By Simukai Tinhu
Soon after arriving in Zimbabwe, in September of last year, I had to visit a friend in Bindura, whom I needed to extend – as part of my enduring gratitude for his assistance during a research project that I had undertaken a couple of years earlier – two bottles of Scottish whisky that I had brought with me, from abroad. I suggested meeting at one of the many social places that are sprinkled all over Bindura, Aerodrome, Chipadze or Picky.
It was getting darker and my friend Munya warned against the idea of hanging out at any of these places. I insisted, and he strongly resisted, on the basis that there was a new menace in town, in the form of Mashurugwis, who, after dark, would lurk around shops and hack up the suburbs with machetes.
My favourite place, Aerodrome was one of the places they had marked. I was told that drinking beer or barbecuing meat there was now an extremely fraught activity. So we settled for indoors.
As Munya and his friends explained that evening, a week earlier, Mashurugwis had turned up the heat on residents of Mashonaland Provincial capital by imposing a curfew at all shopping centres: thus, after 6:00 pm, everyone was supposed to be indoors, otherwise they risked the wrath of these gangs’ machetes.
Indeed, as I was to find out, his fear was not irrational. Munya narrated that his cousin had been hacked to near death when he attempted to protect his daughter from one of the Mashurugwis.
With broken legs and arms, the gang spared his life, and let him crawl away with life threatening injuries, a message that would explain itself to others what could happen to them if they resisted the demands of the Mashurugwis.
Though men such as Munya’s cousin survived the horrors of death, they still had to contend with other relentless terrors. The charge sheet against mashurugwis, which is well documented in the memories of Bindura residents include sexual assaults and rape of local’s wives and daughters, indiscrimatory beatings, often for no apparent reason.
Indeed, as one of Munya’s friends narrated, one could be attacked by a gang member for simply making eye contact, averting contact, walking away from the Mashurugwis, or even apologising.
Two weeks later, I came back to Bindura and met up with Ranga, a much older once grandee of the mining town’s Zanu PF politics. He told me, with much relief apparent on his face, that on that evening it was safe to grab a beer at Aerodrome.
This was because, a week earlier, with a motley group of other party youths, they had taken matters into their own hands and ‘’did what the police were unable – or, unwilling to do’’, he said.
Indeed, in a country where the police commit more crimes than the citizens, or where people have been left bereft of reliable structures and recourse due to corruption, and breakdown of law and order, it is not a surprise that the youths in Bindura, had chosen to take matters into their own hands.
Thus, it was baying young men patrolling war torn streets of Bindura in self-styled citizens defence units, not the police, who took on the Mashurugwis in July, August, and early September 2019, when they finally ‘’drove’’ them out.
Unusually, none of them had put up resistance; even the mildest attempt at fighting back. My research instincts sensed that the Mashurugwis had not been defeated or driven out. As I was to figure out later, they had smoothly and in an organised way, retreated, and then congregated at various rallying points.
Residents said that they moved to Mukaradzi in Mt Darwin, Kitsi Yatota in Bindura and Msasa in Mazoe, informal mining sites which also act as havens for criminals from all across the country. It looked like Mashurugwis were operating with a clear chain of command that was coming from somewhere.
‘’We could have done a better job if we had our own machetes’’, was Ranga’s strong and unwavering conviction that the community should be armed, even with guns, in order to deter the Mashurugwis in the future. This sounded extreme to me, and I questioned the wisdom of residents taking up arms.
But chairman was concerned with my querring;‘’ You surely don’t understand what the community went through in the past few months!’’ These words humbled my opinion. Indeed, I had never lived under Mashurugwis’ terror, hence it was no surprise and in some way offending that I had challenged his views on arming residents of the mining town.
Unlike chairman, men and women of Bindura, of whom Mashurugwi menace had been part of their lives for the previous three months, on that day, I was only there for a couple of hours. In any case I was flying back to England in a few days.
But, I also understand that appetite grows with eating. Having tasted ‘’victory’’, there was no doubt in my mind that chairman, and fellow Binduras were determined to keep their machetes, knives and knobkerries, of which they were convinced, had been instrumental in driving out Mashurugwis.
Now they wanted every household to be armed with machetes and guns as deterrence to any potential future ‘’invasion’’ by the gangs.
As a researcher, I also understand, from other contexts, that arming themselves represented a huge problem for the very same communities that chairman was trying save and protect: unregulated vigilante enforcement, usually render porous the border separating what is legal and illegal, a development that has been a precursor to, and created dynamics that led to the filling of mass graves in countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s, and DRC since 1998.
So concerned with security sector inaction, a few days later, I met up with a senior official in the ruling party, ZANU-PF, at Gava, a restaurant on the margins of Avondale suburb. I initiated discussion about the death squads that were menacing the nation.
But, to such party elites, who are far removed from the happenings in mining towns, talk of violence seemed so far fetched. In fact he laughed at my worries, and decided to settle for a discussion on the struggles of Arsenal in the English Premiership.
But I wasn’t going to easily fobbed off like that, so I insisted on the topic. ‘’Zimbabweans are to timid, and educated so the talk of war is sh*t’’. I wasn’t talking about war, but anyway, that’s how the man shut down discussion on the topic of Mashurugwi’s violence.
However, his understanding not only reflected hubris on the part of the official, but also convenient forgetting that violence, has been an important part of post-colonial life in the Southern African nation; from Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina, 2008 violence that saw more than 200 opposition supporters killed, and the most recent shootings by the state, of unarmed civilians, in August 2008 and January 2009.
