What prompted the Gukurahundi, during which thousands of Ndebele-speaking civilians were murdered by Robert Mugabe’s North Korean-trained soldiers? There is a persistent view in some circles that the killings, while “horrific” or “regrettable”, were a response to a complex and escalating array of existential threats to the state. The basis of this position is that the Mugabe government was fundamentally defensive in the early years of independence; faced with a multitude of foes who remained strong after a negotiated end to the Rhodesian civil war, the regime was obliged to be cautious and reactive in the 1980s.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
For the many who regard Mugabe as the devil incarnate, evidence is barely necessary to convict him of every evil that has been visited on post-independence Zimbabwe – and the Gukurahundi is chief among them. But others lay claim to a more nuanced approach. They are an otherwise incongruous assortment of regime critics and apologists, yet in their attempts to explain the killings, they have this in common: all rely on an appeal to “historical context” and a supposedly superior grasp of events between 1980 and early 1983.
Context and an understanding of chronology are, of course, vitally important, but a closer look at this period shows that the purportedly more sophisticated viewpoint is almost as superficial as the one which is reflexively anti-Mugabe. Some have come to this alternative view because they know only half the story, though others – among them, a few prominent perpetrators – are motivated by duplicity. Mugabe’s current vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is one of the second group.
When Mugabe and Zanu-PF took office in April 1980 they were, certainly, faced with powerful enemies. That is incontestable – though the rub lies in Mugabe’s handling of these threats and their progressive weakening over the first two years. Nkomo and his party, Zapu, had been ostensible allies of Zanu during the war, but the two were, in reality, bitter rivals whose fractious and often violent relationship with Zanu went back to the 1960s. This antipathy was intensified by Nkomo’s belief that the independence elections of February 1980 were stolen by Zanu, and by Zanu’s conviction that Nkomo was a sore loser who would use his sizeable army, Zipra, to mount a coup if an opportunity arose. Then there were the Rhodesians, who had been shooting Mugabe’s guerrillas in the field a matter of weeks beforehand, and who retained a yet more formidable security apparatus than Zipra. Behind the Rhodesians stood apartheid South Africa’s military machine, which had actively assisted in the fight against the nationalists.
Mugabe’s approach to the white problem was to institute a policy of reconciliation, while atrophying Rhodesian strength through a process of military integration. In this, he was remarkably successful. Senior members of the Rhodesian security forces and intelligence service were persuaded to serve the Zanu-PF government, and – in the main – did so loyally. Meanwhile, the Rhodesian officer corps and white infantry units were gutted by resignations. By the end of 1980, the Rhodesian military was finished as a unified fighting force.
Mugabe’s strategy for Zapu and Zipra was different – diametrically so. Whereas it was reconciliation with the whites, there was an undeclared policy of provocation in place for Nkomo and his people. This has often been poorly understood, but previously unpublished documents show a clear pattern of deliberate incitement by Zanu-PF during 1980.
Examples are legion, and they began even before independence day in mid-April. Forming a government of national unity, Mugabe offered the presidency to Nkomo, a ceremonial position that both despised. After Nkomo refused, he was given the Home Affairs portfolio, which was stripped of some of its most important functions, including national intelligence. That was handed to Mnangagwa. Another humiliation was meted out on independence day. While Mugabe and foreign dignitaries enjoyed centre stage, Nkomo, “Father Zimbabwe”, was consigned to the back benches, hidden from a rapturous crowd.
The goading continued unrelentingly in the new Zimbabwe. The Zanu rank and file, often in collusion with more senior leaders, embarked on a campaign of violence against the supporters of Zapu and other black opposition parties. They were joined in this by members of Zanla, Zanu’s guerrilla army. A few days after the independence celebrations, Police Commissioner Peter Allum told the British that Zanu supporters had “taken strong exception to T-shirts which carried the emblems of other parties” and said that the trouble in the townships was the worst it had been since the 1960s.
The churn at grassroots did not abate over subsequent months. Mid-year, Allum reported that “the internal security situation in the country … [was] in many ways more difficult than it had been during the war time given the number of incidents involving theft, abduction and assault”. Eighty percent of those who had been jailed for these offences were Zanla personnel.
