Opinionista Thandekile Moyo 9 April 2021

Shona speakers’ complicity in Gukurahundi and the lingering unresolved pain of its victims (Part One)

The impact of Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi massacres on different generations of Matabeleland residents. This series of three articles explores the cultural tensions between Shona and isiNdebele speakers and how, 40 years later, continued discrimination is giving rise to talk of Mthakwazi secession. 

Thandekile Moyo

Thandekile Moyo is a writer and human rights defender from Zimbabwe. For the past four years, she has been using print, digital and social media (Twitter: @mamoxn) to expose human rights abuses, bad governance and corruption. Moyo holds an Honours degree in Geography and Environmental Studies from the Midlands State University in Zimbabwe.

One of the interviewees in my research for “The intergenerational impact of the Gukurahundi atrocities: A review of contemporary intercultural relations in Zimbabwe”, told me a chilling story.

She said that some time in 1984, the Fifth Brigade descended upon their home in Plumtree in the dead of the night, armed with guns and bayonets and told them all to “get up and get ready to meet their maker”. She was a widow and shared the room with her first-born daughter and her grandchildren. The soldiers told them they had received reports that the granny was entertaining dissidents in her home and cooking for them and for that, she and her family were going to die.

Her daughter cried to the soldiers, “Musatiuraya. Atibikire madissidents pano”. (Shona for, “Please don’t kill us, we have done nothing wrong. We do not cook for dissidents here.”)

The woman explained that on hearing her daughter speaking in Shona, the soldiers seemed pleasantly surprised and asked where she had learned to speak Shona. She told them that she and her children were from Mashonaland. They interrogated her further about where exactly in Mashonaland they came from and when she answered them satisfactorily, it is said the soldiers were satisfied and told the family they would not kill them after all.

What they did not know was that the woman was not Shona as she claimed, but had been married in Mashonaland, where she and her children had learnt to speak Shona.

The soldiers then told them about their mission, explaining how they were going to wipe out the “Ndebeles”. One of them is said to have said to them gloatingly, “Ambuya, kuTsholotsho takavapedza!” (Meaning “Gogo, in Tsholotsho we ‘finished’ them!” Or, “In Tsholotsho, we killed them [Ndebeles] in their numbers.”)

Another of my interviewees and her husband were both civil servants based in our small town of Gwanda during Gukurahundi. She alleges that their Shona-speaking colleagues were informers for the Fifth Brigade and also participants in the genocide.

She says that one night, three of their male colleagues, Shona-speaking civilians, came to their house and abducted her husband. They held him for the duration of the night and the next day. He returned to tell of being interrogated throughout the night by his civilian colleagues about “dissidents”. They accused him of being sympathetic to the dissident cause.

I was shocked to hear this, because being a Gwanda resident myself I know the men in question, the alleged perpetrators of the abduction, enforced disappearance and unlawful interrogation of my informant’s husband. They are the fathers of my friends.

I could not wrap my head around the idea that these men I grew up knowing, respecting and liking, were conspirators to the genocide.

My interviewee explained that she had forgiven them, but suspects that her husband never would, even though he never talks about it. She said one of the men was implicated in the murder of one of their neighbours. She says one night, the neighbour was murdered and his house burnt to the ground. The next day, the identity card of one of the men who had abducted her husband was found at the scene of the murder and arson.

In December 1987, after realising that the government was not going to stop massacring Ndebele civilians, Zapu decided to submit to Zanu-PF’s demands for a one-party state by agreeing to join Zanu. The two parties signed what is known as the unity accord on 22 December 1987 and the government recalled the Fifth Brigade soldiers from Matabeleland.

This marked the end of the genocide.

My interviewee explained that after the government declared “unity” in 1987, she and her husband had to continue working closely with the men who had abducted him, until her husband decided to leave the job.

“Ndebeles”, in regard to Gukurahundi, include all non-Shona-speaking Matabeleland cultures, including the Tonga, Kalanga, Xhosa, Sotho, Venda, Ndebele and Kalanga. What made a person eligible for murder was not that they were isiNdebele speakers, but that they could not speak Shona.

This led to hatred for Shona speakers by victims of Gukurahundi that has been impossible to quell, almost four decades later.

There is an unwavering belief by many victims of the Gukurahundi genocide and their descendants that Shona speakers supported and/or benefited from the genocide because it resulted in Shona privilege.

Privilege is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”.

The Fifth Brigade was sent to Matabeleland with the order to eliminate “Ndebeles”, in an operation code-named Gukurahundi. Gukurahundi is a Shona word for the early rains that wash away the chaff before the spring rains.

This belief that ‘Shonas’ supported and/or benefited from the genocide is whispered among families of victims.

