Stuart Doran spent the last 15 years researching and writing about Zimbabwe’s early post-independence period, including the Gukurahundi massacres of 1983 and 1984.
Sunday Times (ST): You have a PhD in history – what was your area of study for that?
Stuart Doran (SD): I studied 20th-century political history during my undergraduate days and then wrote a PhD thesis on the Cold War.
ST: What sparked your interest in history?
SD: There were two reasons why I grew to love history. The first was its applied nature.
It’s about real people and real events.
I found that fascinating.
The second reason was that I was blessed to have a number of teachers through high school and university who were passionate about history.
Those teachers genuinely loved the subject – and because of that they were better at what they did than most of my other teachers.
And their enthusiasm rubbed off on others.
I consider myself fortunate.
Many students have poor history teachers, who quickly kill off the interest of their pupils by giving the impression that history consists of nothing more than memorising a string of boring and irrelevant events.
It’s a false view of a historian’s work.
Historians are sleuths, investigators, pioneers – people who unearth and explain mysteries.
I did much of my schooling in Matabeleland and lived in Bulawayo during the Gukurahundi.
I wanted to understand the turmoil of the 1980s.
ST: Can you describe your process of research?
SD: Like any half-decent historian, I try to unearth new source material, while re-examining the primary source material that’s already known.
And, of course, I look at what other historians have written.
Then there’s the process of analysis — and, finally, the challenge of presenting the results in a way that makes sense to others.
One of my mentors, the great historian Hank Nelson, drilled into me the idea that you’re not a historian if you’re writing stuff that can’t be understood by a normal educated person.
ST: Western governments were accused of “not doing enough” to prevent the mass killing of civilians – would you agree?
SD: I don’t subscribe to the view that historians are public intellectuals.
What I mean is that we shouldn’t be in the business of making moral or political judgements when we’re writing history.
Our job is to find out what happened and why it happened.
It’s up to our readers to decide what the moral or political implications are.
That’s not to say that historians don’t have personal views on these things.
But when we have our hats on as historians, we must try to separate ourselves from such matters.
So, to answer your question, I’d point to the reality as it occurred rather than making a theoretical statement about what should have been done.
The reality is that Western governments made private representations to the (former President Robert) Mugabe regime about the massacres, but were not prepared to push their relationship with Zanu PF to the wire over the issue.
Those representations played a part in prompting Mugabe to scale down the intensity of the killings.
But he also became convinced that there would be few consequences once he had adopted a lower-intensity approach.
ST: Was there ever a legitimate reason for the existence of the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland?
SD: Mugabe and his ministers claimed that 5 Brigade was a crack unit that was established to deal with banditry in Matabeleland.
But that was propaganda.
The brigade was created to smash the support base of Zanu PF’s main political opposition — and that’s exactly what it did when it was deployed in January 1983.
ST: President Emmerson Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s minister of State Security during the Gukurahundi — do you believe, as some do, that he was instrumental in the massacres?
SD: Yes. The evidence is clear.
He was by no means the only player, but he was one of the most important.
His outright denials are, frankly, pretty silly. He needs a new PR (public relations) team.
ST: Gukurahundi happened more than 30 years ago – do you think Zimbabweans are willing to leave it behind now?
SD: Ordinary Zimbabweans aren’t close to having a choice in the matter.
The perpetrators are still in control and any dialogue is severely constrained by that fact.
ST: What was the most disturbing or surprising thing you uncovered in your research?
SD: There were many.
The depth of the violence was not surprising — human history everywhere is immersed in blood — but it was disturbing.
When former colleagues are prepared to rip each other apart, when men take pleasure in dismembering women and children alive, it’s arresting.
These things are not done by monsters, but by people like you and me. It gives you a jolt.
What is this beast in the human basement?
SD: What were your biggest challenges in writing the book?
SD: Climbing a mountain that seemed to have no end.
I bit off a lot to chew.
I tried to tell myself that this was finite; that it would come to an end.
Yet I wasn’t sure when that would happen and there were many times when it didn’t seem worth it.
You’ve got to keep on plodding, even when the oxygen runs out.
Another challenge was the lack of financial support.
Many donors, institutions and individuals wring their hands over issues like the Gukurahundi, but few put money and mouth together.
It means that a lot of vital research never happens.
And if you’re foolhardy enough to forge ahead, most of the time you’re on your own.
ST: It is a monumental book — do you feel there is any more to be revealed in Zimbabwean history?
SD: I’ve barely scratched the surface.
There are relatively few historians looking at modern Zimbabwean or Southern African history.
The more the better. There can never be too many.