Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (centre) holds hands with his successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa (left) and then First Lady Grace Mugabe during celebrations marking his birthday at the Great Zimbabwe monument in Masvingo on February 27, 2016. Mr Mnangagwa is seeking to break clear of his dreaded past as Mr Mugabe’s trusted lieutenant
On a bright day in 1983 Thembi Ngwenya, 21, was gunned down with her husband Justin Tshuma while on their way to the local train station in Tsholotsho, south-western Zimbabwe. Their two year old son was spared.
Local villagers buried their bodies in a shallow grave near a railway line and her shin bone was protruding from the ground, according to the Zimbabwe national peace and reconciliation commission.
They were in a hurry too, fleeing from a crack Korea-trained military unit, Fifth Brigade, deployed to fight alleged dissidents who in truth were followers of Mr Mugabe’s rival Joshua Nkomo.
On Sunday, their remains were the first to be exhumed as part of a healing promised by the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa who together with his predecessor Robert Mugabe engineered the ethnic cleansing in which Ngwenya and 20,000 others died in four years ending in 1987 .
Mr Mnangagwa carved a reputation as a brutal enforcer of Mr Mugabe’s controversial policies which were aimed at preserving him in power.
Besides the massacre in which Ngwenya died, he was in charge of a violent land reform programme that is best remembered for turning a food basket that was Zimbabwe into a begging bow and the perennial brutal silencing of dissent.
Since he seized power with the assistance of the military and winning a subsequent election, Mr Mnangagwa appears to have encountered a ‘Saul-to-Paul’ moment and is trying to break clear of his past as a trusted lieutenant of Mr Mugabe’s 37-year rule.
It is under Mr Mnangagwa’s effort at re-invention that Ngwenya’s remains and those of 20,000 others that can be found are being exhumed for a decent burial.
The Zambian trained lawyer has called for open discussion of the massacre to promote national healing and hearings are set to be held later this year.
The deadly crackdown in Matebeleland and Midlands provinces of south-western Zimbabwe targeted supporters of the late vice president Joshua Nkomo, who were mainly from the Ndebele ethnic group. Mr Mugabe is from the majority Shona ethnic group.
The operation codenamed Gukurahundi (the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains in Shona) had genocidal inclinations but Mr Mugabe, 95, left office without apologising for what he acknowledged as ‘a moment of madness’. President Mnangawa was a security minister then and is regarded as a key architect of the massacres.
Under the programme to enable victims find closure, the government says it will facilitate the reburial of victims. Ukuthula Trust, a non-governmental organisation, is leading the exhumations.
Survivors of the dead would be assisted to obtain identity documents and death certificates for the dead, President Mnangagwa said after meeting civil society groups on April 19.
Critics, however, say the the president and other architects of the killings who are now leading figures in the new government are yet to demonstrate true remorse.
But the opposition Zapu party, whose leaders and supporters were the main targets of the operation have lauded the President for showing courage.
“He has committed his administration to solving the plight of people who could not get birth certificates and identity documents because their parents were killed over three decades ago in the genocidal Gukurahundi,” Zapu secretary general Strike Mnkandla said. He added the president sounded “more benign and capable of listening and acting positively.”
However, he added that the commitments and concessions “fall far short of a comprehensive accounting for Gikuruhundi.”
Passing the buck
Other top government officials directly linked to the massacres include Vice President Constantino Chiwenga and Agriculture minister Perrance Shiri who commanded the Fifth Brigade at different times.
President Mnangagwa’s spokesperson George Charamba said defended his boss and others saying they were merely taking orders from Mr Mugabe.
“They were part of the government of the day, which reported to a commander in chief, which reported to a president (Mr Mugabe). You cannot suddenly make the junior much more accountable than the person who was in overall charge,” he said.
In an interview on the eve of last year’s elections, Mr Mugabe seemed to shift the blame to Mr Mnangagwa and an intelligence boss who was ousted in the liberation war.
The hearings will provide an inkling of where the truth lies.
Mr Mnkandla called for legal protection of the hearings and implementation of their recommendations, which could include some form of reparation.
“It would have been more reassuring if this was accompanied by a legal instrument,” Mr Mnkandla.
As Justice minister, President Mnangagwa blocked the release of two major reports by commissions set up by Mr Mugabe to investigate the killings.
Measures fall short
The government has not committed itself that the reports would be released as part of truth telling amid claims that the reports could not be found.
Zapu said the measures unveiled by the government so far fell short of expectations by the victims to address the worst violations in Zimbabwe’s history.
It wants the government to explain why the atrocities happened so soon after independence and condemned the region to exclusion from development.
It also demands perpetrators be brought to book instead of being treated at national heroes. A third demand is that the government acts on those culpable as documented in the reports and a public apology made.
Matebeleland Collective, a group of civil society organisations said besides truth telling and justice, survivors wanted to know what happened to their missing relatives.
Human rights lawyer Siphosami Malunga said while the concessions made by President Mnangagwa were progressive, they might not bring closure on the atrocities.
“It’s never too late for justice,” Malunga, a former senior defence trial attorney with the United Nations Serious Crimes Panel that tried militia leaders over atrocities in East Timor.
He said a platform for recounting the truth without fear of reprisals and guarantees that victims would be compensated were essential in the healing.
President Mnangagwa’s has also announced compensation for 4 000 white Zimbabweans who lost their land during the controversial agrarian reform programme.
The compensation will be for improvements only with elderly farmers given priority in the initial $53 million package.
The reparation, however, is enshrined in the new constitution adopted during Mr Mugabe’s tenure.
“Essentially what the president has been doing is to simply give effect to the Zimbabwean constitution, which was adopted in 2013 and also whose echo was in the old constitution,” he said.
The compensation of farmers has been one of the conditions given by Western governments for restoration of normal ties with Zimbabwe, which has been under targeted sanctions since 2002.
Whether out of legality, personal soul-searching or diplomatic pressure the world hopes that in President Mnangagwa, a leopard can change its spots.