Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

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

As countries in southern Africa began to gain their independence from 1975 onwards, white-ruled South Africa began an increasingly coherent policy of destabilising these nations, in order to prolong its own power.

Many ex-members of the Rhodesian army, police and CIO became integrated into the South African armed forces
Many ex-members of the Rhodesian army, police and CIO became integrated into the South African armed forces

Independent nations most notably affected by South African destabilisation in the early 1980s were Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. This policy and some of its ramifications for Africa have been admirably documented in Joseph Hanlon’s Beggar your Neighbours: Apartheid Power in Southern Africa.

As the current Truth and Reconciliation Commission progresses in the now democratic South Africa, further details of these events are coming to light.

A). A two fold approach

South African intervention in Zimbabwe in the 1980s was basically two-fold: it consisted of the systematic supply of misinformation to the Government, and also of military attacks on the government and on the country’s infrastructure.

Many ex-members of the Rhodesian army, police and CIO became integrated into the South African armed forces.

Some remained in the country after Independence and actively recruited people for sabotage duties or to act as double agents. Some became trusted Government informers, ideally placed to exacerbate tensions between ZAPU and ZANU-PF by the use of misinformation.

ZAPU was blamed for various events, which were in fact often at least partly the work of South African agents. This created an atmosphere in which distrust and dislike between ZANU-PF and ZAPU escalated.

Physical attacks by South Africans in Zimbabwe included the destruction of a huge arsenal at Inkomo Barracks near Harare in August 1981, an attempt to kill Mr Mugabe in December 1981, and the sabotage of the Thornhill Air Base in Gweru in July 1982, which resulted in the destruction of a substantial percentage of Zimbabwe’s Air Force aircraft.

This last attack was probably coordinated by ex-members of the Rhodesian Special Air Services working for South Africa, although this has never been confirmed. Initially, local white officers (including the Chief of Staff) in the Zimbabwe Air Force were accused of the crime and brutally tortured.

They were later acquitted by the High Court of Zimbabwe but were promptly re-detained and only released on condition they immediately left their country.

In addition to these major bombings, there was a steady stream of minor incidents. One of these resulted in the killing of 3 white members of the South African Defence Force in a remote part of Zimbabwe near the eastern border, in August 1981. They were part of a bigger group of 17, and their deaths were incontrovertible evidence of South Africa’s forays into Zimbabwe.

Of the 3 dead, 2 were former members of the Rhodesian armed forces. They were believed to be on their way to sabotage a railway line from Zimbabwe to Mozambique when they were intercepted and killed.

Major arms caches which were discovered in early 1982, and which caused the final rift between ZANU-PF and ZAPU, were almost certainly engineered by a South African agent, Matt Calloway.

Calloway was in fact head of a branch of the Zimbabwean CIO at the time the arms were stockpiled, although he later defected to South Africa. South Africans were also implicated in the timing of the “find”, and in the subsequent trial of Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku.

The kidnapping of 6 foreign tourists in July 1982 was also blamed on ZAPU and Joshua Nkomo: recent confessions by ex-Rhodesian CIO members now indicate that South African agents may have kidnapped and killed these tourists, with the direct aim of fuelling antagonisms between ZANU-PF and ZAPU.

According to these South African agents, the operation took three weeks to plan and involved 8 ex-members of Rhodesia’s notorious Selous Scouts, armed with Kalashnikov rifles. From the time of the tourists’ disappearance, the Zimbabwean Government referred to the kidnapping as the work of dissidents.

The final truth in this matter has yet to be established: this latest report and those who now make this claim may well prove to be unreliable, but convincing evidence either proving or disproving the claims may come to light in the course of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

B.) “Operation Drama”

“Operation Drama” was the South African code name for the undercover support of Zimbabwean dissidents. It was carried out under the direction of Col Moeller and Col Jan Breytenbach.

Operation Drama’s primary role was the formation and funding of “Super ZAPU”. This was a small band of dissidents, recruited from refugee camps in Botswana and trained in four camps in the Transvaal.

Super ZAPU operated in southern Matabeleland in 1983 and 1984, exacerbating the security situation already in existence.

Precise numbers of Super ZAPU and the degree of material support offered by South Africa to Zimbabwean dissidents remain largely conjecture, although it is clear the Zimbabwean operation was far less extensive than those in Angola and Mozambique, which operated concurrently.

Those interviewed about the South African involvement in Zimbabwe all commented that it is noteworthy that far less is known about South Africa’s military destabilisation policy in Zimbabwe than about its Mozambique or Angolan operations.

The lack of available knowledge suggests that fewer personnel were entrusted with information about “Operation Drama”, which in turn suggests that the Zimbabwean operation was not only smaller, but regarded as more highly sensitive.


South Africa’s policy of simultaneously destabilising Zimbabwe by military means, while blaming ZAPU for the actions of South African agents whenever possible, helped escalate the irrevocable breakdown between ZAPU and ZANU-PF in the early 1980s.

This in turn led to the decision of Zimbabwe’s Government to retain the State of Emergency throughout the 1980s, and more significantly, to impose massive troop numbers and restrictive curfews on Matabeleland.

Gukurahundi Massacres: The Dissident Problem (Part 4)

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.