The Gukurahundi genocidal operation in Matabeleland and Ndebele people populated parts of the Midlands was not, as described in 1999 by President Robert Mugabe, ‘a moment of madness’, it was not just a murderous madness; it was, more deeply, a deliberate and calculated political process that sort to establish a utopia beyond politics – one people, one truth and end of difference.
The context: ZANU PF’s dream
Right from its formation in 1963, ZANU PF’s goals were tribal, the party’s interests solely lay in protecting ethnic Shona interests at all cost. Unlike PF ZAPU that was national in form, ZANU’s base was Mashonaland and ethnic Shona people. To the ZANU PF elite, Ndebeles were a sea of opposition that needed to be drained. The party’s 1979 Grand Plan was unambiguous but clear in its ambition to annihilate Ndebeles and turn Shona creed into law within an independent Zimbabwe state. To date, the party’s palpable unease with or hostility to multiethnicity, multicultural society and political plurality remains its central feature.
Mugabe called the operation Gukurahundi, Shona for “the rain that washes away the chaff (from the last harvest), before the spring rains”. Gukurahundi was a genocidal act, it was an attempt to exterminate Ndebeles and had nothing to do with addressing the behaviour of some dissenting ex-Zipra combatants and/ or armed criminals who went on a spree of committing crime, including killing white farmers in Matabeleland.
Gukurahundi Past versus Gukurahundi History
There is no argument about the Gukurahundi past, it happened but Gukurahundi history is highly contentious. Gukurahundi past is an ocean of brutal and evil events that once happened in Matabeleland and parts of Midlands in the 1980s with full government approval. These past events have been reconstructed by ZANU PF on the basis of its present experience and political interests – this is the Gukurahundi history as we know it today. We must emphasise and not ignore the selectivity of the reconstruction of elements from the Gukurahundi past, since the infinite detail and totality of that past would never be reconstructed. Like any history writing process, the writing of the Gukurahundi history was a process of highly selective reconstruction of features of the past through the lenses of ZANU PF and its sympathisers.
Why it is important to tell the Gukurahundi story
Disconnecting us from our past is an essential political project of the Zimbabwean formal history education, for without a knowledge of our past we are nothing but a leaf that does not appreciate it is part of a tree. The ZANU 1979 Grand Plan clearly had an understanding that the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their past thus, the history being taught our children in the independent Zimbabwe. The education package is targeted at erasing the memories of that period. Students are taught to forget Gukurahundi but retain the Unity Agreement of 1987.
Those Zimbabweans who, in response to the Gukurahundi atrocities, believe in let bygones be bygones have their reasons, most likely selfish ones and based on ignorance. History teaches us that ignorance is the biggest road block to action on genocide and other human rights crimes. In the early 1980s Zimbabwe, apart from the victims in Matabeleland and the Midlands regions, Mashonaland did not only fail to disapprove of atrocities committed by the ethnic Shona dominated ZANU PF government but displayed a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. Most people supposedly had no knowledge of the atrocities while those with a vague idea of the state sanctioned killings were of the view that the state was dealing with malcontents, ‘dissidents’ and justified. As things turned out in later years, nothing could be further from the truth.
For the record, we are not telling the Gukurahundi story and calling for the remembrance of the Gukurahundi victims because we love being victims or take comfort in living in the past. The idea of telling the story of the Matabeleland genocide and repeating those stories is important for today and the future of our politics. It is the height of folly to believe that aggressors will fully understand the emotional impact of their actions upon their victims, let alone accept it.
Make no mistake, history is always written by the victorious. When ZAPU and ZANU clashed in the early 1980s, ZAPU was obliterated and so was Matabeleland that provided the support base for the party, and the renamed ZANU PF party got down to its mission of recreating the past and depicting it in history books – books which glorified Mashonaland and disparaged Matabeleland. As highlighted above, the Gukurahundi story narrated in history books turns out to be a fable agreed upon in Harare; the history unsurprisingly favours ZANU PF and its sympathisers.
Listen to the past from the witness of the atrocities. We are here telling the story of Gukurahundi because we want to correct the misrepresentation of the past as told in history books written by ZANU PF and its sympathisers and tell the truth of that past from the Matabeleland victims’ point of view.
We want to ensure the lessons of the Gukurahundi genocide are properly understood and acknowledged; we must be on hand to always be exposing the warning signs for what led up to it so that it is never repeated in this and the next generation.
Unquestionable State involvement
No one has officially claimed responsibility for the atrocities but available evidence suggests that Gukurahundi was planned at the highest level of government and formed Zimbabwean government policy. On 7 March 1983 Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland, a British businessman and chief executive of the Lonrho conglomerate with heavy economic commitments in Zimbabwe, met with Mugabe and then subsequently reported to the American ambassador in Harare that he was “absolutely convinced” that Mugabe knew about the atrocities and claimed that Mnangagwa, then secretary of state for security, was “fully aware”. Tiny described Mugabe as blunt and unyielding.
