In 1983, Nqobizitha Mhlaleri was ten years old when a bloody massacre in western Zimbabwe destroyed his community and left him an orphan.
“I was made to step on dead bodies including my parents’,” he says, now aged 46. “The soldiers were ruthless. They left a trail of disaster.”
Nobuhle Ndlovu, 68, recounts a similar tale of violence.
“I was pregnant then when six men arrived at our home enquiring of any suspicious men around the village,” she says. “They accused us of harbouring dissidents. I was told to lie face down…The next thing were gunshots and they left. When I went to check, I saw my husband in a pool of blood. He had been shot in the head.”
In Matabeleland and the Midlands, many people have similarly traumatic experiences from the 1980s when political tensions spilled into mass atrocities. Zimbabwe became independent in 1980 to much jubilation, but from the start, tensions simmered between two rival groups: Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which won the 1980 elections, and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).
In 1983, their antagonism erupted into violence when ZANU-led government decided to crack down on ZAPU supporters. The Fifth Brigade, a military unit trained by the North Korean army, swept through provinces in Matebeleland and the Midlands, where ZAPU support – much of which came from the minority Ndebele people – derived. The operation was codenamed Gukurahundi, which translates in Shona as “the rain that washes away the chaff”. From 1983 to 1987, security forces targeted thousands of Ndebele with torture, detention and summary execution. An estimated 20,000 people were killed.
The man widely alleged to have masterminded the massacres, Emmerson Mnangagwa, became Zimbabwe’s president in 2017.
A moment of madness?
This period of violence effectively ended in December 1987 when former President Mugabe and Nkomo signed the Unity Accord. As part of this, ZANU and ZAPU merged to become the ZANU-PF party. In the following months, an amnesty was announced for both security forces and dissidents who had committed violations.
The Gukurahundi massacres ended but the underlying issues and impact of the chaos remained unresolved and unaddressed. President Mugabe commissioned an NGO report and appointed the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry to investigate the violence. But the commission’s findings were never made public. Many Ndebele communities were left devastated and alone to cope with the trauma and loss, passing on the pain from generation to generation.
“The Gukurahundi issue is still unresolved 36 years after it occurred,” says David Coltart, Zimbabwe’s former minister for Education, Sport, Arts and Culture. “There are no memorials. There are still mass graves. There was never any compensation of victims.”
According to Coltart, the closest the government has come to apologising for the havoc it wrought was in 2000 when Mugabe referred to the massacres as “a moment of madness”. Beyond that, little has been done to atone for the widespread violence. Many Ndebele still suffer from the wounds of the Gukurahundi, which were made even harder to bear when Mugabe was removed from office and replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa in November 2017.
At the time of the Gukurahundi, Mnangagwa was the minister for state security and oversaw the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). He is widely believed to have played a central role in the massacres. He now not only occupies Zimbabwe’s top job, but has brought other key figures accused of leading the massacres with him.
“The First Brigade was then headed by Dominic Chinenge and the Fifth Brigade was headed by Perence Shiri,” says Coltart. “The CIO provided lists of ZAPU private operatives to the Fifth Brigade who deployed troops to villagers, whilst the First Brigade provided with logistical support.”
Dominic Chinenge (aka Constantino Chiwenga) is now Vice-President. Perence Shiri is Agriculture Minister.
“We need to talk about reparations, justice, and truth-telling”
Since coming to office, President Mnangagwa has made some efforts to address the grievances of the Ndebele community. In March 2019, for instance, he agreed to meet with representatives of the Matebeleleland Collective, a consortium of regional civil society organisations. For Jenny Williams, convener of the collective, the time was right to meet with the new government.
“Despite the pain still felt and shared by people of this region, we realistically told each other that it is time to engage the government of Zimbabwe,” she says.
That decision may have borne some fruit. In the weeks following the meeting, Mnangagwa appealed to Zimbabweans to talk freely about the massacres. “Let’s open a debate so as not to fear anything”, he said. The government also suggested plans to exhume and rebury victims, provide counselling and medical services, and issue documents to displaced survivors.
These moves have so far split opinion. Dr Dumisani Ngwenya, a member of the Matebeleleland Collective, is cautiously optimistic.
“It does seem as if there is a more of a movement now than previously…People are a little freer to talk about it in public,” he says. “Only time will tell whether this is a genuine move or not, but for now we have no reason to doubt the intention at least.”
Many others, however, are far less convinced. Political analyst Gift Ostallos Siziba, for instance, suggests that it is “folly” to believe progress is being made without more comprehensive redress.
“We need to talk about reparations, justice, and truth-telling,” he says. “These are fundamentals that need to be discussed.”
He stresses Mnangagwa’s alleged role in the Gukurahundi massacres and suggests the president is obscuring the reality of what happened.
“He is not going to open up. That’s why he was arresting those viewed as threats to the process of truth telling,” says Siziba, referring to the arrest of journalist Zenzele Ndebele after he called on the president to address what happened in the 1980s. “Mnangagwa is putting lipstick [on the issue], trying to cajole the international community [by] talking about something that he is a perpetrator of.”
Researcher Tjenesani Ntungakwa echoes some of these views and suggests that only an independent body can honestly adjudicate.
“Everyone who was involved in these atrocities does not want to come out clean,” he says. “There is a need to have an independent commission manned by the church. The first people to bring facts on the issue [of human rights abuses committed in the Gukurahundi massacres] was the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP).”
A collective healing
Across Matebeleleland and the Midlands, the impact of the violence in the 1980s continues to be felt. For survivors like Nqobizitha, the lack of redress has made it hard to move on.
“It continues to haunt me even in my sleep,” he says.
He and thousands of others are still awaiting acknowledgement from the government, an apology and meaningful compensation. It is hard to say whether the fact that Mnangagwa – the man many believe to have been the violence’s key architect – is now president helps their cause or not.
Either way, for many, the Gukurahundi massacres continue to loom over Zimbabwe 36 years after they began. On the one hand, these ongoing grievances feed into the minority Ndebele’s long-standing feelings of marginalisation. But on the other, some argue that the issue is about more than just one group; it strikes at the heart of the kind of nation Zimbabwe should be.
“You cannot say it should be a Matebeleland thing,” says researcher Mbuso Fuzwayo. “It is something where national resources were spent to carry out the exercise and we should approach it with the national outlook to say: ‘What form of Zimbabwe do we want?’”