Allum also noted that a group of Zanu ministers – of whom Mnangagwa was apparently one – were “gunning” for Nkomo in cabinet and “regularly tried to laugh him down”. The British High Commissioner, Robin Byatt, reported to London that Mugabe had “set himself, since the election, to reassure the white community”, but that the cohesion of the “precarious” Zanu-Zapu relationship had “got worse since independence”. Favourably disposed to Mugabe, Byatt was nevertheless forced to concede that this increasing tension and the “fear and suspicion flickering across the main tribal division” was caused by Zanu. He outlined a “chain of events” that included the inequitable division of ministerial portfolios and the “witch hunt” of Zapu supporters by “Zanu wild boys” in the townships. The Zapu and Zipra leadership had become “apprehensive as well as angry and some began muttering about ‘taking action’ if they were pushed too far”.
Byatt felt that Mugabe was “anxious to defuse matters” – not the first time he was to be duped by Zimbabwe’s prime minister. To the contrary, Mugabe was aware of the anger that was building among his foes and sought to fan it. His ministers began to accuse Zipra “dissidents” of engaging in well co-ordinated bandit violence as part of a plan to overthrow the government. Against the backdrop of Zanla’s widespread violence and strenuous efforts by the Zipra hierarchy to discipline the relatively few errant cadres in their own ranks, this generated fury within Zapu and Zipra. The British observed that there was dissatisfaction developing in Zapu with Nkomo because of “his general subservience to Zanu”, and he came under growing pressure to resist Zanu-PF aggression.
In June, Nkomo met secretly with the South Africans to ascertain whether they would remain neutral in a military conflict between Zipra and Zanla. He told them that he would like to see a peaceful solution to political differences in the country but … chances of that happening were slim. The military authorities of both Zipra and Zanla were by no means satisfied with the current state of affairs and could tell that the issue would be settled militarily either way. The politicians tasked with finding a peaceful solution to the differences were no longer interested in peace.
Time was to show that Nkomo toyed with the idea of military action on a number of occasions, but every time a showdown loomed he sought a political resolution.
Mugabe, on the other hand, took an altogether different approach. The goading intensified. State radio persistently eulogised Zanla’s contribution to the liberation struggle and denigrated Zipra’s – and no meaningful attempt was made to rein in Zanla’s excesses, which increased as local government elections approached. In July, the police confided to diplomats that they had “no control within 60km” of Zanla camps and that Zanla now accounted for 85% of politically motivated violence. In his first visit to a Zanla camp since independence, which had come in the wake of rampant violence at that locale, Mugabe told a closed meeting that his men should “keep their powder dry for Zipra”.
Zapu’s anxieties about the atmosphere of impunity around Zanla hit a new high in September when the government announced that more than 15,000 guerrillas from both armies would be moved from rural cantonments into the capital, Salisbury, where they would be located side by side. A similar camp would be established at Entumbane in the country’s second city, Bulawayo. Nkomo was deeply upset, telling a colleague that he found himself in an “impossible situation”. Zapu believed that Zanu was trying to translate Zanla’s dominance of the Shona-speaking rural areas into the towns, which until then had been a sphere of more open political contestation. There was also a sense that the decision was a military-strategic move in preparation for a clash with Zipra.
South African intelligence shows that Mugabe was, indeed, purposefully engineering a decisive military confrontation. In October, he told a member of the Zanu central committee – who was a covert South African source – that “as far as a possible civil war in the country was concerned … his wish was for it to happen as soon as possible. Mugabe foresaw that war would break out before December. He wanted it to happen as soon as possible in order to put an end to the rumours once and for all, and also in order for Nkomo to be convincingly overthrown on a military level”.
After returning from a trip to North Korea, where he signed a deal for the Koreans to train a pure-Zanla fifth brigade of the army, Mugabe “repeated [to the source] that he foresees civil war by December and that he would prefer to see that it does happen now and be over and done with. He also repeated that he wants to break the Matabeles’ power once and for all”.
A fortnight later, Zanu-PF held a two-day rally in Bulawayo that was calculated to provoke a violent reaction from Zipra. From the venue, to the individuals involved and the nature of their speeches, this was an incendiary operation. They got what they wanted. Fighting exploded in the Entumbane cantonment late on the second day, with 3,000 Zanla and Zipra men engaging in a series of pitched battles over 24 hours. It was brought to an end when jet fighters of the former Rhodesian Air Force flew low over the combatants, threatening to unload a barrage of rockets and bombs. This, along with orders from Nkomo to Zipra, brought the country back from the brink of civil war. Zapu’s intelligence chief, Dumiso Dabengwa, recalled that Nkomo told him, “At all costs, this cannot continue, please go and stop that fighting”. For his part, Mugabe had planned to ramp up the conflict, having brought in two extra battalions which (as the British noted afterwards) had been “waiting in position outside Entumbane when the fighting ended”.
