Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Gukurahundi Massacres: The Dissident Problem (Part 4)

An overview of the dissident problem

a.) A summary of contributing factors

Factors contributing to the growth of dissident numbers are complex. The relative importance of these factors has been variously highlighted in existing accounts of these years, depending in part on the implicit agenda of researchers, and in part on their sources.

Robert Mugabe and bitter rival Joshua Nkomo
Robert Mugabe and bitter rival Joshua Nkomo

Some explanations as to why dissidents became an entity, include:

1. The view of the Government and ZANU-PF that the dissidents were actively sponsored by ZAPU leaders, who were hoping to gain through renewed fighting what they had failed to gain in the elections.

2. ZAPU’s view, that the heavy-handed Government reaction to the dissident issue, and its targeting of ZAPU as solely responsible, expressed a long-held desire either to punish ZAPU, or crush ZAPU totally and create a one party state.

3. The well-established view that South Africa exacerbated events by training and funding dissidents, known as Super ZAPU, with the intention of disrupting the newly Independent Zimbabwe.

4. The dissidents’ view, that they were driven to desert the National Army by the persecution of ex-ZIPRA members within its ranks, and that once outside the Army, they found themselves further persecuted and on the run.

While there is evidence to support the last three views, at least in part, to date there is no documentary or material evidence to support the contention that ZAPU leadership concretely supported or instructed the dissidents, apart from an abundance of Government rhetoric at the time, insisting on links between ZAPU and dissidents. Two lengthy treason trials, one in 1982 and one in 1986, both failed to prove ZAPU-dissident collusion.

The political and military violence of the 1980s resulted in huge losses for the citizens of Zimbabwe, in terms of human life, property, and economic development in affected areas. The dissidents themselves became answerable for this in no small measure, and are certainly known to have committed deeds of heinous cruelty against their fellow Zimbabweans during these years.

Civilians who lived in the rural areas and came into contact with them describe them as “cruel, uncontrollable, leaderless”. Their activities led to the abandonment of around 200 000 hectares of commercial farmland in Matabeleland, the murders of scores of civilians, the destruction of many homesteads, and scores of robberies.

At the same time, the dissidents were few, numbering no more than around 400 at their peak, and experiencing large numbers of deaths, captures and desertion. It is also now clear that many dissidents consider themselves to have been driven to lead the lives of fugitives by the partial failure of the Army’s integration process, and the persecution of all former ZIPRAs as the conflict escalated.

Whatever the initial causes of the rising numbers of “dissidents”, the Government certainly had a serious security problem on its hands by mid-1982. The situation needed a military response, but unfortunately, the Government used it to launch a “double edged conflict” in Matabeleland.

The first offensive was against the dissidents, and involved the use of various ZNA units and the Police Support Unit. However, the Government also launched an offensive against the ordinary civilians of Matabeleland, through 5 Brigade: this served both to increase dissident numbers and to exacerbate the plight of those most vulnerable to the dissidents.

These two conflicts escalated into what has been called, including by Government itself, a “civil war”. While there is little love for dissidents in the memories of those who lived with them, it must be acknowledged that it is 5 Brigade that people remember with the most intense hatred and fear.


One contributing factor to escalating dissident numbers, according to the dissidents themselves, was the ZNA’s initial failure successfully to integrate ZANLA and ZIPRA into one army.

The task facing the ZNA at Independence was unprecedented: its role was to integrate three armies, all of which had long-standing animosities towards each other, and form one army with a conventional military background.

The animosities between ZIPRA and ZANLA have already been dealt with. Not only did these two antagonistic forces have to integrate with each other at Independence, but they had to be integrated with the existing Rhodesian Defence Forces (RDF), which had fought to preserve white supremacy in Zimbabwe. There were obvious long-standing political and military antagonisms between the RDF and both the guerrilla armies.

From the time of the negotiated ceasefire in Zimbabwe, ex-guerrillas were held in Assembly Points (APs) throughout the country, from where they were gradually integrated with the RDF, or demobilised.

Many ex-guerrillas from both sides resisted entering the APs, fearing the consequences, or rejecting the negotiated outcome to the war. In the APs, after Independence, there were several minor skirmishes between ZANLA and ZIPRA forces in different parts of the country, and also outbreaks of bad behaviour in the vicinity of the APs, as ex-combatants spent long months waiting for integration to take its course.

In February 1980, The Chronicle reported approximately 200 guerrillas roaming the North West, campaigning for ZAPU and committing crimes. In Nkayi and Gokwe, in northern Matabeleland, there was a group of ZIPRAs operating under a man called “Tommy”, who had been renowned for refusing to obey the ZIPRA High Command structure in the 1970s.

In addition, there was a group of ZIPRAs in Tsholotsho who refused to enter the APs, as they rejected the ceasefire. In May and June 1980, 400 ZIPRA guerrillas were rounded up in Northern Matabeleland and taken to Khami Prison near Bulawayo.

ZANLA was considered as much of a problem as ZIPRA, if not a worse one, in these early months. ZANLA was involved in armed attacks in Mutoko, Mount Darwin and Gutu. Both sides were involved in the concealing of weapons outside the APs.


At the end of 1980 only 15 000 out of 65 000 ex-combatants had been integrated into the Army, and the decision was made to remove some of the remaining ex-combatants into housing schemes near the major centres.

Under a rehousing scheme in Entumbane, a suburb of Bulawayo, ZIPRA and ZANLA found themselves living in close proximity to each other, and also with ZIPRA’s civilian supporters.

Coinciding with this development, in November 1980 there was an inflammatory speech by Enos Nkala, a Government minister, in which ZAPU was referred to as the enemy.

This contributed to the first Entumbane uprising, in November 1980, in which ZIPRA and ZANLA fought a pitched battle for two days, before being brought under control by ZIPRA and ZANLA commanders. Five hundred more ZANLA soldiers were moved to Entumbane, and ZAPU officials were arrested.

The fighting between ZIPRA and ZANLA was not restricted to Matabeleland, but led to deaths in holding camps in Mashonaland as well.

In February 1981, a second outburst of fighting started in Entumbane, which spread to Ntabazinduna and Glenville, in the vicinity of Bulawayo, and also to Connemara in the Midlands.

ZIPRA troops elsewhere in Matabeleland North and South headed for the city to join the battle, and Prime Minister Mugabe called in former RDF units to quell the uprising, but not before more than 300 people had lost their lives.

Gukurahundi: Why Zipra soldiers deserted ZNA (Part 5)

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.