Zimbabwe: What Britain and the West did – and didn’t – do during the Matabeleland massacres of 1983-4

Zimbabwe: What Britain and the West did – and didn’t – do during the Matabeleland massacres of 1983-4

Contrary to allegations that Western governments “did nothing” when Mugabe’s army went on the rampage in the early 1980s, they may have helped prevent total slaughter. But they also taught him that he could calibrate the violence and get away with it. By STUART DORAN.

Along a post-independence fabric liberally blotted with death and suffering, the Matabeleland killings of 1983-4 remain Zimbabwe’s most glaring. Thousands of Ndebele civilians were murdered and maimed by Mugabe’s North Korean-trained 5th Brigade in a campaign ostensibly aimed at stamping out an insurgent threat. Though they occurred more than 30 years ago, the massacres continue to shape the country’s politics, playing – among other things – an important part in Mugabe’s stubborn unwillingness to relinquish power.

Yet what of the role of Britain and the West during the killings?

Britain had overseen a decolonisation process in 1979-80 and was heavily involved in Zimbabwe, politically, economically and militarily, as were a group of Western countries that had arrived on Britain’s coat tails. They were generally well informed and were in a position to exert some influence. So how much did they know about the 5th Brigade’s violence – and what did they do about it? Answers to this question have been coloured by bitterness, conspiracism and a lack of data.

But the picture is now becoming clearer.

Soon after the 5th Brigade was deployed into Matabeleland North on 20 January 1983, the British were able to relay these developments to other Western diplomatic missions. The“Gukurahundi”, as the brigade was known, did not receive its orders through army headquarters (where the British had a presence), but neither was it entirely separate from the rest of the army and word quickly got around in military circles. At the same time, knowledge of troop movements did not, ipso facto, bring with it an understanding of their purpose. The Gukurahundi’s annihilationist objectives were a closely held secret, and evidence suggests that British diplomats and military personnel were unaware of these intentions.

However, within a week it was apparent that civilians were being murdered – and during February multiple sources reported killings that were extensive, indiscriminate and utterly brutal in nature. Unable to ignore the carnage, diplomats debated the question of responsibility – whether the killing was the result of government policy – and how they should react. Despite indications both specific and circumstantial, there was a reluctance to pin the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mugabe and his senior ministers.

As a result, representations to the government were late, tepid and oblique. Mugabe himself was not approached and “concerns” were expressed to his subordinates in broad terms. The instructions sent to the Australian high commissioner provide the flavour:

We would be interested to receive information from the Zimbabwe government on the true state of affairs in Matabeleland and, in particular, on whether measures are being taken to restrain the use of excessive force.”

On 4 March, the British high commissioner, Robin Byatt, spoke to the minister responsible for defence, Sydney Sekeramayi, “who admitted there had been atrocities” by overzealous soldiers – but on this and later occasions when Matabeleland was discussed with the Zimbabweans, the British did not go beyond urging them “to hew to [the] goal of reconciliation while acknowledging that [the government] has been provoked beyond inaction”. At around the same time, the American ambassador, Robert Keeley, gave Finance Minister Bernard Chidzero some US press reports on Matabeleland, accompanied by a cover note which suggested that developments in the region would increase difficulties for the Reagan administration in its discussions with Congress over the future of US aid to Zimbabwe. Keeley encouraged Chidzero to share the clippings with Mugabe, with whom he was flying to New Delhi for a Non-Aligned Movement conference, departing 5 March.

The killings had been continuing unabated for seven weeks by this point and had shown few signs of slowing down. In fact, they appear to have been accelerating. On the day Mugabe left, 62 people were shot on the banks of the Ciwale river in what was the largest single massacre up to that time. And that night an attempt was made to assassinate Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe’s nationalist rival and the leader of Zapu, the party that enjoyed overwhelming support in Matabeleland. This operation was carefully planned and Mugabe’s departure a matter of hours beforehand was evidently an effort to create an alibi.

Yet Mugabe’s flight to New Delhi and his week in India were a watershed. He appears to have begun to fear the consequences of exposure for what he well knew were crimes against humanity by international standards. In a stopover in the Seychelles, obviously having read Keeley’s clippings, he fulminated that “the Western press was conducting a deliberate campaign to smear his government” and repeated the message when he arrived in New Delhi, remarking that reports of violence were a “fabrication of the Western press”. But he was also busy behind the scenes. Intelligence obtained by the South Africans shows that 5th Brigade was ordered to tone down the intensity of its operations in Matabeleland in view of “the negative international publicity that the actions of the 5th Brigade had received”.

Weak though they were, Western representations, therefore, played a part in persuading Mugabe to change tack. They contributed to the cumulative weight of pressure – adding to the courageous exposés of the Catholic Church, foreign correspondents and Zapu – which in toto convinced Mugabe that the risks were becoming too great. While the direction that the killings may have taken will remain hypothetical, their trajectory to that point suggests the possibility of genocide in the fullest sense of the word. Later research indicates that about 70% of all the killings that took place in 1983-4 occurred in those first seven weeks.

But these findings also highlight an important caveat: Mugabe did not stop the violence; he simply reconfigured it. Fifth Brigade did not leave Matabeleland North for another six months. Instead, it adjusted its modus operandi, increasing the proportion of beatings to killings, and disposing of bodies in more furtive ways.