The 5th Brigade
There is no doubt the 5th Brigade was a preconceived creation of then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. In October 1980, Mugabe signed an agreement with the North Korean President, Kim II Sung for the Korean government to train a brigade for the Zimbabwean army. This agreement was signed soon after Mugabe had announced the need for a militia to “combat malcontents”. It is important to note that there were no security disturbances at the time.
106 Koreans arrived in August of 1981 to train the new brigade, which Mugabe pointed was to be used to “deal with dissidents and any other trouble in the country”. It is worth noting that even then, there had been very little internal unrest that warranted the intervention of a specialist military force.
Concerned about Mugabe’s intentions, Joshua Nkomo, leader of ZAPU, queried the necessity of this brigade seeing the country already had appropriate security provision to handle internal problems (Nkomo worried that the brigade would be used by Mugabe to build a one-party state). Mugabe retorted saying dissidents should “watch out”.
The 5th Brigade was mainly drawn from ex-ZANLA troops with a few Zipra troops drawn into the unit; the latter were withdrawn before the end of the training. There are allegations that there were also some foreigners in the unit, possibly Tanzanians. The training of the 5th Brigade lasted until September 1982, when Minister Sidney Sekeramayi announced training was complete. The first Commander of 5 Brigade was Colonel Perence Shiri.
The 5th Brigade with its distinguishing red berets was an exceptional unit in that it was not integrated into the army and was answerable only to the Prime Minister, and not to the normal army command structures. Their codes, uniforms, radios and equipment were not compatible with other army units.
The trail of Gukurahundi brutality
Over a nine-month period the Fifth Brigade killed, tortured and raped tens of thousands of unarmed civilians. In all, it is largely believed that at least 30,000 people died in the atrocities, and many more suffered severe physical or psychological harm.
The first phase of Gukurahundi took place in Matabeleland North in 1983 when state security forces put in place a curfew, and massacred, beat, raped, and tortured hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Looting and burning of villages became the norm leaving entire communities devastated.
The second phase of the Gukurahundi campaign was marked by the government of Zimbabwe’s launch of a strict curfew in parts of Matabeleland South in 1984; an exclusion zone was created in the communal areas within which the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), the Zimbabwean National Army (ZNA), and Fifth Brigade enforced a policy of food deprivation against the overwhelmingly Ndebele population; at least 350 000 Ndebele civilians were affected in the operation.
The British wilful blindness to Gukurahundi massacres
Gukurahundi massacres were evidently a creation of the Mugabe government, but through a catalogue of misjudgements, the British could not use their economic and political influence in Zimbabwe to help halt the massacres. The British government authorities swallowed every word from Mugabe without questioning; his views formed British evidence and informed its attitude and approach to the situation.
The established communication of British officials in London and Zimbabwe gives a strong indication that the British government was aware of the Gukurahundi atrocities but consistently minimised their scale to preserve British relations with the Mugabe regime. Even at the height of the Gukurahundi atrocities, the British government’s authorities favoured a sympathetic and constructive advice strategy, rather than strong criticism of the Zimbabwean government.
Concluding from a review of the thousands of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Dr Hazel Cameron, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, argues that the British government adopted a ‘wilful blindness’ policy to preserve its relations with Mr Mugabe and protect British economic and political interests in Zimbabwe.
Even more worrying is the openly racist component to the British approach to Gukurahundi atrocities; British officials were preoccupied with the security of white communities with one diplomat quoted as saying “the white farming community (a substantial portion of which is British or dual [nationality]) are being treated scrupulously correctly by the Fifth Brigade and, while they dislike the methods being used, are relieved that their own security has improved very considerably as a result of Fifth Brigade deployment”.
The apparent conflict of interest meant that the protection of black human lives in Matabeleland and parts of Midlands was secondary to the British agenda leading to US diplomats raising concerns that the British Foreign Office prioritised bilateral relations with Zimbabwe over human lives in Matabeleland; the US diplomats argued that British officials were excessively defensive about the Mugabe-orchestrated atrocities in Matabeleland and even intimated that some Foreign Office officials acted like Mugabe apologists.
When Gukurahundi murders went out of hand and thousands of our people were butchered, a blanket of silence spread over the place, Mugabe misled the world, the British wilfully looked aside and chose to swallow his every word. That said, only Mugabe and his allies in government bear total responsibility for the Gukurahundi atrocities. We will not stop asking the questions and demanding for answers of that time. We cannot be preaching hope, while ignoring bones from the past. The danger in not addressing Gukurahundi atrocities in this generation is that the same awaits the next generation, what is not known is who the next victims would be.