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Obert Mpofu: Exploring the causes of Gukurahundi Massacres (Part 1)

By Dr Obert Mpofu

The independence of many African States in the continent signalled the gradual end of a century of oppressive white colonial rule over socio-political systems and skewed monopoly over the means of production which alienated the black majority from accessing wealth and property.

Obert Mpofu
Obert Mpofu

Although this came with real joy for Africa and fulfilled the core mandate of the Organisation of African Unity, (now African Union), some of these African countries unfortunately plunged into ethnic and tribal conflicts which witnessed massive displacements, loss of lives and other psychological injuries on their population.

This was to be the paradox of many African countries — the end of suffering as a result of the end of colonial rule but also the beginning of suffering as a result of ethnic and political divisions.

In fact the Cold War politics had resulted in the capitalist block deliberately destabilising communist or socialist inclined countries in Africa.

As if that was not enough, newly independent African countries had inherited nations that were divided along ethnic lines by the colonial system as a method of ensuring perpetual control, that is the divide and rule strategy.

For many former colonisers, destabilisation was to act as a calculated foreign policy position for reasons of continuously having access to the abundant resources and to send a strong message that the black majority could not rule over themselves.

Zimbabwe attained its independence in 1980 after a gruesome and painful struggle which stretched over one-and-a-half decades.

The decades of war probably exacerbated the ethnic and political divisions which were planted by the white settler government in order to ascertain their grip over the country.

Like the fate of many African countries, the independence quickly resulted in a sharp ethnic and political division. The hallmark of this was the escalation of this deep rooted ethnical and political division into a sharp crisis which became known as Gukurahundi.

Faced by the reality of becoming a fragile of failed State, the Government responded by deploying troops in areas where dissidents mainly operated from, that is, Matabeleland and Midlands Provinces.

These areas specifically include Matabeleland North’s Tsholotsho, Umguza and Lupane, Matabeleland South’s Filabusi, Ntepe, Guyu and Midlands’ Gokwe, Silobela and Lower Gweru.

Unfortunately, like any other crisis or disturbance of this nature, a considerable number of people lost their lives, their livelihoods and their psychological and physiological well-being.

This was despite ethnic and political affiliations.

Although there was a Unity Accord in 1987 to signal a deliberate effort towards peace building, reconciliation and ultimately an end to artificial ethnic or political divisions, over three decades later many actors still push for this issue to be part of the broader policy agenda setting in the country.

This has raised many questions about the sincerity of this agenda.

It is however, prudent that we explore the causes of the crisis, the outcome both immediate and long term, the actors involved and their interests.

The Matabeleland crisis in perspective

In his thesis, Healing the Wounds of Gukurahundi, Ngwenya (2014) submits that there were various challenges between Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZPRA) and Zimbabwe African Liberation Army (Zanla) which saw tensions escalating in areas surrounding the freedom fighters holding camps in many parts of the country. At times this degenerated into serious direct confrontations such as that at Entumbane in 1981.

In addition there were sporadic outbreaks of direct confrontation emanating from the freedom fighters Assembly Points (APs) countrywide. Such outbreaks began after independence and continued throughout the early 1980s CCPJ Report, (1997).

The causes of these conflicts were complex and the net result was that by early 1982, Zimbabwe had serious security problems in various parts particularly in the western half.

Bands of dissidents were causing massive harm to civilians and property in the country.

Statistical Analysis

The common narrative by the CCPJ is that Gukurahundi claimed the lives of at least 20 000 people, some buried in shallow graves while others in mass graves. However, after a detailed analysis, this paper holds that there is no definite or agreed statistical standpoint on the lives claimed. Below are some of the statistics presented by scholars.

– According to the British Military Advisory Training Team (BMATT) who were on the ground, the crisis resulted in the death of between 10 000 and 20 000 people. Cameron (2018)

– Depending on who one talks to, from 1982 to 1987, between 10 000 and 40 000 people lost their lives in the Matabeleland Provinces around Bulawayo Hill (2011)

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– According to Bagnetto (2019), although some reports indicate that 2 000 people lost their lives during Gukurahundi in the 1980s, primarily in Matabeleland, a number of reports put the number of victims at 20 00 of higher.

– Conservative estimates put the number of civilian deaths at around 8 000, but affected Ndebele sources insist it was closer to 20 000 or 30 000.

What the statistics show is that the figure is not definite and probably this is the reason why the data of people who lost their lives per district is not known.

Causes of Gukurahundi

Suspicion among freedom fighters

From the 1960s onwards, the people of Zimbabwe were involved in a civil war to get rid of the oppressive colonial Government of Ian Smith.

This civil war intensified during the 1970s where there was the Rhodesian army on one side and the two armies of Zanla and ZPRA on the other side. Zanla was the armed wing of Zanu, the Zimbabwe African National Union, and ZPRA was the armed wing of Zapu, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union.

The two armed wings competed with each other for territory and support and frequently confronted each other even before independence. This meant that there were suspicions of each other even after independence.

The legacy of colonial rule

The legacy of colonial rule also contributed greatly to the outbreak of Gukurahundi. Repressive legislation can be dated back to the beginning of colonialism, with various pass laws, tax laws, land laws and a myriad of other racially biased laws, all of which served to ensure the economic and educational supremacy of a small white elite, which was never more than 6,2 percent of the population, at the expense of the black majority.

One of the results of 90 years of colonial rule was that ordinary blacks came to see the law as their enemy and after independence some sections of the black community did not feel that the new black Government was impartial which also triggered dissident activity.

Apartheid South African

Destabilisation Policy

Apartheid South African Destabilisation Policy of Zimbabwe equally contributed to the outbreak of Gukurahundi. As countries in southern Africa began to gain independence from 1975 onwards, white ruled Apartheid South Africa began an increasingly coherent policy of destabilising these nations in order to prolong its power.

Independent nations most notably affected by South African destabilisation in the early 1980s were Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho.

During South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission progresses in the democratic South Africa, it was explicitly unearthed that the then Apartheid government had a deliberate policy to destabilize the Frontline States all in the vain hope to continue repressing black South Africans.

To them accentuating Gukurahundi was a strategy to breed and sustain despondency in Zimbabwe.

Super Zapu

As part of the external efforts to destabilise newly independent African states, Apartheid South Africa implemented “Operation Drama” which 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 Breytenbach.

The operation’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.

The dissidents’ perspective

One contributing factor to escalating dissident numbers, according to the dissidents themselves was the Zimbabwe National Army’s (ZNA) initial failure to successfully integrate Zanla and ZPRA into one army. The task facing the ZNA at independence was unprecedented as it had to integrate three armies, all of which had long standing differences towards each other, and form one army with a conventional military background.

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

Many ex-freedom fighters 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 conflicts between Zanla and ZPRA forces in different parts of the country.

In February 1980, The Chronicle allegedly reported that approximately 200 freedom fighters were roaming the North West, campaigning for Zapu and committing crimes. In Nkayi and Gokwe, in Northern Matabeleland there was a group of ZPRAs operating under a man called “Tommy” who was renowned for refusing to obey the ZPRA High Command structure in the 1970s.

In addition there was a group of ZPRAs in Tsholotsho who refused to enter the APs as they rejected ceasefire.

In May and June 1980, 400 ZPRA freedom fighters were rounded up in Northern Matabeleland and taken to Khami Prison near Bulawayo. Zanla had its share of challenges.

It is alleged that Zanla was involved in armed conflicts in Mutoko, Mt Darwin and Gutu. Both sides were involved in the concealing of weapons outside the APs. (To be continued)

The author Dr Obert Mpofu is the Zanu-PF Secretary for Administration and member of the Politburo.