Gukurahundi targeted indiscriminately all residents of Matabeleland and the Midlands (“the chaff”) and granted a special right to life and freedom of movement, advantage and immunity (privilege) only to Shona speakers in Matabeleland and the Midlands.

This belief that “Shonas” supported and/or benefited from the genocide is whispered among families of victims.

During the genocide, the perpetrators spread Shona supremacist propaganda to their victims, whom they forced to sing Shona songs as they murdered their family members.

At roadblocks, Fifth Brigade soldiers would stop buses, force everyone out and ask them to produce their IDs. They would then let all the Shona speakers back into the bus and remain with the non-Shona speakers, whose fate was either to be murdered right there, raped or carted away to the Bhalagwe concentration camp.

Because of this, victims do not believe the claims by Shona speakers that at the time that it was happening they had no idea a genocide was taking place.

The use of Shona speakers as informers also enforces this belief. It was viewed by victims as collusion between Shona civilians and the Shona-speaking Fifth Brigade soldiers deployed by the government to eliminate them.

This has led to the blurring of lines and a conflation in the minds of victims about the perpetrators being “amaShona” and not just Zanu-PF and the government.

As they were spreading Shona supremacist propaganda in Matabeleland and the Midlands, the government was concurrently spreading anti-“Ndebele” propaganda in Mashonaland. They announced on all state media that they were dealing with “armed dissidents who were trying to destabilise the country”.

This created a fear of dissidents in Shona communities and led to a blurring of lines, and conflation in the minds of Zimbabweans about victims being armed “dissidents” and not ordinary Matabeleland civilians.

The resultant stereotypes are that “Ndebeles” were dissidents and – in the minds of genocide victims and survivors – “Shonas” were genocidal killers.

The ambiguity about who perpetrated the genocide and who the victims are, is a deliberate creation by the perpetrator of the genocide, the government of Zimbabwe, which has held its grip on power since then. To protect their impunity, they have ensured that the truth about the genocide is never officially acknowledged or spoken about.

This refusal to allow truth-telling has successfully pitted citizens against one another and effectively prevented meaningful discussion about how to deal with the genocide.

Whenever victims raise the issue of the genocide, they say, “We were killed by Shona speakers.” This causes many Shona speakers to feel collective guilt and shame so they then defend themselves, inadvertently justifying the genocide.

They either deny victims’ accounts, accuse them of lying when they explain the cultural nature of the atrocities, question the numbers of victims and accuse victims of playing the genocide/cultural card and accuse them of having a victim mentality. Some go on to say the government had no choice but to kill dissidents who were trying to destabilise the country.

This denialism of victims’ reality of mass murder of unarmed civilians on cultural lines angers victims, who feel revictimised. Being called denialists or genocide sympathisers further angers Shona speakers, who say they are simply refusing to be called killers.

They demand that victims must not say they were killed by “Shonas” because not all Shona-speakers participated. Victims then ask them why they have no problem saying they were colonised by whites when not all white people colonised them. It is almost impossible to have a discussion about Gukurahundi that does not leave the participants even more divided on cultural lines.

Undeterred by the denialism, residents of Matabeleland maintain that despite the unity accord of 1987 that brought an end to the genocide, this government still hates the people of Matebeleland and deems them inferior. They believe the government may have stopped murdering Ndebeles in 1987, but they have continued perpetrating institutional tribalism that has seen the marginalisation of Matabeleland and the systematic and widespread exclusion of “Ndebeles” from government institutions and government initiatives.

They also believe this automatically results in Shona privilege.

The belief that Matabeleland is a victim of Shona supremacy has led to the radicalisation of some youths in Matabeleland.

Youngsters who were raised by parents who told them their family members were killed by “Shonas” are finding themselves victims of the same Shona supremacism; they are angry and baying for blood and have determined that they will protect the region from what they describe as the “Shona government”. Some of these radicalised youths are not shy to say they are protecting the region from Shonas in general.

How, you might be wondering, do they intend to do this?

Their response to this question is a bold and unapologetic statement, a word that brings chills to the hearts of many Zimbabweans who believe it is treasonous to even think it. A word that gives hope to the cultural groups of Matabeleland that feel they are treated as second-class citizens in Zimbabwe. Secession. DM/MC

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  • If there is an afterlife then you can bet in which department Mugabe and his fellow murderers will be found. That includes you Crocodile Mnangawa

  • There is no doubt that Robert was a morally bankrupt creature but one does not fight tripe with tripe. If I have to empathise with a story, especially in journalism ,then I need impartiality. I won’t hold my breath for the next instalment as it might be life threatening.

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