Politics and Memory: The Case of the Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe



Genocide’s designation as the ultimate crime against humanity, the “crime of crimes,” transcends the category of ordinary political violence into the extraordinary. But writing about the Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe, Zenzele Ndebele describes the legacy of unexceptional yet horrific civilian massacres whose enactment and subsequent denial is central to the founding myths, legitimacy, and power consolidation of the country’s ruling party.

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A map of Zimbabwe’s districts. Historic Matabeleland is in the western third of the country, comprising present-day Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South, and the provincial municipality of Bulawayo. This is where the violence of the Gukurahundi primarily occurred, as well as the bordering Midlands region to the east. / Map by Nadia El Hakim (2021).

After two decades of armed struggle, Zimbabwe won its independence from Rhodesia in 1980. There were two main political parties within the liberation movement: the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU) with its Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) military wing, and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) that had its military wing in the Zimbabwean African National Liberation Army (ZANLA). In addition to ideological and strategic differences, there was a major ethnic divide between the parties and paramilitary groups. ZANU, led by Robert Mugabe, was Shona-dominated; ZAPU, which recruited mostly in the provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands, was predominately Ndebele and led by Joshua Nkomo. 

After winning independent Zimbabwe’s first ever multiracial election, newly elected Prime Minister Robert Mugabe delivered his victory speech on March 4, 1980, declaring that: “Surely this is now the time to beat our swords into plough shares so we can attend to the problems of developing our economy and our society.” He went on to say: “I urge you, whether you are Black or white, to join me in the new pledge to forget our grim past, forgive others and forget, join hands in the new amity, and together as Zimbabweans, trample upon racism and regionalism, and work hard to reconstruct and rehabilitate our society as we reinvigorate our economic machinery.” The tone of his speech was jubilant and optimistic, promising a free and equal new nation to all Zimbabweans regardless of race and ethnicity.

In less than a year after delivering his reconciliatory speech, Mugabe was speaking a very different political language: he was threatening his opponents with violence.

But in less than a year after delivering his reconciliatory speech, Mugabe was speaking a very different political language: he was threatening his opponents with violence. In Parliament in February 1981, he said: “If the situation warrants, we [will] use vicious methods […] If other people are planning coups, planning revolts, then let them be warned that we are well prepared for such eventualities. Once again, if it is to be an eye for an eye […] we will remove two eyes for one eye.”

In October 1980, Mugabe visited North Korea for the second time, having previously visited in 1978. As Cold War allies, North Korea agreed to train a special counterinsurgency unit, an independent battalion called the Fifth Brigade. Although the Fifth Brigade had been deployed to Mozambique to fight against the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) in 1982, it answered only to the Chief of the Zimbabwean National Army and to Prime Minister Mugabe, and quickly became his political army. The unit was predominately made up of ex-ZANLA troops in the National Army and ZANU-PF youths from the Tongogara camp (i.e. supporters of the respected late ZANLA commander, Josiah Tongogara); its officers were mostly ex-ZANLA officer candidates who had failed to make the grade in the National Army’s officer school. Mugabe personally called the brigade “a crack force.”

On January 20, 1983, the Fifth Brigade was deployed to Matabeleland. The official justification was that the unit was sent to deal with “dissidents,” namely ZIPRA soldiers who had deserted the National Army for various reasons. Following the ceasefire of the liberation war, insecurity was rife and former guerrillas with guns were called to gather in designated assembly points from which they would either be demobilized or integrated into the new National Army. Many guerrillas from both ZANLA and ZIPRA did not want to go to assembly points for various reasons. Some believed that if they went, they would be killed by the Rhodesian Army. Others did not agree to the negotiated settlement made in the Lancaster House Agreements — because they thought they were winning the war, they viewed it as a great betrayal by their political leaders. Other guerrillas had enjoyed the years they spent in the bush, so going to assembly points was like surrendering their freedom. Many ex-ZIPRA combatants who had been integrated into the National Army did not find it easy because they were the ones accused of being dissidents and disloyal elements. Several of them in the military were arrested, tortured and even killed. Some ZIPRA combatants started to desert the army while others chose to be demobilized. There was no need to deploy the Fifth Brigade because there were other brigades far better trained and equipped to deal with renegades and deserters. At their peak of internal conflicts within the National Army, there were less than 400 dissidents. But in any case, when the Fifth Brigade was deployed, it never went for the so-called dissidents: it targeted civilians.

When Robert Mugabe sent the Fifth Brigade to deal with the “dissident menace,” he was sending them to deal with the Ndebele, who also happened to predominately  be ZAPU supporters.

