Gukurahundi Origins – Myth and Reality, part 4: The one-party state, 1980–1987

Gukurahundi Origins – Myth and Reality, part 4: The one-party state, 1980–1987
Photo: Robert Mugabe in the Netherlands, 1982. (Photo: Hans van Dijk / Wikimedia Commons) Photo: Robert Mugabe in the Netherlands

Illuminating as it is to examine some of the individual events that together make up the backcloth to the Matabeleland killings of 1983-4 – among them, the Entumbane violence, the arms caches “crisis” and the tourist abduction – this complex tapestry only fully makes sense when we identify the ideological thread (and associated objectives) which runs through it. Imbued with a tradition that emphasised absolute domination, Robert Mugabe and his confidants entered government in 1980 with a burning desire to impose a one-party state – a birthright that they believed had been stolen from them by a negotiated end to the Rhodesian civil war. Zanu’s early post-independence history is the story of this fetish and the plans that were made to satisfy it. By STUART DORAN.

This is the last of a four-part series on the Gukurahundi exclusively published by Daily Maverick, based on 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 Also read part 1, part 2 and part 3.

The fundamental precondition for understanding Zimbabwe in the 1980s – and beyond – is to recognise the supremacist mentality that has underwritten Zimbabwean nationalism since its development in the 1950s and 1960s. When Zanu was created in 1963, splitting from Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu, its members immediately came under physical attack from their former colleagues. Rhodesia’s townships became battlegrounds for the rival nationalist parties, which fought each other and sought to compel black compatriots to join their cause. “Life in the townships has now become a Hell to us,” wrote one township resident in 1964. “One does not know who is the next man to be attacked … Church buildings, people’s houses – and the people themselves – are set alight.”

Zanu and Zapu did not fight because they were different, but because they were the same. The nationalist mindset, already well established by the time of the schism, was that there could be only one liberation party, one authentic representative of the people. Those who formed or joined different organisations were – with their supporters – “sell-outs”, “stooges” and “agents of imperialism”. Violence was the inevitable offspring of this zero-sum ideology, as those in the opposing camp were regarded not simply as competitors or misguided fellow travellers but as traitors.

There was also a personal dimension that intensified hatreds far beyond normal bounds. Party leaders targeted those they knew intimately – and it was usually Zanu that was on the receiving end in the early days. None of these attacks had been forgotten by Zanu politicians when they emerged victorious from the independence elections of 1980, holding the whip hand. And there was, by then, a great deal of extra baggage that had accumulated over the years – among it, many incidents when soldiers of the parties’ armed wings had killed each other in the Rhodesian bush during the war against white rule.

The most visible political manifestation of the supremacist mentality was an attachment – more precisely, an obsession – with the establishment of a one-party state led by an all-powerful executive president. These constitutional arrangements were de rigueur for the newly independent states of sub-Saharan Africa, and Zanu had no desire to be different. (Nor did Zapu, though it was never to be in a position to bring about its own one-party state.) As Mugabe put it, “We have had the philosophy of a one-party state for a very long time. It’s an African philosophy”. Likewise, an acolyte of Mugabe’s, explaining Zanu’s aversion to the multiparty system, told an inquirer that “in African society, the Chief or King was above criticism and people could not … tolerate open criticism of Mugabe, who had taken on the role of Chief”.

The one-party state was effectively Zanu’s central aim during the war, one that necessitated both the overthrow of the white regime and the subjugation of Zapu. By 1979, Mugabe and the Zanu leadership were confident that they were headed towards the outright military victory that would allow them to achieve these objectives without hindrance. They were, therefore, outraged when they were compelled by their sponsors, Mozambique and Tanzania, to participate in a negotiated settlement of the war.

Mugabe failed to secure a single major concession during the talks, and the peace agreement entailed a raft of constitutional, political and military outcomes that were the antithesis of Zanu’s aspirations – not least, a multiparty system, a ceremonial presidency and the absence of a plan to disband the Rhodesian security forces. Zapu’s army, Zipra, also continued to be formidable and Nkomo clearly hoped to manoeuvre himself into power, even if it meant cutting a deal with the Rhodesians. Smouldering over the Mozambican and Tanzanian “sell-out” at the start of the negotiations, Mugabe exited the peace conference seething over its results.

