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Gukurahundi Massacres: What really happened?

The Gukurahundi was a series of massacres of mainly Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1984. It derives from a Shona language term which loosely translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”.

Zanu-PF fighters pictured in 1980. )Photograph: Brian Harris//Rex/Shutterstock)
Zanu-PF fighters pictured in 1980. )Photograph: Brian Harris//Rex/Shutterstock)

During the Rhodesian Bush War two rival nationalist parties, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), had emerged to challenge Rhodesia’s predominantly white government.

ZANU initially defined Gukurahundi as an ideological strategy aimed at carrying the war into major settlements and individual homesteads. Following Mugabe’s ascension to power, his government remained threatened by “dissidents” – disgruntled former guerrillas and supporters of ZAPU.

ZANU recruited mainly from the majority Shona people, whereas the ZAPU had its greatest support among the minority Ndebele. In early 1983, the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade began a crackdown on dissidents in Matabeleland North, one of the homelands of the Ndebele.

Over the following two years, thousands of Ndebele were detained by government forces and either marched to reeducation camps or summarily executed. Although there are different estimates, the consensus of the International Association of Genocide Scholars is that more than 20,000 people were killed.


Before the Rhodesian Bush War, the main black nationalist organisation in Southern Rhodesia, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), split into two groups in 1963, the split-away group being the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Though these groups had a common origin they gradually grew apart, with the split away group, ZANU, recruiting mainly from the Shona regions, while ZAPU recruited mainly from Ndebele-speaking regions in the west.

There is a much earlier source for Shona hostility to the Ndebele, going back to the arrival in 1837 of Mzilikazi and his Matabele followers. Mzilikazi carved out a territory for himself by fighting and dispossessing the local Shona, and this humiliation has not been forgotten by the Shona.

The armies of these two groups, ZAPU’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), and ZANU’s Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), developed rivalries for the support of the people and would fight each other. When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, following the Lancaster House Agreement, the two armies so distrusted each other that it was difficult to integrate them both into the National Army.

These problems were only in Matabeleland. For example: former ZIPRA elements attacked civilian areas in Zvishavane, Kadoma and Bulawayo. It seemed ZIPRA had a hidden arms cache. There were major outbreaks of violence carried out by ZIPRA against the civilian population.

The first of these was in November 1980, followed by a more serious incident in early 1981. This led to the defection of many ZIPRA members. ZAPU was supporting a new dissident war to improve its position in Zimbabwe. In the elections held in April 1980, ZANU received 57 out of 100 seats and Robert Mugabe became prime minister.

A historian Dr Stuart Doran of events in Zimbabwe, using historical documents, has written a short article ‘New documents claim to prove Mugabe ordered Gukurahundi killings’ wayback in 1983.

Quoted in part: The documents point to internal killings neither provoked nor sustained by outsiders, suggesting that the atrocities were driven from the top by Zanu-PF in pursuit of specific political objectives.

Viewed across a period of several years, the documents appear to provide evidence that the massacres were but one component of a sustained and strategic effort to remove all political opposition within five years of independence.

Zanu-PF leaders were determined to secure a “victory” against a non-existent opposition in elections scheduled for 1985, after which there would be a “mandate” from the people to impose a one-party state.

Entumbane Uprisings

In November 1980 Enos Nkala made remarks at a rally in Bulawayo, in which he warned ZAPU that ZANU would deliver a few blows against them. This preceded the first outbreak of fighting in Entumbane, during which ZIPRA and the Zimbabwe National Army fought a pitched battle for two days.

In February 1981 there was a second uprising, which spread to Glenville and also to Connemara in the Midlands. ZIPRA troops in other parts of Matabeleland headed for Bulawayo to join the battle, and the Zimbabwean National army units had to come in to stop the fighting.

The government asked Justice Enoch Dumbutshena, the former Chief Justice of Zimbabwe, to hold an inquiry into the uprising – ZIPRA was found to be preparing for war.

Many ZIPRA cadres defected after Entumbane, fearing retribution.


This situation became worse after the finding of arms caches in February 1982. ZANU now openly accused ZAPU of plotting another war and ZAPU leaders were arrested or removed from cabinet. However, the treason trial in 1982 involving Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku and four others failed to prove a case against them.

All were released although Dabengwa and Masuku were re-detained without trial for four years. Possibly thousands of ex-ZIPRA cadres deserted the army after this.

Most of them now claim that they saw this as necessary to stay alive. With their leaders all locked up or in exile, they felt there was nobody to protect them within the army. “We were threatened, that was why I decided to desert,” said one dissident.

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Meanwhile, South Africa’s policy of destabilising Zimbabwe by military means, while blaming ZAPU for the actions of South African agents, continued to escalate the breakdown between ZAPU and ZANU.

