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Tafi Mhaka on Gukurahundi: Don’t justify Mugabe, Mnangagwa’s tribalism and ethnic cleansing

By Tafi Mhaka

The greatest disservice any well-meaning attempt to dissect Zimbabwe’s violent beginning can do to today’s untainted, hopeful youths is to pretend the Gukurahundi massacres committed by the North Korean-trained 5 Brigade, between 1982 and 1987, were simply an unintended part of a political crackdown on Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu party.

Then Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe flanked by his then deputy Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa
Then Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe flanked by his then deputy Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Last week, Hopewell Chin’ono claimed that, “Gukurahundi was not an operation to target the Ndebele population, it was an operation targeted at Zapu by Robert Mugabe and Zanu, it was meant to weaken Joshua Nkomo politically”.
This widely-abused explanation is, of course, a wholly inadequate, but politically expedient, summation of a severe injustice imposed on guiltless Matabeleland and Midlands residents. After all, even Joshua Nkomo said as much in the 1980s. Yet it hardly explains why thousands of mostly Ndebele-speaking Zimbabweans died the way they did.

This much-bandied account barely explains why government officials have steadfastly refused to fully acknowledge Gukurahundi and shoulder responsibility for orchestrating seemingly systemic genocide. What’s more, it doesn’t explain why generously glorious tributes paid to Brigadier-General Emilio Munemo, a career soldier Zanu-PF’s politburo declared a ‘national hero’ on March 6, 2019, suspiciously omitted making mention of his time commanding a 5 Brigade battalion during the Gukurahundi massacres.

More so because Munemo reportedly admitted that 5 Brigade was a ‘Shona’ tribal military unit bent on ‘settling old scores’. So, any academic argument about Zanu-PF basically ‘weakening Nkomo politically’, certainly fails to justify why the findings of the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry on the Gukurahundi massacres remain confidential over 31 years after Mugabe and Nkomo signed the celebrated ‘Unity Deal’. Nor can it account for the blanket amnesty Mugabe granted 5 Brigade soldiers (and dissidents).

Indeed, ‘Umdala Wethu’ as Nkomo was warmly regarded, may have wanted to believe that Gukurahundi was just a political operation, not a war on minority tribes in Matabeleland and Midlands. But, more likely, Zapu’s founding president, ever the strongly empathetic pacifist, found it prudent to promote a fairly benign, unifying narrative about Zanu-PF’s Gukurahundi campaign.

Suffice it to say, announcing the awful truth might have been much too politically unpalatable to expose in 1986. The consequences of declaring that the Zanu-PF government’s Gukurahundi campaign had morphed into an ethnic conflict would definitely have been catastrophic for minority populations already under considerable military siege.

Worse still, this after largely Shona communities had voted along tribal lines in the 1985 elections. Shona voters had firmly rejected Nkomo and Zapu’s leadership but completely backed Mugabe and Zanu-PF’s intelligent-sounding, murderous dictatorship.

To be sure, Nkomo may have become a broken, dejected and profoundly bitter man after enduring endless political trials and tribulations. All Zimbabwe ever afforded Nkomo, after 1980, was a debilitated, junior ministerial mandate, a gory onslaught and a ceremonial vice-presidency.

Yet ‘the old man’ demonstrated strong, responsible leadership after thousands of alleged Zapu supporters and conceivably apolitical villagers had been assaulted for no plausible, definite, justifiable reason. ‘Umdala Wethu’ always placed ‘his’ people, all Zimbabweans, that is, ahead of his own, and Zapu’s, political ambitions.  

Because, let’s be clear: Gukurahundi easily surpassed the vast boundaries of standard political manoeuvring, or a just war on terror. Shamefully, the ruthless 5 Brigade captured and killed very few of an estimated 400 dissidents. In fact, by 1987, many had left for neighbouring Botswana and South Africa, and 122 dissidents surrendered after the Unity Deal was signed. Yet thousands of unarmed civilians had died in a murderous ethnic orgy.  

The Shona ethnic factor 

The Gukurahundi massacres bore the classic hallmarks of ethnic cleansing characteristically observed in South Sudan’s civil strife and appalling mass slaughter and rape of Darfuri men, women, and children in Western Sudan.

For how did burning huts and granaries, imposing food embargos, killing and abducting villagers, forcing villagers to watch others close to them dying slowly from injuries sustained from beatings, burning, shooting or bayoneting, weaken Zapu politically?

How did leaving villagers with permanent disabilities, ranging from paralysis, blindness, deafness, miscarriage, impotence, infertility, and kidney damage, partial lameness and recurring back injuries and headaches, support Zanu-PF’s political objectives in a newly-independent, supposedly democratic state? How could raping hundreds, possibly thousands, of women and young pregnant girls, and bayoneting their stomachs open, to reveal still-moving foetuses, be classified as merely part of ‘weakening Joshua Nkomo politically’?

Deplorably, central to 5 Brigade’s military modus operandi, during Gukurahundi, was imposing a quasi-Shona supremacy – a Shona-based, tribal fear factor, if you will. This demented ethnic objective comprised criminalising dissimilar ethnic identities and cultures and compelling mainly Ndebele-speaking villagers to speak Shona and sing Shona songs.

Let Gukurahundi’s truth be

Mnangagwa’s administration, like successive Mugabe governments, refuses to recognise Gukurahundi as an unjust war on minority groups in Matabeleland and Midlands. To stubbornly insist Gukurahundi was a merely a political tussle is unquestionably equivalent to displaying an aggressive, vindictive form of denialism commonly characteristic of anti-Semites who deny the Holocaust ever happened.

It is a maliciously powerful means to prolong a grave, communal injustice and inflict further psychological harm on Gukurahundi survivors and forlorn families of men and women killed by 5 Brigade. Yet Zimbabwe can no longer afford to further disseminate a damaging, self-serving, scheming untruth, simply to defend some powerful Shona tribalists.

Zimbabwe must investigate Gukurahundi, transparently, publicise the findings, issue an official apology, and compensate all dead and living victims. Moreover, Zimbabwe must promulgate a ‘Gukurahundi law’. Denying that 5 Brigade’s campaign in Matabeleland and Midlands spawned ethnic cleansing should, once and for all, be made a punishable crime against our long-suffering, progressive humanity.