And yet he and his colleagues remained determined to achieve their original objectives – indeed, more so than before. They hedged their bets during elections under British auspices, seeking to win the vote through a combination of intimidation and popular support, while positioning themselves to restart the war if necessary.

Contrary to the predictions of most white “experts”, Mugabe fully expected Zanu to secure the most seats, given its military domination of the majority Shona-speaking rural areas. But he was surprised when he was able to form Zimbabwe’s first government with broad international support and without provoking a Rhodesian coup. Until then thoroughly convinced that the party’s objectives would only be met through military conquest, he now began to recognise that a more incremental approach could achieve the same purposes.

Many observers mistook this tactical approach for the moderate rhetoric in which it was cloaked, but it was the eagerness to impose a one-party state – ruthlessly, if need be – that defined Zanu’s conduct in Zimbabwe’s early years. There were many occasions when improvisations proved necessary, yet Mugabe’s actions were never haphazard. The end goal remained in view at all times. So, too, did the general strategy, which, in essence, involved the sequential removal of obstacles over a projected period of five to seven years.

This strategy was no better illustrated than in the approach taken to the Zapu problem. To be sure, the early evaporation of the Rhodesian threat and the weakness of black opposition parties except for Zapu meant that Nkomo and his supporters were the primary impediments to the one-party state. The plan of Zanu’s central committee on this question was that Zapu would be eliminated or neutered by the time of Zimbabwe’s first post-independence elections. In June 1980, for example, only two months after Zanu had taken power, minister of finance Enos Nkala declared, “We will call another election after five years and I doubt if the other so-called parties will be in existence by then … We should have a one-party state in this country.” This goal was an open secret within Zanu, as demonstrated by the statements of other party leaders who, like the obtuse Nkala, were unable to contain their exuberance. As one Zanu parliamentarian put it, “I am aware, and so is every thinking person, that … Zanu-PF will, at the next election, capture all the seats.”

Mugabe’s public position on the one-party state was more nuanced, couched as it was in the language of democratic change. Speaking in December 1981, he said that a one-party state could be introduced in the manner chosen by the Rhodesians – in “the dishonest way by banning every other party that was a threat” – but Zanu did not “want to do it that way … We want to do it the honest way by ensuring that it comes as a result of the expression of the people’s will”.

Pro-Mugabe diplomats in Harare were comforted by these assurances, yet failed to recognise that there was no substantive difference between Mugabe’s approach and Nkala’s frequent calls for Zapu’s “liquidation”. Mugabe’s basic tactic was to create situations in which Zapu was presented with a choice between absorption by Zanu and severe repressive measures. This method was evident in a distinct pattern of escalating threats and punishments between 1980 and 1983. Allegations of subversion, often made publicly, were invariably tied to private demands for a political merger – followed by a crackdown when Nkomo refused to buckle.

In late 1980, at a time when South African intelligence shows that Mugabe was seeking to provoke a war with Zipra, Nkomo was presented with one of the first of these Hobson’s choices. Addressing a meeting between the central committees of Zanu and Zapu, Mugabe began with a conciliatory-sounding opening statement, but then bared his teeth, telling Nkomo that he had “information that [Zapu] plans a coup”. Nkala’s response to Zapu’s denials and counter-allegations was that “the solution to the problems lie[s] in the establishment of a one-party state”. A few weeks later, after Zapu had failed to show any sign of heeding this advice, Mugabe used former Rhodesian forces to hammer Zipra at Entumbane. The disarmament process that followed left Zapu bereft of its military shield.

By late 1981, Zanu’s central committee was ready to tighten the screws yet further. In its end-of-year review – a fixture on the calendar that often preceded violent action – the committee decided to “increase the tempo of the discussion of the formation of a one-party state and at the same time continue the negotiations with Zapu on the unification of the two parties”. At a rally shortly afterwards, Mugabe said that Zanu would “rule in Zimbabwe forever” and that it would use “all the power at its disposal and smash those who want to destroy the government”. He added that the one-party state was to be discussed “with our friends in Zapu”, reiterating his none-too-subtle warning as he did so: Zanu “saw no reason why parties that were bent on destroying the country … should continue to exist”. It was “no good to perpetuate a division of our people. There is no such thing as Ndebele or Shona”.

