For years I have wanted to put my thoughts about Gukurahundi on paper. Not because I felt that what I had to say was particularly important or novel, but because I have always felt that for far too long we have relegated a great injustice in our country’s history to the backseat of national dialogue. Gukurahundi evokes a myriad of emotions. For me, growing up in Harare, I did not truly appreciate the extent to which this despicable epoch had shaped the attitudes and consciousness of the people that inhabit what is now Matabeleland and some parts of the Midlands.
While “Gukurahundi,” appeared in my lexicon of seminal Zimbabwean events from a pretty young age, I do not think I truly grasped the gravity of the injustices that went unchecked during what President Mugabe sadly and unfortunately describes as, “…a moment of madness.” Unfortunate in the sense that I feel it was an opportunity for our President to unequivocally condemn the events that took place between 1980 and 1987. Sad as well in the sense that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for our President to apologise to the affected families and communities, mostly of Ndebele ethnicity, who lost loved ones during this brutal suppression of a band of dissidents who were also foisting a reign of terror of their own on the civilian populations in these areas.
It was not until after I left high school that I decided to investigate what Gukurahundi really was. Even as a young man, it always struck me as extremely peculiar how there was very little or no mention of the Gukurahundi atrocities in Zimbabwean history books. My parents, both former Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) cadres, had in their own unique ways discreetly discouraged any inquisitiveness on my part when it came to the subject of Gukurahundi. The motivation for their secretive demeanour on the subject was perhaps borne out of their in-military training or perhaps it was symptomatic of the “bury your head in the sand” attitude that as a nation we have adopted when it comes to the state sponsored atrocities committed during Gukurahundi.
So what does Gukurahundi mean to me? It means death, genocide, displacement, and disenfranchisement of a whole people; it means ethnic cleansing, bigotry, brutality, ignorance, totalitarianism and denial. For me, Gukurahundi means that somewhere in the arid lowlands of Matabeleland, in some disused mine shaft or in some shallow grave near Bhalagwe Camp, lie the bones of a grandfather whose acquaintance I will never have the pleasure of making.
I have read, with much regret and sadness, some attempts to sanitise and shoehorn the genocide that was perpetrated during Gukurahundi. These publications claim that the atrocities during this era were more of a forceful attempt at forging a one party state. While there might be some merit in that argument, I believe it is a gross insult to the people of Matabeleland, both living and deceased, who suffered immensely from the senseless violence that, for the most part, was perpetrated on them by those meant to be custodians of their security, justice, freedom and their dignity. For me, to argue that Gukurahundi was nothing more than an attempt to forge a one party state is not only irresponsible and reckless, but also lays the ground for denying the true nature and extent of what exactly happened during that tumultuous period in Zimbabwe’s history: a genocide. The word Gukurahundi is Shona for the “early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” It implies extermination, or at least cleansing.
So what was the Gukurahundi?
When did it happen?
Who were the perpetrators and concordantly, who were the victims?
What is the lasting legacy of this “moment of madness”?
It is these questions that this article hopes to address. Some will ask why this article seeks to dredge up the relics of a horrendous past that have the potential of further entrenching as well as deepening Ndebele people’s suspicion and mistrust of their government. The response to that question is simple. Until an honest and open conversation about the wrongs that were done during this period is had, there can be no healing. Until there is an explicit acknowledgment and apology by the state of the atrocities that were committed during this period, there can be no forgiveness. Until someone claims responsibility and is made accountable for the thousands of lives that were lost during this period, there can be no justice.
Unpacking a forgotten period in history
The turmoil immediately after independence in Zimbabwe cannot and should not be understood in a confined spatial and chronological frame. A brief look at the events that preceded our independence is necessary in order to understand the context within which the initial uprisings occurred leading to the eventual deployment of the infamous 5 Brigade.
The first, and in my opinion strongest ingredient that resulted in the brutally potent cocktail that was Gukurahundi is perhaps the amaNdebele/vaShona ethnic divide. At the risk of being accused of cementing stereotypes and generalisations, it must be stated that, historically, there has always been mistrust and suspicion between the Ndebele and Shona people. A symbiotic mistrust bred from a relationship between the conqueror and the conquered. The Ndebele people to some extent were seen as invaders who through conquest, came and forcibly settled on land belonging to the Shona.
While I acknowledge the role played by this history, I do not necessarily believe that the divisions sewn by this history were as grave and as entrenched as we have been made to believe. As some researchers have pointed out, this narrative of tension and mistrust was deliberately exaggerated by colonisers for their own ends. I have in the past pointed out the tragedy is that we appropriated that narrative and made it our own. Ironically before Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU) split in 1963, ethnicity was not one of the cornerstones of the liberation movement.
The second ingredient that made for a rather volatile post-independent Zimbabwe was Apartheid South Africa’s policy of destabilising neighbouring states believed to be aiding and abetting the African National Congress (ANC) by giving them bases from which Umkhonto we Sizwe* would operate. Among the independent countries that fell prey to South Africa’s policy of destabilisation were Lesotho, Angola and Mozambique. By deliberately misinforming the government through utilising double agents who were in the employ of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO),* Apartheid South Africa was able to stoke the tensions and suspicions that existed immediately after independence between ex-ZANLA and ex- Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) fighters. Kevin Woods, a member of the Zimbabwean CIO at the time is a prime example of Apartheid South Africa’s use of double agents to push forward the policy of destabilisation. The manipulation of these suspicions, made violent uprising probable, if not inevitable.
The third factor that contributed to the inevitability of the violence immediately after independence was the issue of the ex-combatants themselves. Of the estimated 65 000 combatants (both ZANLA and ZIPRA), it is estimated that only about 15 000 were conscripted and integrated into the Zimbabwe National Army.
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (2008, )Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland & the Midlands, 1980 – 1988
Chinokanganwa idemo – part of the chiShona saying “Chinokanganwa idemo, chitsiga hachikanganwe,” which translates to “What forgets is the axe, the stump can never forget”
Entumbane – Township in Bulawayo
Umkhonto weSizwe – The armed wing of the African National Congress
ZANLA – Armed wing of ZANU
ZIPRA – Armed wing of ZAPU
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and the author alone and do not necessarily express or reflect the views of Conversation Zimbabwe or its contributors. Any and all assumptions made in the text of this article are not reflective of the position of Conversation Zimbabwe or any of its contributors, with the exception of the author. This article is not meant to be an accurate historical or legal rendering of the events that occurred during Gukurahundi, but a cursory summary of the events between 1980 and 1987.