Gukurahundi: How Zimbabwe assisted apartheid South Africa
Opinion by Professor Timothy Scarnecchia
In the aftermath of Zanu PF founder and former minister Enos Nkala’s death, debate has been raging about his role in Zimbabwe’s political history, particularly the liberation struggle, as well as his contribution to nation-building, and also repression in the mid-south-western regions immediately after Independence in 1980.
In a bid to shed more light on events during the dark era of state-sponsored killings in the Midlands and the South-West –– the Gukurahundi period, in which Nkala was actively involved despite his denials –– we publish an insightful piece by Kent State University’s Professor Timothy Scarnecchia, an expert on Zimbabwean and African history.
THIS article examines the role of diplomatic relations during the first stages of the 1983 Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe. Based on a preliminary reading of South African Department of Foreign Affairs files for 1983, the article suggests that Cold War relations between Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom helped to provide cover for the Zimbabwean National Army’s Fifth Brigade’s campaign of terror.
Similarly, American support for President Robert Mugabe’s claims to be a pro-Western leader committed to non-racialism helped provide international cover for the atrocities.
At the same time, evidence shows high-ranking Zanu PF officials negotiated with the South African Defence Forces in 1983 to cooperate in their efforts to keep Zapu from supporting South Africa’s ANC operations in Zimbabwe. The 5th Brigade’s campaign therefore served a purpose for apartheid South Africa, even as Zanu PF officials rationalised the Gukurahundi violence in international and anti-apartheid circles as a campaign against South African destabilisation.
The article suggests that the diplomatic history of the Gukurahundi can provide a useful lens for understanding the tragedy in both regional and international Cold War contexts.
Mugabe relations with West
In her popular book Dinner with Mugabe, Heidi Holland includes a quote from Mugabe where he accuses some factions in Zanu PF of “cutting deals with the British and Americans” after the 2005 elections.
Mugabe asks: “Since when have the British, the Americans, been friends with Zanu PF?” Mugabe’s often repeated claim that the United States and the United Kingdom are the enemies of Zanu PF and hence of Zimbabwe does not stand up well to historical scrutiny.
A party which is 50 years old has experienced a number of victories, and many of these were partly the result of American and British assistance, both directly and indirectly.
There are at least four periods in the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe during which the US and the UK offered opportunities to Mugabe and his allies to attain power and then consolidate it.
The first was in 1963 in Tanzania after the formation of Zanu.
The second was during Henry Kissinger’s 1976 shuttle diplomacy and the subsequent removal of radical forces from Zipa following the talks. The third period was during the elections after the Lancaster House Agreement when the British, under American pressure, rushed an election and peace settlement in order to pre-empt further Soviet and Cuban involvement in Zimbabwe, which resulted in a victory for Mugabe.
Mugabe received extensive support from the UK and US governments, while simultaneously portraying his government as a leading Frontline state in the anti-apartheid struggle.
However, the anti-apartheid efforts of Zanu PF were constrained by the realities of regional power. Faced with a much more powerful South African military and economy, Mugabe found it more convenient to cooperate with the apartheid South African Defence Forces against Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu given the historic ties between Zapu and South Africa’s ANC.
Cold War realities meant that Mugabe could benefit from his rivals’ longstanding support from the Soviets and the links between Soviet support for Zapu and the ANC. Mugabe and others in Zimbabwe’s new government therefore worked with South Africa to keep Zapu from providing bases for the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe in Zimbabwe.
This article will take a preliminary look at a fourth period, which took place during 1983, and examine how the Cold War offered Mugabe and Zanu PF the international cover to carry out atrocities against Zimbabwean civilians in a campaign known as the Gukurahundi.
This military campaign, which began in January 1983 and then returned before, during, and after the 1985 elections, cost the lives of thousands of Zimbabweans.
Those involved as perpetrators of the violence were granted a blanket amnesty after the creation of a new unity government in 1987, and thus far calls for a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address this violence have not been answered.
The archival documents for early 1980s’ diplomatic history with Zimbabwe are just becoming available in the US and the UK, and more documents will be released over the next few years.
Some very helpful evidence is now available in the South African Department of Foreign Affairs files for 1983 in Pretoria. Based on the latter, this article outlines some of the difficult issues historians of foreign relations will confront as more diplomatic sources become available.
As there already exists a large amount of writing in the state formation literature on Zimbabwe’s first few years, and the ways in which Zanu PF consolidated power at the expense of Zapu, this article will examine this period through the lens of diplomacy.
The Cold War gave extraordinary powers to small states and allowed African nationalist leaders to manipulate their often-precarious ties to a mass base through the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, socialism and the non-aligned movement.
It appears that all sides, while recognising the relative imbalances of power, nevertheless understood there were times when intransigency on international issues gave Mugabe and the Zanu PF elites greater bargaining power than would have been possible without the threat of Cold War co-operation with the Soviets and Cubans.
The violence created by Cold War interventions into decolonisation from 1960 to the early 1990s was tragic and costly to southern Africa’s populations, although one cannot forget that for certain elites this offered room to manoeuvre against their rivals and to benefit directly from attendant foreign aid.