When Robert Mugabe sent the Fifth Brigade to deal with the “dissident menace,” he was sending them to deal with the Ndebele, who also happened to predominately  be ZAPU supporters. The term “dissident” was adopted in the middle of 1980 and it referred explicitly to ZIPRA guerrillas. Enos Nkala, ZANU’s Minister of Finance and one of the party’s founders, said dissidents were “Ndebeles who were calling for a second war of liberation and they should be shot down.” Mugabe had made it clear that he wanted to establish a one-party state and his only stumbling block was ZAPU. At the Fifth Brigade passing out parade in 1982, Mugabe told the brigade: “The knowledge you have acquired will make you work with the people, plough, and reconstruct.” Their commander, Perrance Shiri, barked out the instruction: “From today onwards, I want you to start dealing with dissidents. We have them here at this parade. Whenever you meet them, deal with them, and I don’t want a report.” Shiri was referring to Ndebeles who were in the Fifth Brigade: those who were in command positions were demoted, others were attacked and killed.

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Robert Mugabe (left) and Joshua Nkomo (right) during the signing of the Unity Accord on December 22, 1987. The agreement, once again, united the rival ZANU and ZAPU parties into ZANU-PF, the present ruling party, and ended the violence in Matabeleland. December 22, Unity Day, has been a national holiday in Zimbabwe since 1997. / Unknown photographer.

From the first day of the Fifth Brigade’s deployment, they went on a violent campaign against Ndebele civilians. The campaign came to be known as “Gukurahundi,” a Shona word that translates to “the first rains that wash away the chaff.” Their methods were horrific. They asked victims to dig their own graves before killing and burying them. Relatives were not allowed to cry; they were supposed to sing while burying them and dance on their graves. Some people were locked in houses and burnt alive, like in Mkhonyeni village, in Tsholotsho district of Matabeleland North, where 21 women were locked into four huts and perished in fire. In some instances, men were made to fight each other or climb trees and fall like monkeys while others were instructed to act like dogs and bite the “monkeys falling from trees.” The soldiers forced siblings to have sex in front of their parents. They also sexually assaulted women while their husbands or fathers watched. The Fifth Brigade used tribally charged language in this sexual humiliation: when they raped women, they told them to fall pregnant and give birth to Shona children. Some women who were already pregnant were bayoneted and their stomachs ripped open because, as the soldiers said, they were pregnant with dissident children. Detention camps were set up across Matabeleland, the province where the majority of the country’s Ndebele people still live. Most of them were beaten to death, others were starved to death, and others still were thrown into disused mines alive. The people of Matabeleland were on their own because despite a few articles in the western media about the genocide, the international community was largely quiet. It seems clear that the order was to wipe out all Ndebeles: it was a state-sanctioned genocide.

The people of Matabeleland were on their own because despite a few articles in the western media about the genocide, the international community was largely quiet.

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Chief Mathema (left) and Chief Fuyane (right) unveiling a monument at Bhalagwe in Maphisa, Matabeleland South in memory of victims of the Gukurahundi in May 2021. According to the 1997 report on violence in Matabeleland and the Midlands conducted by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, Bhalagwe was a notorious campsite that the 5th Brigade used for the mass detentions and brutalizations of ex-ZIPRA fighters, ZAPU officials, and Ndebele civilians. The Central Intelligence Organization also conducted many interrogations and tortures at the Bhalagwe camp. The plaque was destroyed and stolen the day after its erection; it is suspected that state agents are responsible. / Photo credit: Centre for Innovation & Technology.

In December 1987, the killing finally stopped when Nkomo agreed to sign a unity agreement with Mugabe. The Unity Accord was silent on the Gukurahundi genocide, but gave a blanket pardon to the security forces involved. Throughout the genocide, the government of Zimbabwe denied that the Fifth Brigade was targeting innocent civilians. In the early 1980s, under international pressure, the government set up a commission of inquiry to investigate reports of atrocities by the army. The report was never published. As Mugabe’s then-Minister of State for National Security, now-President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced that the findings of the commission would not be made public. In 2019, Justice Selo Nare, chair of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission declared that the reports of two commission inquiries — the Dumbutshena Commission of Inquiry about the Etumbane clashes, and the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry about the Gukurahundi massacres — had allegedly been lost. One of the members of the Chihambakwe Commission was Advocate Prince Machaya, who is Zimbabwe’s current Attorney General. The late Mugabe fell short of acknowledging the genocide when he called it a “a moment of madness.”

