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Gukurahundi Massacres: Zanla-Zipra antagonism (Part 2)

While it has been pointed out that too much can be made of antagonisms between, and differences in the “modus operandi” of ZANLA and ZIPRA, there was nonetheless a legacy of unease between the two armies of liberation and their respective political followings which played an incontrovertible role in the events of the 1980s. 

The key men behind the Gukurahundi Massacres: Robert Mugabe (President), Emmerson Mnangagwa (then State Security Minister) and Perrence Shiri (then commander of the 5th Brigade).
The key men behind the Gukurahundi Massacres: Robert Mugabe (President), Emmerson Mnangagwa (then State Security Minister) and Perrence Shiri (then commander of the 5th Brigade)

In 1963 there was a political rift within Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU party, which until then had been the main liberation movement. This led to a split and the setting up of ZANU, under the leadership of Ndabaningi Sithole.

The causes were multiple, and involved not only policy, but personal differences between members, such as Enos Nkala and Nkomo. The dislike between these two men in particular was to be exploited by the ZANU-PF government in the 1980s.

During the 1970s, there were outbreaks of fierce fighting between ZIPRA and ZANLA, both in training camps in Tanzania, and within Zimbabwean borders. These incidents were frequent, resulted in many casualties and left a legacy of distrust between the two guerrilla armies.

The training and mobilisation of ZIPRA and ZANLA also differed in some respects. While the two were united in wanting an independent Zimbabwe, ZIPRA was Russian-trained, and ZANLA was Chinese-trained. ZANLA had a policy of politically mobilising the masses by the use of the “pungwe”, or night-time meetings, involving a combination of song, dance and politics.

ZIPRA did not use pungwes. ZIPRA prided itself on superior military training, and by the end of the war, ZIPRA had operational tank and air units, in addition to ground forces, which ZANLA did not. ZIPRA also had a very well established intelligence network, unlike ZANLA.

ZIPRA and ZANLA also traditionally recruited from different parts of the country, with ZANLA relying on the eastern half, and ZIPRA on the western parts, and also on black Rhodesians working in South Africa.

ZAPU and ZANU, and their military wings ZIPRA and ZANLA were not tribalist by policy, and both Shona-speakers and Ndebele-speakers could be found in both groups, but increasingly regional recruitment, together with mutual antagonism, led to a growing association between ZAPU and Ndebele-speakers.

Many would claim that regional antagonisms in Zimbabwe date back to the very arrival of the Ndebele in Matabeleland, in the middle of the nineteenth century. They believe that the Ndebele were intensely disliked and feared by the Shona, whose tribes were raided and whose cattle were stolen by the Ndebele.

Other historians have contradicted this view of “the Shona” and “the Ndebele” as existing as dual tribal entities dividing Zimbabwe in the nineteenth century.

According to these historians, the opposition of the Shona to the Ndebele is, in fact, of very recent origin and most significantly the product of competition for followers and leadership positions among the nationalist parties.

The former view that such antagonism has old historical precedents nonetheless remains a prevalent one, and it took perhaps its most virulent form in 5 Brigade’s justification of its violence as revenge for 19th century Ndebele raiding.

The differences and similarities between ZIPRA and ZANLA, and the manipulation of popular belief about antagonism between “Shona” and “Ndebele” are contentious topics.

Suffice it to say, first, that there were some differences between ZIPRA and ZANLA in training and outlook, and some negative memories of one another which added to the complexity of integrating the two forces into one army after independence.

And, second, that divisions created by recruitment patterns and party loyalties played all too easily into oppositions between Shona and Ndebele speakers. The partial failure of this integration process is one important factor in the outbreak of disturbances in the 1980s.

There were major outbreaks of violence between ZIPRA and ZANLA guerrillas awaiting integration into the National Army near Bulawayo. The first of these was in November 1980, followed by a more serious uprising in early 1981.

This violence led to the defection of many hundreds of ex-ZIPRA members back to the bush, and the general atmosphere of instability and suspicion led to the concealing of arms on both sides. (Arms had also been concealed by both ZANLA and ZIPRA forces before they entered Assembly Points (APs) prior to Independence. They had done this as a safe-guard in case Independence failed, or one of the main external parties did not win the 1980 election.)

The antagonisms between the two guerrilla armies hardened into hostilities between their political parties, as ZANU-PF became convinced that ZAPU was supporting a new dissident war in order to improve its standing in the country.

ZAPU, in turn, has expressed its belief that ZANU-PF used the pretext of the disturbances as a long-awaited opportunity to crush ZAPU once and for all.

There is no denying the political nature of events as they unfolded in the 1980s, as the Shona-speaking, ZANU-PF-supporting 5 Brigade ruthlessly persecuted the Ndebele-speaking, ZAPU supporting residents of Matabeleland.

Indeed, one of the tragedies of the 1980s was that events served to harden regional differences along tribal and linguistic lines. While the Unity Agreement has, on the face of it, healed the rift, some would contend that Ndebele-speakers have neither forgotten nor forgiven 5 Brigade.

Richard Werbner in his book, Tears of the Dead, refers to 5 Brigade as being a symptom of the “catastrophe of quasi-nationalism” in Zimbabwe. Werbner states that the polarisation that occurred in Zimbabwe in the 1980s cannot be solely explained as the consequence of mythically hostile tribes invented by colonial settlers in their policy of divide and rule, although the existence of such a “history” could be seen as a necessary but not sufficient basis for what followed.

Rather, quasinationalism should be seen as the product of the new Zimbabwean nation-state’s struggle to assume power and moral authority. Werbner also argues against events being interpreted as simplistically “ethnic” in nature.

While mainly Ndebele speaking, people in Matabeleland and targeted parts of the Midlands in 1980 were representative of many “tribal” and linguistic backgrounds: what they had in common was that there was widespread support in these regions, both historically and in the 1980 elections, for ZAPU.

The catastrophe of quasi-nationalism is that it can capture the might of the nation state and bring authorised violence down ruthlessly against the people who seem to stand in the way of the nation being united and pure as one body…. it is as if quasi-nationalism’s victims, by being of an opposed quasi-nation, put themselves outside the nation, indeed beyond the pale of humanity.

In Zimbabwe in the 1980s, a certain sector in the nation had been identified as “other”: the purging of this “other” became necessary for the purification of the rest of the nation. It is surely no coincidence that 5 Brigade was also called “Gukurahundi”, which means “the rain that washes away the chaff from the last harvest, before the spring rains.”


In the 1980s, the ZANU-PF Government came to draw on an array of legislation from before Independence. It also installed personnel from the former Rhodesian intelligence services in key positions, and some of these personnel used their continued influence to further South African interests by destablising Zimbabwe.

One of their most significant achievements was to enhance distrust between ZANU-PF and ZAPU and their respective military wings. Inter-party tension pre dated Independence, but notions of traditional hostility between the “Shona” and the “Ndebele” played into and were consolidated in the conflict of the 1980s.

Gukurahundi Massacres: The role of South Africa (Part 3)

Taken from a report on the 1980’s disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands. Compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, March 1997.