Given this hot Cold War in southern Africa, as Vladimir Shubin has called it, Mugabe, like other Frontline State leaders, was able to have both American and Soviet support for the new nation. The Soviets, who had previously supported Mugabe’s rival Nkomo and Zapu, realised it would be better to try and influence policies in Harare directly through Mugabe and those in Zanu PF who were ostensibly pro-Soviet.
Because of Western pressure on Mugabe to show his anti-communist credentials in exchange for direct financial aid, the Soviet embassy was the last embassy to be opened in Harare after Independence, and despite inroads in terms of technical and some military support, the Soviets were not made to feel welcome in the early 1980s.
Part of the agreement to establish relations with the Soviets included the insistence that the Soviet Union breaks ties with Zapu and deal only with Zanu PF.
According to Shubin, the Soviets had already stopped their material support to Zapu “immediately after the political settlement was reached”, but Zanu PF wanted to rule out any future Soviet aid to Zapu.
The Americans viewed Mugabe and Zimbabwe as a non-Soviet southern African state that with sufficient funding and support could help maintain a balance against Soviet and Cuban influence in Angola, Mozambique and to a certain extent in Zambia.
However, Cold War interests were not the only factor influencing American diplomatic views of Mugabe. American opinion favoured seeing Mugabe’s new state as a victim of past racial oppression.
Therefore Mugabe’s strategy to reconcile with white farmers by allowing them to remain on their land and with white owners of businesses was very popular with American diplomats and a non-racial reconciliation made Mugabe popular in Washington.
As Nancy Mitchell argues, the Carter administration had feared direct Cuban and Soviet involvement in Zimbabwe that would likely lead to a war between South Africa and the Frontline states.
In order to avoid such a conflict, the Americans pressured the British to work with Mugabe rather than Nkomo and Bishop Abel Muzorewa as the leader of the Patriotic Front preferred by America.
The British and the South Africans were less convinced than the Americans of Mugabe’s non-racialism, given their substantial personal and financial ties to white-controlled interests in Rhodesia, but Mugabe’s peaceful transition to power in 1980 became a major foreign policy success for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her first term in office.
As Chris Saunders and Sue Onslow suggest, the Americans saw the peaceful transition to Zimbabwe brokered by the British as “the greatest reverse the Russians have suffered in Africa for years”.
Saunders and Onslow point out that “much of this was, in reality, the West being purblind in the context of the Cold War, for Mugabe continued to use violence to achieve political goals in independent Zimbabwe.”
The West responded to the “success” of Zimbabwean Independence with development funds, both as a Cold War strategy and because it served to reward Mugabe for reconciliation and racial tolerance in 1980.
There was a hope that Zimbabwe would stand as a model for transition in Namibia and South Africa in order to avoid further Cold War conflicts.
The amount of Cold War funding for Zimbabwe was quite sizeable. In 1981, the Zimcord meeting produced an impressive commitment from numerous donors to assist Zimbabwe.
“At current exchange rates the total aid attracted by Zimbabwe now amounts to US$1,95 billion. This is more than the US$1,5 billion suggested –– over five years –– by Dr Henry Kissinger as part of the 1976 settlement package. Furthermore, the Zimcord aid refers only to a three-year period,” the meeting concluded.
Just prior to the Zimcord conference, which was to include representatives from 40 countries, 16 United Nations organisations, and 10 international agencies, Mugabe linked development funding to the South African threat.
“We call on the international community to show its fullest practical support for our nonracial democratic system and put into practical effect its abhorrence and repugnance of the apartheid system in South Africa,” Mugabe said.
“Failure to give Zimbabwe support for its reconstruction and development plans would bolster the evil designs of the apartheid regime in South Africa to hold our economy to ransom and destabilise our political system.”
This strategy succeeded for the first few years of Zimbabwe’s existence, but the Cold War-funded security state did not in itself sufficiently enrich the Zanu PF elites, as Norma Kriger demonstrates, given the continued domination of white businesses and farms, and white control over key government bureaucracies. Mugabe and his colleagues in Zanu PF decided to take action to gain access to wealth for party elites, but they were constrained by the international perception of non-racial reconciliation, which made it difficult to attack white business and farming interests.
Faced with entrenched opposition, Mugabe and Zanu PF looked to ex-guerrilla war veterans as their main patronage group. At first this included both Zanla and Zipra, but by 1981 the ruling party, Zanu PF, and its Zanla guerrillas could not conceal their preference for building power on an exclusively Zanla guerrilla base and for using only Zanla’s guerrilla struggle for legitimacy. The resulting attacks on Zapu’s political organisation, former Zipra ex-combatants, economic assets, and civilian base became the fundamental basis for Operation Gukurahundi in 1983.
To be continued…
Scarnecchia is the author of The Urban Roots Democracy and Political Violence in Zimbabwe: Harare and Highfield, 1940-1964 and many other works on this country. Originally published in the Zimbabwe Independent