There is no doubt that the Gukurahundi genocide achieved its short term and long term goals. Mugabe had successfully established a one-party state as one of the conditions of the Unity Accords was the uniting of ZANU and ZAPU into the current ZANU-PF. The long-term effect of Gukurahundi is that it has managed to instill fear in the victimized community, and ZANU-PF continues to exploit it. For many years, people in Matabeleland were afraid to talk about the genocide: it was something they only whispered to each other behind closed doors. The Gukurahundi was an event that was “fearful, unforgettable and unacknowledged,” according to journalist Martin Meredith who has long been writing about Zimbabwe. The perpetrators of the genocide refused to acknowledge what they did, and victims have been denied the opportunity not only to bury their relatives but even to mourn them. In most cases, they were dragged into shallow graves and hillsides like wild animals. A lot of the victims are still buried in these shallow graves, some of which have been accidentally discovered and uncovered. Almost 40 years after the genocide, the government still refuses to permit relatives to properly bury their loved ones or hold memorial activities. The refusal to acknowledge the truth of the genocide is part of a systemic epistemicide, the killing of the truth that accompanies genocide and other forms of large scale violence.

For nearly 40 years, the state’s official position has been that there was a war against dissidents, but the army did not commit any atrocities and so refuses to take responsibility for the genocide.

In his book Silencing the Past (1995), Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot asks “what makes some narratives rather than others powerful enough to pass as accepted history”? This is a relevant question when it comes to the memory of the Gukurahundi genocide. For nearly 40 years, the state’s official position has been that there was a war against dissidents, but the army did not commit any atrocities and so refuses to take responsibility for the genocide. There was no social media in 1982 so what the state media reported ultimately has become a gospel truth: the majority of Zimbabweans outside of Matabeleland did not realize when the genocide occurring, and even today, there are some who don’t believe the Gukurahundi happened at all. The denial by the state has led to a cultural silence and there are now many different narratives of the genocide depending on where one is from. Many people from outside of Matabeleland are unsure whether to believe the state’s version or the version that the people of Matabeleland tell them. But to Ndebele people, the Gukurahundi was an attempt by the Shona — by way of the state — to exterminate them. Survivors often say “Mashona asibulala”: “The Shona killed us.”

They associate the Shona language with the genocide, and in many cases, when you talk to survivors of genocide, they switch to Shona when they explain the violence of the Fifth Brigade. They recall phrases like “huya pano” (“come here”) and “arikupi madissident” (“where are the dissidents”), which were common orders or demands expressed by the Shona-dominated Fifth Brigade when they would arrive in different Ndebele villages and towns. Many of the victims were forced to participate in pungwes, which are all night gatherings in which Ndebele-speaking victims were forced to sing and dance to Shona songs praising the government or to chant anti-ZAPU slogans. According to Pedzisai Maedza, a scholar of cultural memory, a “pungwe” is “a generic term for a gathering that continues through the night until dawn or sunrise.” But in the context of the violence of the Gukurahundi, the pungwe “not only represented an alien hegemonic culture, but was a purveyor of forced indoctrination and a space where the military committed violent atrocities against civilians.” These pungwes were often accompanied by humiliation and violence from the soldiers, including sexual violence, torture, property destruction, mass arrests, and public executions. One mocking song called “Mai VaDhikondo” was written in the 1980s by a former Air Force of Zimbabwe musician. It was sung at the pungwes and became a part of the soundtrack of the genocide, and was later re-recorded and released to the public in the 1990s, where many Zimbabweans were either unaware of or unbothered by its origin. If you were a Ndebele person who was fluent in Shona, you were spared because you were believed to be Shona and so were not the target of the violence. But occasionally, Shona-speaking people were beaten up for being found “kumandevere,” or being guilty because of their association with Ndebele people.

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The flag of the Zimbabwean National Army’s 5th Brigade, Gukurahundi, after its presentation to Col. Perrance Shiri, its commander in 1982. / National Archives of Zimbabwe.

It is against this background of contested memory that the Gukurahundi Memorial Center  was  established. The objective is to have a digital archive of historical material to shed light on these past injustices. For many years, the state has been able to control the narratives around Gukurahundi because it had managed to “silence” the survivors: state-controlled media never talked to the victims and so their stories were never heard. The state also dismisses those who raise the issue of Gukurahundi as foreign agents: those who want to talk about it are opening old wounds because they are unpatriotic Zimbabweans who are sponsored by the West and want to divide the country along tribal lines. In 2006, when I released my first documentary about the genocide, I was accused of looking for an excuse to seek political asylum in Europe. This made me realize that there was a need to get more survivors to tell their stories. The Center gets a lot of requests from people who want to know about the Gukurahundi because their parents don’t talk about what happened. It is important for us to record firsthand accounts, because in the future, survivors will no longer be alive and without their challenges to the state’s account, history will continue to be distorted. This documentation is key to keeping the story  alive.

Those responsible for the genocide have continued to play hide and seek with the victims, using all the tricks in the book to conceal their heinous crimes. To them, the Gukurahundi was simple one moment of madness, but is now a closed chapter. To the victims, however, the Gukurahundi is still a fresh wound that has not healed — it is an outstanding issue that has yet to be resolved. All they want is the truth and the space to mourn their beloved ones. ■