Thus, what is happening with the Mashurugwis should be understood as simply a logical sequel to where we have come from rather than an inexplicable break from apparently a system that has been working so well.
The government’s position is even more puzzling, as it wants us to believe that Mashurugwis are simply trigger happy criminals whom they can control at any time.
‘’We can simply kick them out of towns anytime that we want’’, told me a senior government official who has strong links with the security sector.
This simplistic understanding, or rather nonchalant attitude by the state has also fueled the perception that Mashurugwis are controlled by black-and-gray activities of powerful men in politics, bringing us to the question of who exactly are these gangs working for in the alleged criminal activity-political nexus?
Some observers allege that they have strong links with individual political leaders such as ZANU-PF MPs’ Dexter Nduna, and Justice Mayor Wadyajena and State Security minister, Owen ‘’Mudha’’ Ncube and Local Authority Minister July Moyo, all who are allegedly involved, or have been involved in the shaddy industry of gold mining, or the buying from artisanal miners, and selling of it illegally to local gold barons or in South Africa.
These men are said to have recruited, nurtured and deployed the Mashurugwis for violence to protect artisanal mines, and sometimes during election periods.
The argument that Mashurugwis are controlled by politicians becomes plausible when one considers each time Mashurugwis have been arrested, its either bail conditions have been softened allowing them to disappear into mountains, or the court magistrates have gone out of their way to ensure that they get them released soon after arrest. In other words, they are protected by the state (courts, at the instructions of politicians) which should be wielding the sword against them.
However, I am more inclined to agree with argument that the recent acts of the Mashurugwi, which have become bolder and widespread, are not just a result of control by minor politicians, but constitute a serious language of political power.
Observers such as Lloyd Msipa a former ruling party insider, and Professor Jonathan Moyo, a former cabinet minister, have claimed that they have the power of the executive of the state behind them. Indeed, as tales from the likes of ‘’Giant’’, one of Mashurugwis interviewees confirm, they see the president as part of Mashurugwi. Indeed, Giant boasted that they now have their own president in government, or ‘’Chief Mukorokoza’’ as they call Mnangagwa.
‘’It is our time!’’ In an apocalyptic tone, he explained their criminal behaviour as part of Mnangagwa’s and his ministers grafting the country towards its total collapse. ‘’They are taking as much as they can from the country, so as Mashurugwis we are doing the same by grabbing whatever we can at our level…. and I promise you, there is nothing that he [Mnangagwa] will do to us’’.
Indeed, apart from a luke-warm statement in November last year, Mnangagwa has been quiet, and many people have criticised him for not intervening. As they say in English Harry does what’s best for Harry.
To those who have been paying enough attention, they must have noticed that Mnangagwa has already intervened; he has indicated that he has taken the side of the gangs in two ways.
First, he has adopted a position of complete protection by not uttering a single word against Mashurugwis. And, second, by reordering the government through the inclusion, at the heart of the state’s security apparatus, his proxies Owen ‘’Mudha’’ Ncube and July Moyo, men who have direct access to, and control of Mashurugwis.
Out of all his violent projects designed for self preservation alluded to above, Mashurugwis is turning out to be the most successful as it is being slowly and carefully executed right under our noses. But how, one may ask?
With the economy collapsed, and a non-existent social base, Mashurugwis should be seen as an important element of a double pronged strategy to deal with growing resistance to his rule and internal party opposition.
First, as part of ongoing militarisation and securitisation of the state, impunity suggests that the maraunding behaviour of Mashurugwis is an attempt to bring into being, and normalise a distinct and disturbing political culture as an integral part of Mnangagwa’s newly reconstructed state and Zimbabwean society.
In as much as we have become used to police corruption, electricity outages and fuel queues, we are supposed to get used to increasingly widespread hacking of men, women and children. As Mounir Chamoun, Lebanese psychoanalyst warns us, everything, including what we call unusual becomes normalised through repetition.
Second, with serious divisions in the national army, the gangs can easily be turned into a militia that can protect the interests of those politicians who will inevitably fall out with the main faction of the military which is led by Vice President Constantino Chiwenga.
With Mnangagwa and his vice president’s tussling for power as we hurtle towards 2023, the Mashurugwis, who are directly controlled by the state security minister, Owen ‘’Mudha’’ Ncube and Local government minister, July Moyo, two of the president’s staunchest allies, the first seeds for a ‘’paramilitary’’ army have been sown.
Those in the security sector calculate that the paramilitary will act as the vanguard against inevitable attempts, by Chiwenga, to wrestle the presidency from Mnangagwa.
In other words, Mnangagwa’s presidency is at the heart of Mashurugwis, whose menacing existence is just part of his comprehensive mess. Who then will help Zimbabweans from the seemingly inevitable violence? Outside help is unlikely.
Reading Samantha Power’s depressing A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide teaches us that the West only intervenes where it has strategic interests. On the other hand, the opposition lacks organisational and intellectual skills, but most importantly, it is too risk averse to take on the Midlands Godfather.
And, my take on citizen protest is that it is unlikely as Zimbabweans, have not yet reached that level of political consciousness to realise that they need to do something about the violence which is on their doorstep. Like it or not, realistic rescue will have to come from an improbable saviour: General Constantino Chiwenga is the only person capable of taking on Mnangagwa.
Simukai Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political analyst based in the UK