Fifth Brigade

Robert Mugabe, then Prime Minister, had signed an agreement with North Korean President Kim Il Sung in October 1980 to have the North Korean military train a brigade for the Zimbabwean army. This was soon after Mugabe had announced the need for a militia to “combat malcontents.”

Mugabe replied by saying dissidents should “watch out,” announcing the brigade would be called “Gukurahundi.” This brigade was named the Fifth Brigade.

The members of the Fifth Brigade were drawn from 3500 ex-ZANLA troops at Tongogara Assembly Point, named after Josiah Tongogara, the ZANLA general. There were a few ZIPRA (ZAPU) troops in the unit for a start, but they were withdrawn before the end of the training. The training of 5 Brigade lasted until September 1982, when Minister Sekeramayi announced training was complete.

The first Commander of the Fifth Brigade was Colonel Perence Shiri. The Fifth Brigade was different from all other Zimbabwean army units in that it was directly subordinated to the Prime Minister office, and not integrated to the normal army command structures.

Their codes, uniforms, radios and equipment were not compatible with other army units. Their most distinguishing feature in the field was their red berets.

Conflict and Killings

In January 1983, a crackdown by the elite Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland North was initiated to purge the dissidents, and its participation lasted until late 1984.

The brigade’s directives apparently specified a search for local ZAPU officials and veterans of ZAPU’s armed wing, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA). Seizure or detention by the Fifth Brigade was arbitrary. In Bulawayo, for instance, Ndebele men of fighting age were considered potential dissidents and therefore, guilty of subversive activities.

Most detained were summarily executed or marched to reeducation camps. Most of the dead were shot in public executions, often after being forced to dig their own graves in front of family and fellow villagers. On occasion the Fifth Brigade also massacred large groups of Ndebele, seemingly at random—the largest such incident occurred in March 1983, when 62 young men and women were shot on the banks of the Cewale River, Lupane.

Seven survived with gunshot wounds, the other 55 died. Another way 5 Brigade used to kill large groups of people was to burn them alive in huts. They did this in Tsholotsho and also in Lupane. They would routinely round up dozens, or even hundreds, of civilians and march them at gun point to a central place, like a school or bore-hole.

There they would be forced to sing Shona songs praising ZANU, at the same time being beaten with sticks. These gatherings usually ended with public executions. Those killed could be ex-ZIPRAs, ZAPU officials, or anybody chosen at random.

The Zimbabwe government repudiated these allegations and accused the hostile foreign press of fabricating stories. Zimbabwean Minister for National Security Sydney Sekeramayi countered that allegations of atrocities were part of a ZAPU disinformation programme to discredit the army.

The government characterised such allegations as irresponsible, contrived propaganda because it failed to give proper weight to the violence by dissidents, who targeted ZANU officials.

It is estimated that 700–800 people were murdered by dissident gangs in rural regions. In August 1985, dissidents massacred 22 Shona civilians in Mwenezi. On a mission farm in Matobo, dissidents massacred 16 people.

Death Estimates

The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe documented at least 2,000 deaths, and speculated that the actual number could be 8,000 or higher. Local Ndebele put the figure between 20,000 and 30,000. Journalist Heidi Holland referenced a death toll of 8,000 as a typical conservative estimate.

In February 1983 the International Red Cross disclosed that 1,200 Ndebele had been murdered that month alone. In a unanimously adopted resolution in 2005, the International Association of Genocide Scholars estimated the death toll at 20,000.


In 1992 serving Defence Minister Moven Mahachi became the first ZANU official who publicly apologised for the execution and torture of civilians by the Fifth Brigade.

Five years later, Enos Nkala, former Defence Minister, described his involvement with Gukurahundi as “eternal hell” and blamed President Mugabe for having orchestrated it. Speaking at Joshua Nkomo’s memorial service on 2 July 2000, Mugabe admitted that “thousands” had been killed during the campaign, calling it an “act of madness”.

Unity Accord of 1987

Robert Mugabe and ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo signed the Unity Accord on 22 December 1987. This effectively dissolved ZAPU and ZANU into the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). On 18 April 1988, Mugabe announced an amnesty for all dissidents, and Nkomo called on them to lay down their arms.

A general ordinance was issued saying all those who surrendered before 31 May would get a full pardon. This was extended not just to dissidents but to criminals of various types serving jail terms. Over the next few weeks, 122 dissidents surrendered.

In June the amnesty was extended to include all members of the security forces who had committed human rights violations.

In the 1990s the disturbances were finally at an end. This brought relief nationwide, but in parts of the country it has left behind many problems that remain unsolved to this day. These include poor health, poverty, practical and legal problems and a deep-rooted suspicion of Government officials.


Some of the material here is drawn from a report compiled by the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF) and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJP) entitled Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace. A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980–1989. Wikipedia