Mugabe had not obtained the war he was looking for, but recognised that relations with Zapu and Zipra were now so poor that he need only maintain the pressure to quickly manufacture another opportunity. A farm owned by Nkomo was raided in November, nine senior Zapu officials were arrested a week later, and some of the most troublesome Zanla elements were sent to boost numbers at Entumbane.
In the background, both Zanla and Zipra were stockpiling weapons. Dabengwa had brought in a trainload of armaments from Zambia and diverted them to the main Zipra base in Matabeleland North. In a later interview, he remarked that “we were preparing for the worst and said, ‘If anything happens, at least we have a base from which we can be able to start’”. Byatt cabled London in December, warning of “a process of escalation which is becoming dangerous” – and (even though unaware of Mugabe’s explicit desire to spark a conflagration) he was again compelled to conclude that Zanu bore primary responsibility for the situation: “Much of [Zapu’s] recent actions which have been worrying Zanu-PF have been simply responses to Zanu-PF intimidation and threats.”
The provocations continued early in the new year. In January 1981, Mugabe demoted Nkomo during a cabinet reshuffle, sparking a heated debate within Zapu on how the party should respond. South African sources indicated that the party’s politicians were “still against a definite break” with Zanu, while senior members of Zipra were “of the opinion that the party had been pushed far enough and the time has come to take action”. Zipra declared itself “ready for any eventuality, including moving back to a neighbouring state”. As this debate was occurring, Mugabe travelled to Zambia to ensure that such a rear base would not be available. He persuaded Zapu’s former sponsor, Kenneth Kaunda, to distance himself from Nkomo.
Mugabe had also made another crucial strategic move by this point. For most of 1980, he had pushed military integration as fast as it would go, intending to press the Rhodesian units into amalgamated battalions of the national army as soon as a large proportion of Zipra had been assimilated. But from around October he changed tack. Certain highly proficient Rhodesian units were incorporated, unamalgamated, into the new Zimbabwe defence forces. Names and uniforms were altered, but their personnel and capabilities remained unchanged. These included the Rhodesian Air Force, which had provided a significant edge to the Rhodesians during the guerrilla war of the 1970s. Mugabe had become convinced that these units would take orders from the “government of the day” in a war with Zipra.
He gambled right. When fighting again broke out at Entumbane in February 1981, it was the Rhodesian units that proved decisive. Reflecting on events, the South Africans concluded that “Mugabe seems to have deliberately pushed Zipra to the point of open revolt. This has provided the excuse to deploy loyal forces against Zipra to break their military strength”.
Zipra suffered heavy losses, particularly to their heavy armour, which provided them with a distinct advantage over Zanla. And any thoughts of fighting on were, again, curtailed by the air force, and by the efforts of Nkomo and Dabengwa to have the men lay down arms.
This was not quite the total annihilation that Mugabe was looking for, but the result was much the same. Zipra’s command structure was already disintegrating, and Entumbane put a final nail in the coffin. Moreover, Mugabe and Mnangagwa now moved rapidly to disarm Nkomo’s men and disperse them into units of the national army. Any reference to Zipra as a coherent entity after this point was fallacious and generally a function of Zanu-PF propaganda.
None of this can be properly understood without reference to Zanu’s political objectives upon taking power. It is these aims – chief among them, the imposition of a one-party state within five years – that defined and makes sense of the events which led to the onset of the Gukurahundi in 1983. The focus of Mugabe’s attention during the first year of Zimbabwe’s independence was to eliminate Zipra because Zapu had to be disarmed before it could be taken apart politically. He had ticked that box by early 1981. DM
This is the first of a four-part series on the Gukurahundi exclusively published by Daily Maverick, drawn from Stuart Doran’s newly published book Kingdom, power, glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy, 1960-1987 which is now available in major bookstores and online at www.sithatha.com.
Stuart Doran is an independent historian and author
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