Further refinements were made when 5th Brigade was redeployed to Matabeleland South in January 1984. A food embargo was used to devastating effect in the province, which was already experiencing the worst drought on record. A decision was also made to concentrate more of the violence in hidden enclaves, away from prying eyes. Whereas the slaughter in the north had taken place in villages and homesteads across a vast swathe of territory, in the south 5th Brigade conducted sweeps, gathering people into groups and taking them to holding centres. Many were then sent on to Bhalagwe, a concentration camp where mass torture took place. The bodies of those who died were taken away at night and thrown down mine shafts.

The tardiness of the Western response in 1984 is striking, particularly in view of the probability of mass violence associated with the redeployment of a unit that had so recently slaughtered thousands in Matabeleland North. It was not until April that serious consideration was given to making representations. This lethargy was not primarily a function of ignorance. Though there had been a period when information was patchy – partly because of the more covert type of military operations that were occurring – it did not take long to ascertain what was happening.

As had been the case in 1983, the Catholic Church, foreign journalists and Zapu had soon begun reporting events in the province. In early April, the Canadians summarised conclusions they had reached some time beforehand: it had “become clear” that the “picture of military repression, beatings, murders and widespread hunger which have surfaced … have continued and represent [a] widespread phenomenon across [the] whole curfew area”. As to the food embargo, “after eight weeks [the] conclusion is now inescapable that enforced starvation in [the] communal areas is definitely being used to subdue [the] Matabele”.

Neither were Western diplomats, on the whole, naïve about the question of responsibility. They had had a year to reflect on the events of early 1983 and were more willing to accept that 5th Brigade was acting on instructions from the highest levels. The Canadians noted that they and “most other diplo[matic] observers we have consulted” believed that Mugabe’s central committee was well aware of the starvation and brutality that would result from the blockade and the redeployment of 5th Brigade.

It does not appear … likely that [the] central c[ommi]tee could have been unaware of [the] consequences of [the] decision, and ignorance of gov[ernmen]t members is thus more likely to be wilful.”

The sluggishness of the diplomatic community is more arresting again in view of this clear-eyed appreciation. Paradoxically, it was the events of 1983 that lay at the root of the hesitant Western response of 1984. The previous year had cemented the parameters of the relationship with Mugabe’s regime. Tension over the genocidal direction of February-March 1983 and other matters had compelled Western governments to reconsider the terms of this relationship – and they had come down firmly on the side of the realpolitik. In essence, they decisively reaffirmed the pragmatic elements that had underwritten the relationship with the ruling party – and with Mugabe in particular – since independence.

In April 1983, reflecting on the implications of the massacres for Britain’s position, a senior Foreign Office official said that “[the] policy towards Zimbabwe which has been confirmed from time to time was that Mugabe should be supported to assist him [to] keep on the path of reconciliation and moderation in Zimbabwe, despite pressures being exerted on him from within his own movement”. This was a diplomatic form of words for the United Kingdom’s hope that Mugabe would maintain relatively pragmatic policies vis-à-vis the economy and the country’s white population, but the language was less coded when the international dimensions were described:

There was a British concern that if the UK showed any less than full confidence in Mugabe, he might move much further away from the West and closer to the Soviet Union and its satellites such as North Korea.”

Implicitly, human rights, at least with regard to the black population, would come into play in only the most extreme of circumstances. Events in Matabeleland had been “particularly messy”, but the overall “situation was not yet irretrievable”. The Foreign Office “would continue to put the view that Mugabe is the best bet for Zimbabwe at the present time, that a successor would be much worse for Western interests there, and that Zimbabwe has a good chance of overcoming its problems … if Mugabe is supported by the West”. In effect, Western countries had made a decision that political violence would not produce a crisis point in bilateral relations unless marked by mass killings over a sustained period. Anything below that threshold would be regarded as problematic but manageable.

Mugabe was astute enough to recognise the position. In 1984, at the point when starvation loomed on a massive scale – and when the outcry raised by journalists and others was about to provoke a round of Western representations – Mugabe drew back of his own accord, rescinding the embargo and gradually winding down 5th Brigade’s operations. By the end of April, diplomats were writing to their capitals, reporting an improvement on the ground and asserting that approaches to the government were no longer necessary.

Mugabe had learnt a lesson – one he has never forgotten. As long as he did not verge on the mass extermination that had occurred in 1983, he could kill, starve and torture his people, and outsiders would do nothing.

In the decades since, there have been notable examples of such widespread, calibrated violence – times when he has felt it necessary to savagely brutalise his citizens – but he has been careful to keep it below a threshold. The response of Western governments would, he knew, be largely symbolic. Meanwhile, the press could holler but, in the last analysis, do little.

The world may have changed enormously in the three decades since the Gukurahundi killings, but the formula has been remarkably durable. Time has proven Mugabe right. DM

Dr Stuart Doran is a historian and the author of a forthcoming book, Kingdom, power, glory: Mugabe, Zanu, and the quest for supremacy, 1960–1987, to be published by Sithatha Media in May 2017 – see

Photo: President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe looks on as new Chief Justice Luke Malaba is sworn in, in Harare, Zimbabwe, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo


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