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Der Führer Mugabe and the Gukurahundi – a warning to South Africa today


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

The struggle against apartheid was fought and won by a single national organisation that was not divided by tribalism. The same cannot be said of Zimbabwe. There is no question that Robert Mugabe ordered the mass murder of more than 20,000 isiNdebele-speakers in the two years after January 1983. It is a disgrace to the historic tradition of black liberation in South Africa that this blatant, blood-soaked truth is not shouted from the rooftops by all political parties, and especially by the ANC.

The most crucial issue distinguishing South Africa from Zimbabwe has been ignored in the political spat between Robert Mugabe and the Secretary-General of the African National Congress, Gwede Mantashe.

South Africa fought its struggle against apartheid through the ANC (and on a reduced scale, by the Pan Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement) on a genuinely national basis, which did not make a lie out of the word “national” in the historic title of the ANC. The struggle against apartheid was fought and won by a single national organisation that was not divided by tribalism. Despite serious strains relating to tribe at different times in the three decades of exile and in the four years leading up to the first general election on the basis of universal franchise in April 1994, the struggle for emancipation – and the subsequent period under ANC government – was conducted without a war against tribe.

That, by comparison, is the great shame of Zimbabwe, its betrayal of the ethic of pan-Africanism and the accusation of mass murderer which will always attach to its Führer of the past nearly 40 years – Robert Mugabe.

The truth is, the words “national” and “union’ in the title of Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union, are a fiction.

From very shortly after its formation in August 1963, Zanu was a Shona-dominated party, while Zapu – the Zimbabwe African People’s Union – also misrepresented the name “union” in its title, and conducted its war against the white minority regime of Ian Smith as a party of isiNdebele speakers. That fatal fracture has stained the entire subsequent history of Zimbabwe, and is the principal source of the murderous and undemocratic normality of its political life.

There is no question that Mugabe ordered the mass murder of more than 20,000 isiNdebele-speakers in Zimbabwe in the two years after January 1983, when his Fifth Brigade – trained by the grotesque dictatorship of North Korea, and responsible to himself alone – was deployed to kill in Matabeleland. This was a Sharpeville hundreds of times more terrible, and planned in detail.

Wikipedia states this about the massacre:

Most of the dead were shot in public executions, often after being forced to dig their own graves in front of family and fellow villagers. The largest number of dead in a single killing was on March 5 1983, when 62 young men and women were shot on the banks of the Cewale River, Lupane. Seven survived with gunshot wounds, the other 55 died.

Another way 5 Brigade used to kill large groups of people was to burn them alive in huts. They did this in Tsholotsho and also in Lupane. They would routinely round up dozens, or even hundreds, of civilians and march them at gunpoint to a central place, like a school or bore-hole. There they would be forced to sing Shona songs praising Zanu, while at the same time being beaten. These gatherings usually ended with public executions.”

The word “gukurahundi” is an expression in the chiShona language, meaning “the first rain that washes away the chaff of the last harvest before the spring rains”.

Zimbabwe’s grim reality is that both of its main political parties – Zanu and Zapu – were and remain tribalist, not nationalist parties. Both armies, Zanla and Zipra, were in effect tribalist armies. The government of Zimbabwe is a tribalist government, and always has been.

In the best first-hand account so far of the joint military campaign in 1967 by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) alongside the Zapu army, Zipra, in the Wankie and Sipolilo areas of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), the two authors – isiZulu-speaking members of MK, Thula Bophela and Daluxolo Luthuli – register their shock when they and their comrades discovered a huge difference of principle between MK and Zipra.

The Zipra men puzzled the MK soldiers,” they write in their joint autobiographical history, Umkhonto we Sizwe: Fighting for a Divided People (Galago, Alberton, 2005). “They spent much of their time boasting about what they intended to do to Zanla if they ever met up in the bush. They swore they would wipe them out…. It seemed they considered Zanla the real enemy and not the Rhodesians.”

As the two authors recall, “This Zapu-Zanu rivalry would cause us great distress later.”

