocities and the will to proclaim them aloud. The latter is the way to go, the state murders of unarmed civilians cannot be reduced to a mere ‘moment of madness’. Let us have a moral victory that can shine as a light to all nations.