Behind the scenes, Mugabe sent his ceremonial president, Canaan Banana, to speak to Nkomo about “unity”. But he was again rebuffed by the Zapu leader, who told the press of the approach and remarked that he would not “move for empty unity”. He repeated the message at a meeting with Mugabe in February 1982. Mugabe had “so soured the atmosphere with his most recent speeches that there could be no question of continuing talks about unity”. A day later, an enraged Mugabe enacted a pre-existing plan to frame Zapu for a coup plot. The government announced the “discovery” of dozens of arms caches on Zapu properties in Matabeleland, dismissed Nkomo from cabinet and arrested senior members of Zipra. Discussing the reason for this purported national security crisis with the British foreign secretary, Mugabe was candid about the true cause, commenting bluntly that “the last straw … had come when he mentioned his ideas regarding a one-party state to Nkomo, who refused even to talk about them”.

An almost identical sequence was repeated in late 1982. At a time when the security forces were engaging in increasingly harsh “anti-dissident” operations in Matabeleland North, Mugabe despatched Banana and Nkala to discuss the terms of a merger with Nkomo. Although Nkomo was not aware of it, this was to be his final chance; the choice was now an apocalyptic one between surrender and obliteration. Nkomo responded more positively than before, feeling that he had “made progress” with the pair. But when he met Mugabe in January 1983 – shortly after the latter had warned in a speech that subversives “would be pursued and annihilated” – the initiative instantly collapsed. Nkomo wrote later that Mugabe was “averse” to the ideas which had been transmitted to Banana and Nkala. Nkomo was soon to find out what that meant.

Only a week later, in what was another premeditated move, Mugabe unleashed the army’s “Gukurahundi” unit, which proceeded to massacre thousands of civilians in Matabeleland North. Then, as the killings were reaching new levels of intensity, an attempt was made to eliminate Nkomo himself. This was a period in which dark, unrestrained forces were let loose; the ruthless logic of Zanu’s political objectives appeared to become subsumed by more visceral instincts. Men, women and children, the old and the young, were cut down and cut apart in what was an orgy of slaughter.

It was only after international exposure and a subsequent decision by Mugabe to decelerate the Gukurahundis’ activities that the political agenda again became visible. Vigorous efforts were made to replace Zapu branches with those of the ruling party in a crude attempt to “convert” Nkomo’s support base ahead of elections in 1985. A similar attempt was made in 1984 to bludgeon loyalty from other areas in which backing for Zapu was strong. The security forces and Zanu militia moved systematically through Matabeleland South in the first half of the year and then shifted their attention to urban areas of the Midlands in the second half.

When, in 1987, Zapu finally capitulated and was swallowed by Zanu, Mugabe delivered an empty speech at “unity” celebrations that was more notable for what could not be said. He skimmed across the entire tumultuous post-independence period in a few words, claiming that Zanu and Zapu had “continued to discuss the need to merge into one party [in the years since 1980], and various proposals were debated and often discarded, but each time we recognised the need to continue negotiations”.

Yet on the last day of the year, during a ceremony at which he was sworn in as executive president and “Grand Master of the Zimbabwe Order of Merit”, he put his finger on the idol that had driven the party’s extremism over the previous eight years. “We fought [the] war … so we could become masters of our own destiny,” he remarked. “When, at the 1979 [Peace] Conference, our protracted negotiations yielded the present constitution, which created the Republic of Zimbabwe, some people might have felt that the battle for our political sovereignty as a nation had been fully won. I am afraid political victory at that stage was not that total.” But it was now, he implied. Zanu had finally brought about the changes that reflected the “true wishes of our people”.

It was not long before that grandiose fallacy was laid bare. Opposition to the regime quickly re-emerged in the early 1990s, culminating in the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change at the end of the decade. And yet Mugabe and Zanu-PF have clung tenaciously to the fantasy of perpetual, total domination. It is for this reason, more than any other, that Zimbabwe remains trapped in a sterile cycle of conflict and subjugation. DM

Stuart Doran is an independent historian and author.

Photo: Robert Mugabe in the Netherlands, 1982. (Photo: Hans van Dijk / Wikimedia Commons)


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