For a variety of reasons, between the Wankie/Sipolilo campaign in 1967 through to the formation of independent Zimbabwe in 1979, Zipra failed as a military force, while Zanla succeeded.

Zipra and Zapu rested on a minority tribe, the Ndebele, while Zanla and Zanu rested on the overwhelming majority tribe, the Shona.

The phrase “gukurahundi” for the mass murder of the amaNdebele by the Zanu government meant that the minority tribe was to be punished. Human beings were to be treated as “chaff”, as dead husks of maize from the previous year’s harvest.

The account in Wikipedia of the Gukurahundi genocide is consistent with a detailed, carefully researched account published by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, together with the Legal Resources Foundation of Zimbabwe, under the title Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980-1988 (Hurst and Co, London, 2007. First published in 1997 as Breaking the Silence: Building True Peace).

Elinor Sisulu, the daughter-in-law of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, wrote the introduction for the 2007 edition. She rightly compared the “enormous and heinous crimes against the people of Zimbabwe” perpetrated by the Mugabe government in 1983-85 with the genocidal massacre of Tutsis carried out by the Interahamwe in Rwanda in 1994 and the massacres carried out by Hitler’s Nazis.

It is a shame and disgrace to the historic tradition of black liberation in South Africa that this blatant, blood-soaked truth is not shouted from the rooftops by all political parties, and especially by the ANC.

In contrast to Mugabe’s sneers against the memory of Nelson Mandela last week, no such stain attaches to the tradition of Mandela and Walter Sisulu in South Africa. Whatever its flaws and failures, from the time it was formed as the Native National Congress in 1912, the ANC justly earned its title of “national” – unlike Zanu, and Zapu – by maintaining and progressively expanding the possibility of a real national identity.

The ANC was formed very consciously and deliberately on the principle of anti-tribalism. Its founders were clear that tribal politics could only lead black people in the newly created Union of South Africa to defeat and misery. Despite all kinds of stresses and strains, especially in exile, that principle was upheld successfully throughout the whole of the past century. Whether as the ANC, or as the Pan Africanist Congress, or as the Black Consciousness Movement, no major current in the struggle for liberation from apartheid ever fractured into separate tribalist parties – the great failure of national politics in Zimbabwe, which had its terrible result in Gukurahundi.

Even worse, there is convincing evidence of collusion between Mugabe’s security officials and the security forces of the apartheid state in Mugabe’s preparation for Gukurahundi, as revealed by the US academic, Professor Timothy Scarnecchia, in a paper published in Cape Town in 2011, Rationalising Gukurahundi: Cold War and South African Foreign Relations with Zimbabwe, 1981-1983 (Kronos, Vol.37 No.1). The paper “examines the role of diplomatic relations during the first stages of the 1983 Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe” and concludes that Gukurahundi “served the purposes” of the apartheid regime by blocking access by MK to South Africa through its Zapu allies.

According to Scarnecchia, South African Defence Force representatives held bi-annual meetings with Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organisation in 1982 and 1983. One of these meetings – organised by Emmerson Mnangagwa, as security minister – took place in Harare between 7 and 8 February 1983, a month after Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade moved into Matabeleland.

According to a Memo of 14 March 1983, Mnangagwa took personal credit for obtaining “permission from the Prime Minister [Mugabe] for the SADF visit to Harare and for future intelligence meetings of a similar nature. He claimed that he [Mnangagwa] initiated the RSA/Angola and RSA/Mozambique dialogue”.

Mugabe’s Gukurahundi served apartheid interests. It is a painful evasion of South African history when the ANC secretary’general can only respond to the sneers of a tribalist mass murderer in such a timid way.

Gwede Mantashe should have made it his duty to read Stuart Doran’s newly published history of the establishment of the one-party state in Zimbabwe, Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy, 1960-1987 – with extracts recently serialised in four parts on Daily Maverick.

Gukurahundi is a warning to South Africa today, and always. It should never be forgotten.

South Africa’s founding principle of anti-tribalism should be proudly asserted in relations with a blood-drenched dictator. DM


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