The dark chapter of Zim’s history that won’t go away

BULAWAYO — With Zimbabwe’s new President Emmerson Mnangagwa just concluding a 100-day timeline to addresses what he considered the country’s most pressing issues, which focused on economic revival, human rights activists have their own timeline.


Survivors of the 1980s Gukurahundi atrocities, where a campaign by government soldiers claimed thousands of civilian lives, are demanding that the new president address the country’s dark past.

Activists accuse Mnangagwa, serving military and top government officials of perpetrating crimes against humanity more than three decades ago and see Mnangagwa’s rise to power as an opportunity that was denied them by former President Robert Mugabe, to address the atrocities, which various researchers say claimed up to 20 000 lives.
Mugabe, accused of ordering the brutal campaign against civilians, notoriously brushed off what others have called a genocide as a “moment of madness” and refused to issue an apology.

In the past, while still serving under Mugabe, Mnangagwa raised the ire of surviving victims and relatives of the Gukurahundi killings when he appeared to dismiss calls for a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) by telling the nation that there was no need to revisit that troubled past.

Modelled along South Africa’s TRC which sought closure on apartheid-era human rights violations, disappearances and state-sponsored political murders, the commission would see perpetrators coming forward and giving public apologies in what researchers have called restorative justice.

Instead of getting prison terms, the perpetrators would get amnesty and pardons from their victims.

Charles Gumbo is one such Gukurahundi survivor. He has bayonet scars on his head and is now an activist agitating for the southwest of Zimbabwe’s autonomy. Gumbo says Mnangagwa, senior members of the ruling party Zanu PF and military commanders, who propped Mnangagwa’s rise to power must answer for the Gukurahundi, atrocities.

“We know them,” he said. “All of them are still in government and going about with impunity. We will never rest until this is resolved to our satisfaction.”

However, there is scepticism that Mnangagwa will institute any official government inquiry when he is largely seen as “accused number one” in what remain unresolved “crimes against humanity,” as Gumbo put it.

When the Gukurahundi campaign was launched in the 1980s, ostensibly to quell an insurgency by dissidents in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland and Midlands regions that saw the deployment of the military, Mnangagwa, as the Security minister, became the face of the brutal crackdown.

Perrance Shiri, who was retired as commander of the Air force of Zimbabwe to take up a post in Mnangagwa’s new cabinet as Lands minister was commander of the 5 Brigade, the military unit trained by North Koreans to carry out the Gukurahundi tortures and killings.

He, too, has over the years refused to answer questions about the human rights violations.

“This government has no will to solve the Gukurahundi issue,” said Zenzele Ndebele, a Zimbabwean journalist and filmmaker whose 2007 documentary, Gukurahundi: A Moment of Madness, has never been shown in Zimbabwe.

The film was launched in neighbouring South Africa after the authorities failed to grant permission for public screenings.

“The incompetency of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission works in government’s favour,” Ndebele said.

In January this year, only weeks into his elevation with assistance from the military, President Mnangagwa signed into law the Peace and Reconciliation Bill, which established the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) to “promote national healing”.

However, since the NPRC launched countrywide public meetings in February, activists have demanded that government address the Gukurahundi issue, something that the commissioners are accused of not being eager to include in their agenda.

As Gukurahundi demonstrations greeted Mnangagwa’s rise to power, special presidential advisor Christopher Mutsvangwa told the nation last December that continued discussion of Gukurahundi was “unhelpful” and “irresponsible,” in comments that were seen as reflecting the President’s views.

Velempini Ndlovu, an independent researcher documenting oral testimonies of the Gukurahundi, said victims were seeking closure and lament the fact that they have been denied the opportunity to formally engage government.

“People want to be able to openly express their pain without being policed and told to ‘get over it.’ A gross human rights violation occurred,” Ndlovu said.

Gukurahundi continues to polarise Zimbabweans, heating up online bulletin boards with some insisting the new President’s focus should be efforts to resuscitate the economy in a country where labour unions say more than 80% of the population are without jobs, while others say for the country to find peace and move on, the Gukurahundi must be discussed openly.

Other activists are demanding reparations, with reports that thousands have failed to obtain legal documents such as birth certificates in the absence of their parents, who were killed during Gukurahundi.

“Victims want to be allowed to get identification, as they are many, who because their parents couldn’t get death certificates they also couldn’t get birth certificates and IDs,” Ndlovu said.

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  1. I am a youngman and don’t know much about Gukurahundi but i hear my parents speak of Itumbai as the main cause of the conflict which led to Gukurahundi. Can someone give a proper historical narrative of what happened for the benefit of us youngsters so that in future we don’t do such an act again.

    1. Ali this is what happened. Mugabe won the 1980 elections by 57% Nkomo some 20% or so. Nkomo accepted this outcome but his generals thought otherwise possibly because Nkomo was more popular than Mugabe or so they thought. SA was still at war and the whites there did not want Mugabe to lend help to the Nationalist fighting apartheid so they wanted to disturbilize Zimbabwe. Towards this end they appealed to the some of the generals of Zapu, remember that they were only just a few. Nkomo because of his vision even during the war was buying farms in the hope that he would run Zimbabwe or simply because his political party was investing. These farms were all over the country regardless of him having been in Matebeleland. The generals through the aid of apartheid SA hid weapons in these farms (arms caches) whatever their reason then.
      Mugabe being the communist that he has always been, wanted to have a one part state in the country and he made it plain clear also. It so happened that the army had just been rebuilt combining Zanla, Zipra and Rhodesia combatants. The Ndebele component in the army was not too happy that Shona Commanders were at the to pat the expense of the Ndebeles and about the same time the security apparatus discovered the arms caches on Nkomos farms very strategically distributed in the country. At Intumbane were you mention there was a fracas among the rank and file in the army barracks pitting the soldiers on ethnic lines and live fire was exchanged between the cadres lives were lost. This was the excuse Mugabe needed to enforce his one party state in the country so he mobilised the army from other Shona camps to quell down the commotion. The generals then quickly moved to use the cached weapons and apartheid SA was very delighted and recruited cross boader raids using very specialised military units and before long the situation was disgusting. At about the same time Mozambique was having problems with Renamo which occasionally strayed into Zimbabwe and killed people. It is thought Renamo was the apatheid SA’s baby so, threatened in this manner, Mugabe had two fronts to fight and the worst in him we saw.

      Seeing that there was an armed conflict he trained for the purpose of supressing the Ndebele threat an army of paratroopers trained in North Korea to fight. These troopers were deployed in Matebeleland and Midlands and boy, they killed ordinary people in their thousands the reason being that they were supporting Nkomo. Meanwhile Nkomo himself was sought out but because he had a lot of sympathizers both in Ndebele and Shona clans was warned and made good his escape on time. Mugabe went bananas and the intensity of the crash assumed a full military campaign. The campaign was code named Gukurahundi meaning cleansing rains. those fighting Mugabe were labelled Dissidents or bandits. Remember though that the liberation war was just one season ago and the war spirit was unexorcised hence the atrocities were unmitigated. So the causes of Gukurahundi are manifold.
      1 Appartheid SA
      2 Refusal to accept the democratic outcome of the 1980 election result
      3 Communist idealogy by Mugabes desire for a one party state
      4 A war mentality
      5 The Rhodesians had a stake in the event

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